Nearly four years ago, on the third Thursday of January, I went to a party in Park City, Utah. There was much cause for celebration: a family friend of mine, Howard Barish, had produced a low-budget drama that was to premiere the following day at the Sundance Film Festival. My grandparents had given some money to help Barish make the drama, entitled Middle of Nowhere, and in return, they were invited to the film’s unveiling. They asked me to accompany them, and the offer was hard to refuse. That evening, I met many of the people who worked on Middle of Nowhere. I even got to speak to and shake the hand of the lovely writer/director who had finished the film in a mere 19 days. She was courteous, cheerful and visibly excited to be at the Ground Zero for American independent cinema. 10 days later, she would win the festival’s prize for Best Directing. Her name was Ava DuVernay.
Earlier this year, on the third Thursday of January, DuVernay’s next feature, the critically acclaimed Selma, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. While that announcement would ordinarily signal more parties like the one I attended in Park City, DuVernay was far from the toast of the town. She was widely expected to become the first African-American woman to receive a Best Director nomination, but didn’t secure one. Yet in the midst of all the complaining about the snub, one story was widely underreported. DuVernay had managed to do something too few black women directors have done. She went from making indies that cost $200,000 to working alongside Oscar-nominated producers and making a critical and box office success.
2015 was not an ordinary year in the world of arts and culture. Critic and journalist Wesley Morris labeled it the year “we obsessed over identity” in the New York Times Magazine. And few stories were as widely reported on in the entertainment domain this year as the desperate need for greater creative autonomy for women both in front of and behind the camera. The sexism in the film business found many mouthpieces, especially in regard to lower salaries for female actors. In a stirring acceptance speech for Boyhood at the Academy Awards earlier this year, Patricia Arquette went off-page to push for wage equality. Jennifer Lawrence, arguably the biggest new movie star of the last five years, wrote about the same pay gap in an essay in October, examining the continued double standard for women who negotiate for a good salary. “All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner,” Lawrence wrote, “and you would have thought I had said something offensive.” Sandra Bullock, who headlined a film this year where her performance was originally written for a man, also spoke about the lack of pay equality.
These were among the most publicized feminist stances of the year, but they were far from the most prominent. As Viola Davis eloquently put in an Emmy speech this year, “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply are not there.” (For her role in How to Get Away With Murder, Davis became the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series.) In an interview, Emma Thompson revealed her disgust with the film industry’s superficial attitudes toward women and beauty, saying it hasn’t gotten easier for women over 30 to get roles. Even Anne Hathaway chimed in, explaining that even she, a 33-year-old Oscar winner, is having trouble finding suitable roles.
One of the reasons for this stagnancy in good parts for women is tied to the lack of creative women behind the scenes. It too seldom happens that a major Hollywood studio – even ones with a woman in the top chair – promotes budding women filmmakers for their most high-profile projects. On the other hand, men who dazzle with their ingenuity on low-budget films are far more likely to be picked to helm blockbusters. Gareth Edwards had only made one movie – Monsters, with a budget under $500,000 – before Warner Bros. selected him to direct last year’s Godzilla. Colin Trevorrow made a sci-fi comedy called Safety Not Guaranteed, which debuted at the same Sundance festival where Middle of Nowhere premiered. Trevorrow’s next project? The $150 million Jurassic World. (Both Edwards and Trevorrow will work on future Star Wars installments.)
When Trevorrow was asked why so few female directors end up working on blockbusters, he said: “Many of the top female directors in our industry are not interested in doing a piece of studio business for its own sake. These filmmakers have clear voices and stories to tell that don’t necessarily involve superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs.” This troubling comment mirrors the results of a study on women directors from the Sundance Institute, released last year. When a group of 12 individuals who worked in development were asked about hiring directors, half of them mentioned that films in genres like action or horror would not be as appealing to female directors.
It was also this year when an organization called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began speaking with female directors to learn about the discrimination they have faced. This exploration of sexism behind the camera began when filmmaker Maria Giese went to the EEOC in 2013 to deal with complaints related to Hollywood’s hiring practices. This investigation into an industry problem will take time; hopefully, its process will spur into appropriate action. This was also the year the best from Hollywood started to give a damn about giving funny and creative women their due behind the scenes. Meryl Streep is now helping to fund a lab for women screenwriters over 40. Director Paul Feig (Spy), Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, and even director Adam McKay and Will Ferrell (the latter two under the label Gloria Sanchez) are fostering similar opportunities to get women’s voices heard.
