Female Filmmakers: Still Fighting to Get In

Originally published in UnMediated on May 15, 2014.

Cherien Dabis directing her second feature “May in the Summer.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Cherien Dabis directing her second feature “May in the Summer.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Even though the same number of men and women graduate from directing programs at U.S. film schools every year, women are still massively underrepresented in the film industry. Why were only two of the 100 highest grossing movies in 2013 directed by a woman? Why is the industry still – as Cate Blanchett put it in her Oscar acceptance speech – “clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences”?  And why is it that in the financial hierarchy, the higher up you look, the lower the percentage of women behind the camera?

To uncover some of the issues that are holding women back, I asked six alumnae of Columbia University’s film directing program for their comments. It’s not a scientific sample, but it adds up to a revealing montage of the kinds of challenges women face.

Columbia’s directing program has produced a number of successful female directors. Alumnae include Oscar winners Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) and Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) as well as commercially successful directors like Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”), Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), Shari Springer Berman (“The Nanny Diaries”) and Kimberly Pierce (“Boys Don’t Cry”, “Carrie”). The chair of the film program, Ira Deutchman, says, “We don’t believe that women have an easy time in the film business,” at the Columbia University Film Festival in 2012. “But what I can tell you is that we are incredibly proud of the record that we have at the school.”

All six alumnae stress that the film industry is hard to break through for anyone, regardless of gender. “Filmmaking is extremely competitive and challenging for everybody that gets into it,” says Emily Abt, who graduated in 2004, adding that she knows just as many struggling male filmmakers as female. “What adds an extra layer of difficulty for women is that at about the same time that you should really be focusing on doing your first feature, [it’s] also game time in terms of fertility.”

Meanwhile, their male colleagues who don’t have the same biological deadline are free to focus completely on their careers. And that’s what you need to make it in the film industry, says Abt. “To get into Sundance or to make a successful independent film, you have to be really focused, really talented – and such a hustler.”

Numbers show that the percentage of women behind the camera drops when the budget increases. In the top 100 highest grossing movies of 2012, women constituted only 20 percent of the producers, 12 percent of the screenwriters and 4 percent of the directors, according to a study by USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism.

Women are slightly better represented in the independent industry, but still are outnumbered by their male colleagues. At the Sundance Film Festival from 2002-2012, 17 percent of the directors of U.S. narrative films were women. The percentage was higher for Competition films (41 percent) than the generally higher budgeted and more prestigious Premiere films (20 percent). In the U.S. documentaries, where budgets are typically smaller, 35 percent were women.

“You do have more women in the independent world. The pressure of money is less, therefore they’re a little more open to try different things,” says Carina Rosanna Tautu, who graduated from Columbia’s directing program in 2004. Her work includes the short “Still Center” and the documentary “Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch.” She’s currently in Los Angeles to direct a short. Between projects, she has taught documentary filmmaking.

“I think there’s a direct correlation between the commerciality of the project and whether or not women are involved in [it],” says Cherien Dabis, who since graduating in 2004 has written and produced for the TV show “The L Word” and completed two independent features, “Amreeka” (2009) and “May in the Summer” (2013). “It’s easier for people in general to trust men with larger amounts of money,” she says. “You don’t ever read about women who have had a tremendous breakout success at Sundance and then get a three-picture deal at a studio the way that you do with men. I have to wonder why that is.”

Examples: After receiving critical acclaim for his feature debut, “(500) Days of Summer,” at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Mark Webb was hired to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man,” followed by two more installments of the franchise. And Colin Trevorrow, who only had directed the independent film “Safety Not Guaranteed” was recently tapped to direct “Jurassic Park 4.” Similarly, Bryan Singer, Christoffer Nolan and Jon Favreau had directed only a few independent films before they were signed for the X-Men, Batman and Iron Man franchises. One might argue that women probably aren’t interested in superhero movies anyway, but is that actually true? Even if we accept this stereotype, why are movie adaptations of female-centered young adult series like “Twilight” (for which Catherine Hardwicke was notoriously replaced by a male director after the first installment), “Divergent,” “Hunger Games,” “Vampire Academy” and “Beautiful Creatures” all directed by men?

“Are there no women in studios because they’re not interested in making those movies, or is it because the studios are not signing them on as directors?” wonders Dabis, and she adds that while some women may shy away from studio route, she knows just as many – including herself at this point – who are in fact interested in bigger-budget projects, “but are not getting those opportunities.”

