Monday, February 16, 2015

Incredible Invisible Women Filmmakers

Women were among the first silent picture directors. Director Alice Guy-Blache is actually credited as the first to develop the art of  narrative structure. But when businessmen created the Hollywood Studio System, women directors seemed to disappear.
Alice Guy-Blache

Motivated by Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub and the fact that less that 7% of the 250 movies made in the Hollywood studio system this year were directed by women, I decided to find out what happened to all the women filmmakers. I started by scrolling down the movies I had promoted on Reel Inspiration through the years including my annual “Most Inspiring Films” lists. Imagine my delight at discovering that three of the films listed in first place were directed by women. My all-time favorite Reel Inspiration film, “Even the Rain” (from 2010), was directed by Spanish actress/director Iciar Bollain. My favorite inspiring film of 2011, the documentary about horse whisperer “Buck,” was directed by animal advocate Cindy Meehl. Of course, 2013’s Most Inspiring FilmWadjda” was directed by a Saudi Arabian woman named Haifaa Al-Mansour. This accomplishment is even more incredible because it was the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. In fact, she directed the first film EVER shot in Saudi Arabia. This accomplishment needs to be celebrated. Scrolling down the labels on my blog, I found other female filmmakers who directed powerful, inspiring films. These women’s names deserve to be known and their voices heard.

(UPDATE: "2014 Most Inspiring Films" included, ""Welcome to Me," "McFarland USA," "The Babadook," "Belle," and the film that inspired all those impassioned blog posts, Ava DuVernay's "Selma."  The 2015 list featured "Suffragette," and my number one choice, Deniz Gamze Ergüven's "Mustang." )

Ava DuVernay, Iciar Bollain, Haifaa Al-Mansour
After reading an article about gender inequality in Hollywood that asked, “Where are all the Women Filmmakers?” I conducted my own research to find out if there were, in fact, qualified women filmmakers and why they weren't being hired for high profile studio productions. I started by looking up the women directors mentioned on Indiewire’s best indie films and Sundance breakout hits lists on IMDB to discover which projects were in the works and to see if they were getting the same opportunities as their male counterparts. These lists led to more lists: best horror films directed by women, lesbian filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, spiritual cinema visionaries, showcase films for actresses… The more I looked, the more women directors I uncovered. Yes, there are women directors out there.

Jennifer Lynch
Why hadn't I heard of these women? Why weren't more of them household names? The main reason is that women filmmakers have a difficult time finding enough funding for publicity and are lucky to get even limited distribution. Without proper PR campaigns, they aren't even a blip on most film journalists’ or reviewers’ radar. One bloody example is Jennifer Lynch. After some devastatingly bad press on her first film "Boxing Helena" (when she was in her twenties), Jennifer has gone on to make some of the most intriguing, disturbing serial killer flicks: "Surveillance" and "Chained." Despite getting more PR than most female filmmakers, hardly anyone saw her films. Why? Because they had limited distribution.
Debra Granik

Women with breakout indie films aren't being hired for big studio productions like their male counterparts. A good example of that is “Winter’s Bone” director/co-writer Debra Granik.  Despite making $16 million on her small budget movie, being nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Granik) and launching the phenomenal career of Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Granik has been unable to get a project green-lighted in the studio system. Meanwhile, her male contemporary, Noam Murro (his indie drama “Smart People” made $2 million less) went on to direct the high budget film “300: Rise of an Empire.”

