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Why Are Female Directors Having (Relative) Success in Independent Film, but Not in Hollywood?

Filmmaking has gone through many great evolutionary events in its over 130 years of existence. It has seen technological advances: from Edison’s Kinetograph, (arguably) the first motion picture camera to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, from exhibiting films on a Kinetoscope, to exhibiting them on smartphones. However, one change that has yet to really be made in the film world is its presence of female directors. Fandor released an infographic that breaks down the distribution of women in both independent cinema and Hollywood, and the figures may surprise you.


There’s no question that there are great female directors — I’m sure most people know who Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola are. Unfortunately, names like Lone Scherfig, Mary Harron, Lynne Ramsay, Jane Campion, Valerie Faris, Julie Taymor, and Miranda July don’t come to mind as quickly as Martin Scorsese or James Cameron.

In independent film especially, female directors are finding “relative success” compared to how they fare in Hollywood. According to Fandor, from 2002 to 2012, 23.9% of the directors at Sundance have been women. Still, only 4.4% of the directors across the top 100 box office films were women. No, that’s not a typo. 4.4%. That is almost 0%.

Agnes VardaBy the Numbers

  • 23.9% of directors at Sundance were women
  • 4.4% of directors across the top 100 box office films were women
  • Women made up 5% of directors in Hollywood in 2011 — down from 7% in 2010 and 9% in 1998
  • 34.5% of documentary directors are women — compared to 16.9% of narrative directors
  • In the last 85 years, female directors were nominated for an Oscar 4 times
  • For every female director there are 15.24 male directors
  • In the last decade, only 41 women have made films in the top 100 released films every year across the decade — compared to 625 men

For me, being a woman in this industry can be — complicated. On one hand, most of my favorite films have been directed by men. Great men. Men who defied convention, broke rules, and rewrote the book on cinema — teaching me and inspiring me to follow my dreams of being a director. On the other hand, most of my favorite films have been directed by men, because there haven’t been a whole lot of women directing films.

I’ve almost always been vastly outnumbered on the sets — most of the time I was the only female crew member. Though I’m sure the ratio was higher than 4.4%, I was still the only one who stood in the way of making that percentage zero. It must be much more difficult for a director to know that her craft belongs to an industry that doesn’t represent or encourage female leadership or involvement.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, V! How can you come to the conclusion that the industry is to blame?”

Well, the ratio of men and women who graduate from film school with a focus on directing is about 50/50 and has been for some time. This means that something is happening between the commencement ceremony and wrap party — so, what is it?

There are plenty of theories as to why there are so few female directors: purported misogyny of studio heads, the belief that “women just can’t handle it”, and even maternity.

female directorPossibly the most glaring theory, though, is sexism. In a 2010 article, British journalist Kira Cochrane goes into depth about why more women aren’t directing in Hollywood.

In it, British film director Antonia Bird said her first directing job, “I was the only woman there, and all the guys just ­assumed I was the producer’s PA. That was good.” Director Beeban Kidron once fired a male assistant director who called her “the little lady.” There are even more sinister and extreme accounts of sexism on and off set. Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris described a meeting between her and a male executive at the Beverly Hills Hotel at the beginning of her career:

– the guy was pretty drunk, and he ripped some of my clothes trying to take them off me, and when I got up and started screaming he said, ‘Did you want to make this music video or not?’ You say sexist, I say felony.

Martha Coolidge, director, co-founder of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and the IFP, and the first woman president of the Director’s Guild of America, tells the story of the female president of a major studio who said:

– no woman over 40 could possibly have the stamina to ­direct a ­feature film. I’ve heard ­people say that the kind of films they want to make are too big, too tough for a female director. The worst was when my agent sent another woman director in for an interview, and afterwards the guy called up and said, ‘Never send anyone again who I wouldn’t want to fuck.’

Maybe the toughest thing about filmmaking for women is not the actual making of the film, but having to deal with sexism, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Perhaps this could be playing a role in the low numbers of female directors — women simply deciding that making a film is not worth being mistreated.Sofia Coppola

Though data proves that being a woman and wanting to direct films is sure to be an uphill battle met with more rejection and less respect than our male counterparts, independent film is starting to become more open to female directors. In a time when a female director is seen as a risk — financially and/or creatively — it’s good to know that independent film is about taking risks — whether on content, story structure, or cinematography — or on which gender is chosen to direct a film.

I’ll admit, in 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director, I cried. I sat alone on my couch watching her give her acceptance speech, pursing my lips as my eyes filled with tears, and for the first time I thought, “My god, it’s possible. She did it.”

After she directed Blue SteelBigelow was asked by an interviewer how tough it is for women directors. She responded:

If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.

I still live by that tenet and keep my eye on the prize.

What do you think we can do to improve the situation? Any female filmmakers care to share their experiences in the industry, good or bad?

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