Emily Abt, on the other hand, deliberately chooses to make documentaries because the lower budget provides more flexibility. “Documentary filmmaking is a little more family friendly,” says Abt, who has directed two documentaries. Because it’s a smaller crew, you can have a little more influence over the schedule.” She’s currently working on the documentary feature “Daddy Don’t Go” while balancing it with being a mother of two young children.

The writer-director says she “worked really hard” in her 20s and early 30s, directing two documentary features, “Take It from Me” (2001) and “All of Us” (2008), and one narrative feature, “Toe to Toe” (2010), in 10 years, while supporting herself by everything from producing commercials and directing docudramas, to law proofreading and waitressing. But after having two children, she reluctantly acknowledges, her priorities changed.

“My husband and I are very fifty-fifty when it comes to child care,” she says. “But what I find is that when push comes to shove, women are more willing to take a hit career-wise in order to have children and be with their children when they’re little. When I travel for business, it’s a little hard for me. I feel a little guilty. My husband does not feel guilty at all. He’s like, ‘See you, bye.’ It’s not very politically correct to say that there are primal forces at play, but I think that there might be.”

No matter what your ambitions are, it’s difficult not to get set back when you’re physically affected by childbirth, says documentary and commercial director Lara Zizic, who just added a baby to the family. “I think you can do both pretty well,” she says, referring to directing and parenting. “But when you have an infant, you’re sleep deprived, and it just takes a lot of time. It falls to the woman physically in the very beginning. That’s daunting. At least it was for me.”

As freelancers, directors rarely have the luxury of maternity leave, says Zizic, and that makes the decision process much harder. When is the right time to take a break in your career – and what are you going to do for money?

Abt believes that family responsibilities are a factor the industry needs to recognize when dealing with the gender gap. But it’s hard to ask for that in a mercilessly competitive industry where women are already lagging behind. “No one wants to be seen as being in the slow lane. I certainly fight against that perception sometimes,” says Abt. She recalls doing meetings with Hollywood development executives while being pregnant. One look at her belly made them assume she was out of the game, which bothered her because she has worked really hard to continue her career throughout pregnancies and child care. But, she admits, “you do need to slow down in certain ways.”

Narrative film directing is an all-consuming job, Abt explains. “You have to really be a force of nature to get an independent narrative feature film off the ground,” she says, referring to the realities of getting the film financed, planned and shot.  Her first feature film, “Toe to Toe,” required 18-hour workdays. Because fiction is so expensive to produce, every minute counts. “There is this sort of ethic in filmmaking, especially independent filmmaking, because there is so little money, that you just have to do whatever it takes to get the shots you need.”

Because of the amounts of money involved, she has little belief in the possibility of changing the work code for narrative productions. But for documentaries, she’s gotten more confident about making others adapt to her workflow. “I’m going to dictate how it happens, and I feel confident enough in my own abilities at this point,” she says. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say, ‘I’m going to shoot these days.'”

When it comes to directing, self-confidence and leadership are crucial abilities that, says Abt, unfortunately, are lacked by a lot of women. “I think some women also take themselves out of the running because they don’t believe in themselves enough.” When she was younger, she felt she had to “learn and know everything about lenses” and “understand every technical detail of filmmaking” before she had the right to step onto a film set. Now she realizes that her job as a director isn’t to know everything, but to “hire the best” and “empower them to do a really fantastic job.” Filmmaking is collaborative, but it doesn’t always feel that way for a young female director surrounded by a crew of “tough know-it-all boys” (Abt’s phrase), many of whom don’t hesitate to express their distrust of a female director.

Being the woman in charge of a boy’s club requires a lot of self-awareness, says Zizic, who describes the importance of presenting your personality in a way that draws “a fine line between being a woman and getting along with men: not being too aggressive, not being too much of a pushover.” She explains: “If you’re directing and you raise your voice, or really are insistent of having things done the way you want, you can be perceived as overly aggressive, whereas a man wouldn’t be. And then if you’re being flexible because of the situation, you’re being seen as flaky.”

J.J. Adler, a commercial comedy director at the Tool of North America production company, and a 2009 Columbia graduate, is also familiar with a male crew’s misperceptions of her. “Nobody ever thinks I’m the director when I walk onto my own set,” she says. “Everyone that I work with says it’s so weird to have a female director. In comedy, it’s very rare.” Adler, who started her career as an editor, then director and executive producer, of a video project at The Onion, which turned into the parody news show “The Onion News Network.”