Lexi Alexander
Studio executives use the excuse that female directors either don’t want to direct big action films or can’t handle the job. While directing a horror film is seen as proof that men are prepared to direct an action film, women horror film directors are overlooked. Another example that belies that theory is Academy award-nominated Lexi Alexander. Lexi is uniquely qualified to direct action films. She leveraged her experience as a Karate and kickboxing world champion to write and direct her engrossing Oscar-nominated short about professional boxer “Johnny Flinton.” (Heralded by reviewers as the most authentic depiction of boxing on film.) Her skills as a professional stunt-woman enabled her to orchestrate brutally real and thrilling fight sequences for her film “Green Street Hooligans.” She faithfully followed Hollywood’s formula for success. While Hollywood executives complained that female stories weren't “edgy” enough, her films were edgy. When they demanded sympathetic heroes, she gave them sympathetic heroes. And she made it work. Her films are brilliant. Unfortunately, this story doesn't have a happy Hollywood ending. When she was hired to direct the lesser-known Marvel comic “Punisher: War Zone,” she was promised a $30 million budget, but ended up with $20 million. Executives claimed that investors got nervous because she was a woman. So she had $10 million less to publicize a practically obscure franchise. She gave fans what they wanted by staying true to the source (violence and all). But when the movie wasn't a box office hit, they blamed it on her being a woman.

Let’s examine the excuse that women don’t want to direct action films. First, many of the 250 big studio productions aren't action films. The list includes comedies and dramas. All but three of the so-called “chick flicks” and “weepies” were directed by men. It is true that Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar (for the war film“The Hurt Locker”), declined offers to direct the latest big action franchises. But it is absurd to think that this acclaimed director would choose to direct the latest Marvel Comic flick or big action sequel. Hasn't she earned the opportunity to direct a film that reflects her own vision – like the previous Oscar winners? (In all fairness, many renowned directors have found it so difficult to finance their vision in today’s corporate-run movie industry that they have started working in television.)

Scarlett Johansson
The recent success of female driven films PROVES that there is a market for films with female leads:
  • Jennifer Laurence beat the competition, grossing $335,123,000 in “The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Part 1.” 
  • Angelina Jolie was “Maleficent” (penned by Linda Woolverton) at 8th place ($241,410,378).
  • “Interstellar” blasted off to 16th place featuring a strong woman astronaut and scientist ($186,666,000) originally conceived by producer Lynda Obst with Professor of Theoretical Physics Kip Thorne.
  •  “Gone Girl” Rosamund Pike slayed as the unhappy wife in 18th place ($167,628,577) while retaining author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s vision.
  • “Lucy” captured 23rd place ($126,663,600) on Scarlett Johansson’s star power.
  • Shailene Woodley shined in at 24th ($124,872,350) in “Fault in Our Stars.”
  • Meryl Streep’s bewitching presence conjured up 25th place ($124,388,000) for “Into the Woods.” 
  • “Tammy” showed off Melissa McCarthy’s strengths as a comedian/writer to earn 38th ($84,525,432). 
  • Nappy-haired little girl “Annie” (starring Quvenzhane Wallis and co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna) found a home at 39th ($84,452,781). 
  • “If I Stay,” starring Chloe Grace Moretz and adapted by Shauna Cross from the novel by Gayle Forman, hung in at 52nd ($50,474,843). 
While this list shows progress for lead actresses, it must be noted that NONE of these movies were directed by women. Why aren't more movies starring women, directed by women? Why are so few of the best-selling novels written by women, adapted to the screen by women?  Six of the movies on the list above were written (or co-written) by women. But keep in mind that this list was taken from the top 52 hits from Box Office Mojo's list of 100 movies (as of  2/16/15).

Kathryn Bigelow
While it’s good to show that women can excel at directing high budget genre movies (Angelina Jolie joined the ranks in 26th place at the box office with the war film “Unbroken”), I don’t think female directors should have to direct male-centric movies in order to get funding. They should be able to make movies that reflect their vision. Many female directors, such as Debra Granik, are opting to produce their own low budget shorts or documentaries while awaiting studio deals. It is important for the health of our nation (even the planet) that women’s voices be heard. I am proud of Kathryn Bigelow for forgoing financial gratification to create projects that reflect her own vision and benefit our planet. She is currently collaborating with Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures (who also worked on “Zero Dark Thirty”) on an adaption of Anand Giridharada’s bestseller, “The True American.” She leveraged her clout to produce the animated PSA “Last Days,” drawing attention to the connection between elephant poaching and terrorism. Bigelow elaborated, “For me it represented the diabolical intersection of two problems of great concern – species extinction and global terrorism. Both involve the loss of innocent life, and both require urgent action.” Bigelow announced on January 30, 2016 that her next film would be a drama about the 1967 Detroit Riots.