These widespread industrial changes will not happen overnight, or likely even before the end of the decade. Still, the pool of women directors seems to be widening, if one takes a glance at the various young and/or new filmmakers arriving from the art-house circuit. Marielle Heller wrote and directed Diary of a Teenage Girl, a darkly funny and startlingly honest look at a young woman’s sexual awakening. (For this debut, Heller received help and training from Sundance Institute Labs, where more than 40% of the developing writers and directors are women.) Another estrogen-filled coming-of-age story, Breathe, came from filmmaker and actor Mélanie Laurent. This year boasted strong work from directors as diverse as artist Laurie Anderson (Heart of a Dog), Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behaviour), Maya Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear), Shira Piven (Welcome to Me), Sarah Gavron (Suffragette), Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) and Amanda Wilder (Approaching the Elephant).
Women are becoming more increasingly visible on the festival circuit elsewhere, with the documentary the most welcoming format for female directors. The opening night, closing night and centerpiece selections of Doc NYC this year were all directed or co-directed by women. At this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, 47% of the premiering non-fiction titles had a woman in the director’s chair. The share of female directors at film festivals continues to climb – close to 30% at this year’s Sundance, although that number was higher amongst the non-fiction titles.
As for films that more people may have heard of, we are lacking the same diversity of examples. Almost none of the 100 highest-grossing films of the year had a woman behind the camera. Still, there were noticeable exceptions: Elizabeth Banks and Sam Taylor-Johnson helmed two of the year’s most popular films, Pitch Perfect 2 and Fifty Shades of Grey, both distributed by Universal Pictures. Meanwhile, the summer movie season was not completely dominated by stories with male protagonists. Despite having the words Mad Max in its title, the hero of that action-packed fiesta was portrayed by Charlize Theron. Pixar moved audiences to laughter and tears with a story about a young girl named Riley, although the focus was mostly on two of her sparring emotions, both voiced by women (Amy Poehler as Joy and Phyllis Smith as Sadness).
Nevertheless, the continued absence of female directors from the top of the box office charts continues this circle of missed creative opportunity. To date, the only woman entrusted with a film of a $100 million budget (or higher) is Kathryn Bigelow, for the 2002 thriller K-19: The Widowmaker. The second will likely be Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman. (It will be Jenkins’ first theatrically released film in 14 years, since the Oscar-winning Monster.) When there are more women working in prominent positions behind the screens, there is a greater likelihood that the story will be about a women or cater more to audiences without a y chromosome.
Nevertheless, while challenges remain, 2015 was filled with elegantly made, engaging stories about female relationships. In Carol, now considered an awards season sure thing, we observe the blossoming lesbian romance between an older society women (Cate Blanchett) and a shy shopgirl, played by Rooney Mara. (Phyllis Nagy penned the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s book.) Similar same-sex sparks were in the air for Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, where a homoerotic subtext involving Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart’s eventually bubbles up into text. Lesbian love was also a primary feature of The Duke of Burgundy, a ravishing romance that initially appears as a fetishized S&M affair but slowly becomes more complex and intriguing.
Furthermore, Mistress America explored the highs and lows of a new friendship between stepsisters (Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke). When Marnie Was There, the final film (for now) from Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, focuses on a strong bond between two social outcasts in an idyllic seaside town. Female camaraderie was also a central facet of Spy, one of the year’s best comedies, which eschews the token love interest for the friendships between the field agent played by Melissa McCarthy and her desk-bound lifeline Nancy (Miranda Hart). Finally, in one of the more contemporary depictions of surrogate sisterhood, Sean Baker’s Tangerine puts a spotlight on two transgender sex workers looking for revenge on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles.
Of course, despite the various female-friendly stories available on the big screen this year, barriers still exist. However, it is especially noteworthy that the film currently smashing box office records worldwide features a woman as the protagonist. The head of the backing studio, Lucasfilm, is Kathleen Kennedy. The executive has also revealed that two thirds of the main story team for the next episode of Star Wars is female. So, it is actually not much of a shock that when The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams was asked who should direct a future installment in the space-bound series, he said the name of the woman I met at a party in Park City almost four years ago.