As a commercial director getting booked by different clients, Adler has experienced confusion over her gender because of her ambiguous name. “I would get set up a lot for sports-related chainsaw commercials, beer and stuff like that. And when they found out I was a woman, they would be a little worried that it was a bad fit,” she says. In general, she doesn’t feel that her gender has been a big issue and is happy with the opportunities she has gotten. In her experience, TV executives generally are risk averse, and it’s hard to break through for both men and women. But, since fewer women are already in the pool of directors that get recommended, it’s even harder to break into a business that hesitates to hire unknown directors.

“The higher up you get, you really have to have connections,” adds Lara Zizic. “There are a ton of great women directors who aren’t given enough shots because they’re women, and also because of a lack of connections.”

The women agree that sexism is a hard case to prove. Directors get rejected all the time, and there’s not really any way to learn the actual reason why. “I definitely think sexism exists in Hollywood, but I don’t know how much the opportunities I’ve lost have been due to my gender, or something else,” says Adler. “I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve been up for jobs that should a hundred percent have been mine, and I’ve been passed over.”  She mentions jobs for “fake news web shows that were basically rip-offs of what I helped create,” where the gig ended up going to a guy with less experience. “In those instances a part of me does think it has to do with my sex.”

“It’s very subtle,” adds Cherien Dabis. “It’s not like people are going to tell you, so it’s hard to know exactly why people are saying no.” She has pondered whether her struggles with finding financing for her features are attributable to the fact that she is a woman or to the nature of her projects, which have involved Arabic or mixed languages, middle Eastern culture, unknown actors and female protagonists.  Or was it all of those factors combined? “Making the kinds of movies I make feels like trying to push a boulder up a mountain.”

There can, however, be advantages to being a woman, says Lara Zizic, referring to her work on her latest documentary “Mission Congo,” which she and her co-director David Turner filmed in Congo and Rwanda: “I definitely have lost out on jobs because I’m not a boy, basically, drinking with other boys, but it’s also provided me with advantages in terms of access and in terms of perception. When you’re a man, it’s really about who has the biggest gun, whereas when you’re a woman, it’s easier to charm people, and you can do things in a less aggressive way, which makes everyone happier.” She adds that when interviewing rape victims or other vulnerable subjects, people were more comfortable opening up to her than to her male co-director.

Women, says Zizic, are generally raised to be good at multitasking, collaborating and paying attention other’s perceptions – all traits that make great directors. They don’t need special treatment, just “a fair shot at the same opportunities” to prove their worth. “The larger issue is not that there need to be more women directors,” she says. “It’s that the playing field needs to be leveled, and the best directors will direct. And I think a lot more of them are women than are being allowed to direct now.”

The problem isn’t that executives won’t hire a woman, if she’s persuasive and shows solid work, says Jen Heck, who graduated from the directing program in 2009. She has directed and produced a number of shorts and TV documentaries and is currently in postproduction with her first documentary feature, “We’re with the Band,” for her own production company, Steamboat Pictures. Heck doesn’t believe that women are less assertive than men, or necessarily have trouble landing jobs, or are automatically discriminated against. “At the end of the day, it’s about how much money you’re going to make, period,” she says. “But getting into the room to be considered can be hard. Once you’re in the room, I feel like they’re going to go for the best person.”

The difficulty with getting on the shortlist is that women are often not considered for movies that aren’t stereotypically feminine. “I’ve been told, ‘You direct like a guy,’ which is a really ridiculous thing to say,” says Heck. “I guess it means, ‘You didn’t make Lifetime movies that are telling a typical female story, like a love story or working-girl-makes-good story. People assume that you’re making a certain kind of movie, so they won’t even look at it.”

“I understand that a lot of people are under a lot of pressure on the production side to make a film successful and make money. But they’re operating under an old paradigm,” says Carina Rosanna Tautu, who pursued a degree at Columbia because she thought she’d have greater opportunities than in her home country, Romania – only to discover that women in the U.S. dealt with many of the same issues. “I don’t think they’re taking the time or the money and the effort to say, ‘How can we market different voices in the new generation?’” I think the audience is right there, and they’re hungry for different perspectives.”

Judging from this sample, women directors are determined to continue contributing with their personal perspective in movies at all levels and in all genres. The statistics show how difficult it is for women to get a foothold in Hollywood. Many struggle with the particular vulnerability that characterizes new mothers. And many struggle with a lack of self-esteem. But mostly, they struggle with barriers to breaching stereotypes and breaking into a boys club. Nonetheless, they’re not giving up.

“It matters,” says Dabis, “because we should have the same opportunities, whether we’re men or women. It matters because women’s voices should not be devalued simply because they’re female. In the marketplace, in the world, they shouldn’t be perceived in a certain way because they’re female. So it’s really speaking to a larger issue than just filmmaking.”


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