Where are all the other female directors? Women are making films....

Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Despite the fact that the first animated film EVER was created by a woman, Lotte Reiniger, women are finally breaking into the "boys' club" of animation. Brenda Chapman became the first woman to direct an animated feature at a major studio (Dreamworks) with "Prince of Egypt" in 1998. She went on to co-direct the Oscar winning "Brave" in 2012. Storyboard artist Vicky Jenson directed "Shrek." Jennifer Lee parlayed her scripts "Wreck It Ralph" and "Frozen" into a directing gig for "Frozen." Jennifer Yuh Nelson was the first female to be sole director of an animated feature (the mega-hit "Kung Fu Panda 2.") She is currently working on "Kung Fu Panda 3."

This year 36% of the films at Sundance were directed by women. So what became of the female directors who had breakout hits in the past? Gina Prince-Bythewood shines a light on celebrity with "Beyond the Lights." Amma Asante overcame daunting challenges to get her black heroin "Belle" on screen. Some have feature films coming out in 2015. "Twilight's" Catherine Hardwicke helmed "I Miss You Already" and is set to direct the $50 million dollar epic "Loulan." Patricia Riggen ("Under the Same Moon") directed the true story of  "The 33" miners trapped underground. Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank") is filming "American Honey." Oscar winner Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") is in post production on "A Very Murray Christmas." "Whale Rider's" Niki Caro directed Disney's "McFarland USA" and is currently shooting "The Zookeeper’s Wife." Celine Sciamma ("Tomboy") has "Ma vie de courgette" coming out in 2016.  Amma Assante is currently shooting the provocative racial drama "A United Kingdom." Some have produced their own short films while seeking funding for feature projects (Mira Nair, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron). This plan has proven successful for Mary Harron  who announced on February 1, 2016 that she is collaborating with "American Psycho" scribe Guinevere Turner on the Manson-Followers film "The Family."

Darnell Martin
MANY acclaimed female directors have found better opportunities in television including: Darnell Martin, the first black woman to direct a studio production ("I Like It Like That"). Oscar winner Jane Campion ("The Piano") co-created the thriller masterpiece "Top of the Lake." Lesli Linka Glatter, Jill Soloway, and Lisa Cholodenko swept the TV categories at the DGA awards this year. Happily, actress-turned-director Lake Bell ("In a World") is currently in pre-production for "What's the Point?" after directing television. Other qualified women directors are choosing to make documentaries or low budget indies to stay true to their vision (Kelly Reichardt, Marjane Satrapi, and Julie Dash to name a few.)

The problem is that the films made outside the studio system aren't being seen because they don’t have money for marketing and distribution. Right now, Hollywood is run by a handful of giant corporations that are only interested in testosterone-driven megahits that have international appeal to show a huge profit to stockholders. Businessmen are running the show. So they keep regurgitating the same tired formulas that have worked in the past. As a result, movie attendance has gone down.

Recent box office receipts prove that there is a demand for female driven films. Why not put some of that money back into smaller films with a fresh perspective? From a business standpoint, they cost less to make, so they are less risky.  "Winter's Bone," independently financed by the filmmakers when their investor fell through, was produced for just $2 million and earned $14 million above that. That's 7 TIMES its budget. That's just good business. 

"Winter's Bone" by Debra Granik
How do we encourage studios and investors to finance and distribute films by female directors? First, do a little research and discover your favorite women directors. Seek out their films. Then send Hollywood a message by attending them on opening weekend. Share them with your friends. Repeat.

