Kathryn Bigelow Aside, Only 9% Of Top-Grossing Films Are Directed By Women


Steven Spielberg. Michael Bay. James Cameron. I’m more familiar with these high-profiled Hollywood directors films than I am with female film directors of the same caliber, and a recent study concurs with my viewpoint. Despite the gains that successful women have made in the film industry, only 9% of female film directors — a percentage that remains unchanged since 1998 — directed top-grossing films in 2012.

The “recent” success of veteran female directors such as Kathryn Bigelow is the result of serious hard work and sacrifice. As such, Bigelow faces inquiries as to the sources of her movie Zero Dark Thirty, a film that asks hard questions of national security and torture — typically masculine issues.

While there isn’t a lack of female students in film school, this doesn’t necessarily correlate into higher numbers of female directors. And critics caution not to fill the gap disparity hole by merely placing women into filling the roles.

As a recent Forbes article shows, the general consensus echoed is that something must be done, but the issue is that when “everyone from studio heads to agents and managers need to be actively seeking out women to represent,” this approach seems to be just a temporary fix rather than addressing the causes of the problem. It’s an artificial attempt to change the skewed gender ratio in a male-dominated industry. 

In times like these, women have the most to gain when there is the most to be lost.

A study released last week entitled "Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers" commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Initiative found that while there are several disttinctive challenges, some of the findings are quite startling.

The number one issue? Money. (Surprise!)

We’ve all heard stories of new directors in their debuts, maxing out their credit cards to fund their first movies. Women start at a point of disadvantage. While this aspect doesn’t make them “special” (since it is representative of women in various industries), they do have to be more aggressive in promoting themselves and networking in an industry which is still male-dominated.

Eliza Hittman, who debuts her Sundance movie It Felt like Love this year, says, “There’s not a lot of people who are going to get behind your first project.” For new directors, it helps if established and respected leaders in the business support your project. This was the case with Jerusha Hess, who is making her own Sundance directing debut with the comedy Austenland and has Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who is the film’s producer, on her side.

Takeaway: If it’s this difficult to gain funding at the Sundance Film Festival, think how hard it is to have investors support a film project directed by a woman.

The second biggest cited factor was gender-related issues. The gender of the director makes a huge difference in the storytelling style. According to the study, female directors can bring a level of equality in diversifying the perspective of the story. 

Still, it’s important to recognize the diverse range of interests that fall under categories of “female-friendly” comedies and drama. We’re not just are not with one set of interests. Women as a gender have a multitude of interests, which is particularly evident when one considers women across different age groups.

Furthermore, while the old adage “adversity builds character,” is appropriate in discussing the challenges that women face in the film industry, one might say that an “elitist” element exists in particular for minority female producers. The percentage of female directors for films whose subject area is not representative of the mainstream population is even less.

Lastly, while sexism is not isolated to just the film industry, it still exists there. 40% of those interviewed said that “male-dominated industry networking” is a barrier, 43% have expressed that women are viewed as less competent when asking for film financing, and 20% say that the conventional pressures of balancing family life is a major issue of contention. These are clearly major issues that can’t be solved right away.

However, even directors like Ang Lee, the Hollywood film director of the Life of Pi (as well as a string of other Hollywood blockbusters) note the importance of having a supportive family and the sacrifice that it takes to make it work:

It’s an us thing... I cannot do it alone. I need the support of them. We have no regrets. I missed some of the family life, but those are good movies. They’re worth the effort. You have to sacrifice to achieve something. So it’s fair. A lot of people sacrificed and didn’t get the same result.”

Filming a movie may require months of traveling between locations in different countries. It puts a lot of pressure on one’s family. And in conventional society, the burden of keeping a family in tact has fallen to women.

Structurally, there are more female directors on the documentary level (than narrative films) since documentaries are the access point with the lowest barriers to entry.  Thus, the lack of representation of female directors in films is representative of the general landscape of the film industry. Consider the contrasts of female composition in directing documentaries (39%) versus narrative films (18%). An even bleaker statistic is that only 5% of the top-grossing films in 2011 were directed by women.


Image taken from "The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2012."

Clearly, there are issues that need to be addressed. As long as we provide opportunities for women in the way of funding and networking, we will allow capable and talented women to truly showcase their abilities on the big screen.