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If you thought Hollywood’s women problem was getting better, think again

In spite of the recent success of female-directed films and conversation around #MeToo, Radhika Sanghani points out that Tinseltown’s gender equality is on the decline

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By Radhika Sanghani on

If you’d asked me last week whether I would have thought 2018 was a good year for women in film, I would have said yes. Of course. You can’t open a newspaper without reading about #MeToo and how things need to change, and finally it seems to be a recognised fact that films with women behind the scenes and in the starring roles all do well – 2013’s “Frozen” effect made sure of that. So if I’d had to predict whether Hollywood had more female directors at the helm in 2018 than in previous years, I would have replied with a resounding yes.

I would have been wrong. A study from the San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film has found that only 8% of Hollywood’s top films in 2018 were directed by women, down from 11% the previous year – and less the 9% in 1998. In short, in 20 years there has been no progress with the amount of women directing Hollywood’s highest-grossing films.

This is obviously miserable news. Martha Lauzen, the study’s author, sums it up when she says: “The study provides no evidence that the mainstream film industry has experienced the profound positive shift predicted by so many industry observers over the last year.” So many of us – from normal filmgoers like myself to actual industry experts – had assumed that the huge conversation around gender equality, particularly in Hollywood, would have led to tangible change.

But that hasn’t happened at all. Instead, barely anything has changed. None of the five nominated directors for best director at the Golden Globes were female, and last year 92% of the top 250 films had no women directors. While a staggering 96% had no women cinematographers, and 73% had no female writers. Women now make up 20% of behind-the-scene roles in Hollywood (up from 18% in 2017), but the biggest studios still aren’t hiring them for the top roles.

In 2016, it was revealed that 20th Century Fox and Paramount had a total of 47 movies planned for 2018, but not a single one had a female director. Statistics like this are shocking – particularly considering they’re coming at a time where there has been more demand than ever for gender equality in Hollywood, and it is undeniable that women-led films bring in huge amounts of money: Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect movies brought in gross profits of around $230m, while Jennifer Lee’s Frozen brought in $400.7m and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman brought in $412.6m.

In 20 years there has been no progress with the amount of women directing Hollywood’s highest-grossing films

When we read about the success of films like this, which are constantly written about and repeated in the media, it’s easy to assume that gender equality is getting better in Hollywood. But this mindset is dangerous, because as the latest study shows, these films are the exceptions – not the rule. In the same way, it’s easy to read about the success of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and assume that representation of different races is improving in film, we do the same with the positive examples of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

This year, it felt near-impossible to avoid reading about these films. The first because of its stellar line-up starring Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon, and the second because of how well it did: it had five Oscar nominations, and became studio A24’s most financially successful film, even surpassing Oscar winner Moonlight. But while it’s amazing that Gerwig’s film did so well and resonated with entire generations of mothers and daughters, it isn’t enough for her film to be touted as one of the only female-directed successes. We need more, and it’s time that more pressure was put on the biggest studios to make sure they invest in female talent.

There is no shortage of it, the problem is that studios keep on returning to the male names they’ve worked with before, the names they know and trust. Anyone who watched the BBC drama Feud about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would have felt the frustration of watching studio heads ignore talented women and keep on returning to the same boring white males, but what’s even more frustrating is that it seems little has changed since the 1960s. It isn’t enough for the media and studio head to rest on their laurels of the 8% successful female-directed films we’ve seen in 2018 – they need to start paying attention to the cold, hard facts, making that number jump up, fast.


Photo: Vimeo
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