Meanwhile, I will continue writing articles on the subject and seeking out female filmmakers to promote on Reel Inspiration. Look for my reviews celebrating two women making new strides in horror: Ana Lily Amipour ("A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night") and Jennifer Kent ("The Babadook.") PLEASE, SHARE! 

Check out the many strong female characters in my "Most Inspiring Films 2015."

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

For more information on Women Filmmakers:

The best and bravest article I've found clarifying the issue: The Women in Hollywood Speak Out.

Watch the video: "Celluloid Ceilings: Women Directors Speak Out"

 "10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention from Hollywood."

"100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring"

Research that proves Hollywood is still a "man's club."  

Ava DuVernay expands distribution cooperative for women filmmakers and filmmakers of color.

This year a writers lab for women over 40 was established. 

"Why 2015 Film and Television Was a Major Win for Feminism"

"Watch: A Celebration of the Top-Grossing Women-Directed Films of 2015"

Stephanie Allain, who champions films from directors of color, speaks out. 

The Best Films About Women in 2014

"Beeban Kidron: The Shared Wonder of Film"

"Everything You Need To Know About The Hollywood Pay Gap"

"Celebrating Women in Classic Film: The Silent Directors."

"The History of Women in Animation. The Mothers of a Medium."

Women Documentary Filmmakers

The Director List (including women indie, documentary and television directors.)

 "85 Films By and About Women of Color."

"Female Directors Make History at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival."

"Attention Filmmakers! Apply for the HBO fellowship for women and diversity"

"Hollywood Sets Up Its Lady Superheroes to Fail"

"Two women-led media companies are committing greater resources to funding and distributing films made by women".

"Diversity doesn't just happen': Six women in film discuss the challenges ahead

ArcLight Cinemas Spotlights "Exceptional" Women-Directed Docs in Summer Series

"Heroines of Cinema: These 10 Female Filmmakers Prove Why Hollywood Studios Should Change Their Tune"

"Guide to Cult Female Filmmakers"

"Female Directors Pick Their Favorite Films Made by Women"


Dan Stormont said...

There are so many good films being made by females that are not getting seen or not getting the promotion they deserve. Jennifer Lynch is brilliant and largely unrecognized for her brilliance, but I was also really disappointed in how little attention Marjane Satrapi has received. I think "Chicken with Plums" was every bit as brilliant as this year's "Grand Budapest Hotel" - and was more meaningful, but it got very limited distribution. That her latest film, "The Voices," went straight to video is an indictment of the sorry state of the studio system today. It is so discouraging!

Angeline D'Balentine said...

Since I've played around in the Producer role a few times over the years, I would agree it comes down to the investors that have strong influence on this "lack of female directors" at the main Hollywood studios. I've discovered also as a writer that sometimes people don't think a person can write about what they don't know. Example: I was once challenged by a fellow filmmaker, who was a man, that I couldn't write from a man's perspective without sounding Hallmark. On the spot I wrote a paragraph in from of him and other men on the team - let's just say I proved him wrong, and he owned it. I think this happens in directing film as well from the investors POV. It's sad. People should be given the benefit of doubt, especially in this day and age.

Leslie Ann Epperson said...

Winter's Bone is a powerful film! Glad to see it mentioned--i did not realize it was directed by a woman--but it makes sense. It is a nuanced and layered film. Not that men don't make sensitive films, they do--but anyway...thanks for the blog!

Jana Segal said...

Indie Wire named Marjane Satrapi's latest movie, "The Voice,"
number 18 on, "The Best Indie Movies of 2015 So Far, According to the Criticwire Network" (despite it going straight to video.)

Russ Thayer said...

Jessica Hausner's fine film, "Lourdes" is one that just pops into my mind as a recent viewing directed by a talented female. And if you haven't ever seen "Lore", directed by Cate Shortland, you're missing out. I also really liked Julia Loktev's "The Loneliest Planet". Plus, I adore French actress to an unhealthy extent.