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Equality proves elusive for women filmmakers

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It is one of the central Hollywood myths. The make-one-movie-and-be-adored myth. The boy-wonder myth. The Orson Welles myth.

"I am so sick of Orson Welles!" says director Allison Anders. "I am so sick of the boy-wonder myth! I mean, where's the girl-wonder myth?"

Certainly not sitting in the director's chair.

Although studio executives routinely give to liberal causes, sport sympathetic lapel ribbons and make the right noises about "diversity," those sentiments rarely seem to make it back to the backlot. Whether you're in indie New York or industry L.A., most movies are still about men, for men — and by men.

"There are a lot more movies being made now, so there are a lot more female directors," says Maggie Renzi, partner of John Sayles and producer of the upcoming "Girlfight." "There were so few when John and I started. But you look a little deeper, and I really don't think anything's any different."

"Things have definitely gotten worse for women in Hollywood over the past few years," e-mails Mary Lambert, director of "The In Crowd." "Now in addition to the glass ceiling, there is a dirt floor, where most of us have to scratch out a living. The level playing field has a 'men only' sign on the chain-link fence."

Still, several of the dozen female filmmakers interviewed for this article were almost apologetic for their complaints, insisting they considered themselves privileged just to be able to make movies. And a few others, closer to the beginning of their careers, said they had yet to see much outright sexism.

"It's really hard just to get a movie made, period," says Stacy Cochran, who hit with "My New Gun" in 1992 and is finishing up the darkly comic "Drop Back Ten." "I mean, there are so many reasons for someone to say no to you — being a woman is just one of them."

"I always take my being female, particularly being female from a different culture, as an asset," says actress-turned-filmmaker Joan Chen, whose romantic "Autumn in New York" is slated for August. "Sometimes you don't get to contribute that asset, and that's frustrating. But I haven't yet experienced it as a drawback."

"I worked with all men at Lions Gate," says Valerie Breiman, whose romantic comedy "Love and Sex" opens next month, too. "And since it was a female point-of-view film, there were moments when I wished there was another woman in the room. But they still seemed to respect what the story meant to me."

Yet despite women's different experiences with sexism, the evidence of discrimination is undeniable — and depressing:

— Although women in the Director's Guild have been fighting for equality for decades — in 1979, its newly formed Women's Committee revealed that, of the 7,332 movies made over the previous 30 years, 7,318 had been made by men — female directors still hold less than 12 percent of the guild's union cards, and the total days worked by female film and TV directors has been going down since 1990.

— Although there have been a flurry of movies from women over the past few months, including Jamie Babbit's "But I'm a Cheerleader" and Mary Harron's "American Psycho," female directors still routinely account for less than 10 percent of the movies at neighborhood theaters, and none of the year's Top 10 box office hits.

— Although film festivals like Sundance often champion female filmmakers — this year's big winner was Karyn Kusama, who made "Girlfight" — women rarely have more than a third of the features, and the filmmakers leaving with the biggest buzz are almost inevitably young males ("the boys in backwards baseball caps," Renzi calls them). Yet while sexism certainly poses difficulties for female filmmakers trying to set up projects, an even larger problem comes from the projects themselves. While a few women have turned to traditional blockbusters — like Mimi Leder, who made "Deep Impact" and "The Peacemaker" — many prefer quieter, quirkier fare. And small, character-driven stories aren't the kind of movies most studios want to make, no matter who's behind the camera.

Breiman — who cut her teeth directing "really crappy" low-budget movies like "Bikini Squad" — wonders if the answer isn't simply better box office. "I don't know if we have to change things about the stories we want to tell," she says. "I sure hope not. But being commercial helps, and I think things will get easier once women's films start making the same profits that many men's do."

Others, however, worry that without engaging a larger female audience, those kinds of profits can only come from making teenage schlock, Renzi says. The problem, she says, isn't really the movies female filmmakers make. It's the way their female audience still gets ignored.

"There's a big market in women over 30, but studios aren't going after them," Renzi says. "I don't get it. I'm 50, smack in the middle of the baby boom, and everyone's rushing to sell me cars and insurance and credit cards. Why aren't they trying to sell me movies?"

Some filmmakers think a change will come when more women seize power at the studios, feminizing the workplace and green-lighting a wider range of films. Others point out that women have been climbing the studio ladder for years, and usually end up absorbed by the very culture they once vowed to reform. "In the '60s, I used to hear people talk about joining the Army to change the Army," Renzi says. "That didn't work either."

And, of course, for many female filmmakers, the fight for equality has to be waged at home, as well. Because while plenty of male and female filmmakers have families, it's still largely women who pull that second shift, keeping the household running and the kids happy. And none of that is conducive to working the kind of 20-hour days that get movies made.

Platt began her Hollywood career by collaborating with husband Peter Bogdanovich, scouting locations, designing costumes and sets, and finding material like "The Last Picture Show." She seemed well on the way to her own directing career. Then Bogdanovich ran off with Cybill Shepherd, and Platt was left with two children. "I was briefly 'in demand,' but I had a choice between seeing my children or making a movie," Platt says simply. "And maybe this is a weak excuse, but to me it was never a choice."

Yet, obvious as her answer may have been to her, many men never even hear the question. Occasionally you read about male directors, like Steven Spielberg, taking off time to spend with their families. But the fact that stories like that get breathlessly reported proves just how uncommon they are. For many female directors, even those with supportive partners, juggling twin responsibilities isn't a Sunday cover story, but a daily dilemma.

"It takes a lot of stamina to keep going out there, not only for me but for my family," says Cochran, married with three children. "Maybe it's one thing if you're successful and the studio is supplying you with baby-sitting and everything — but it's still very, very hard."

"I'm really lucky that my husband supports my career, and hangs with our son when I'm in production," says Lambert. "Of course I organize our house like a film set, too — there are schedules everywhere! But you can't do it without emotional support."