If you’re aware of the film and TV community at all, you’re aware that we’re at a watershed moment for the discussion of gender equality in film. The white boys club that dominates creative spaces for film and TV (don’t take my word for it, just look at some DGA and WGA statistics) is being questioned, and for good reason — diverse voices in film and television aren’t just helpful, they’re essential to shaping the public’s views of how the world works, as reflected in media. This week, Megan and I were lucky enough to attend two events in LA dedicated specifically to discussing a lack of gender equality within the film and TV industries.
On Monday, we headed to the lovely WGA Theater for a panel discussing Unconscious Bias within the industry. Glen Mazzara moderated the panel, which also included Geena Davis, Shonda Rhimes, Peter Paige, Todd Holland, Callie Khouri, and Judith Williams from Google. Before the panel discussion started, Mazzara, Davis, and Williams all gave individual presentations.
Photo credit: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. From L-R: Callie Khouri, Todd Holland, Peter Paige, Shonda Rhimes, Judith Williams, Geena Davis, and Glen Mazzara.
Mazzara kicked off the evening with anecdotes of his own experiences in writers’ rooms including THE SHIELD and THE WALKING DEAD. On THE SHIELD, Mazzara had to help two female staff writers be heard in the male-dominated room (“I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t listening to them, that I’d been trained to listen to the male voice first”). On another unnamed show, Mazzara told us of how he was accused of “having an Asian fetish” after wanting to hire two Asian writers for a room.
After Mazzara’s equality horror stories, Geena Davis took the stage to discuss research from her Institute on Gender and Media. Three startling points emerged from Davis’s research: women only account for about 17% of all background extras/crowd scenes in animated and live action media (a similar number to the percentage of women in leadership/management positions around the US); casting women in small rolls, as extras or in crowd scenes makes a HUGE difference in terms of representation on screen (50% of all films have casts that are 75% or more male); and the best place to begin gender reform within the industry is in children’s media, as it allows us to keep children from being programmed to make assumptions about what men do and are and what women do and are. It was an incredibly thorough presentation with many more salient points than the ones listed here — I urge you to check out the Institute’s website.
After Davis, Judith Williams from Google gave us an incredible presentation on how unconscious bias is formed. I could’ve listened to Judith talk for hours about how our brains create bias, and how that bias affects our daily lives — whether that means assuming “doctor” as a male role within society, choosing only to read articles that support our own views, or whatever patterns we downloaded from our upbringings. Judith spent a large portion of her presentation discussing traditional job and social associations as they relate to men and women — women are generally associated with liberal arts, men with science, etc. Judith was an awesome speaker, and I’d love to hear more from her.
From there, we moved into the full panel discussion. Shonda Rhimes discussed how gender and racial equality was one of the essential tenants in Shondaland, and how this leads to some tricky casting questions (“Can the idiot plumber be a woman?”) Peter Paige of THE FOSTERS suggested that writing gender and racial equality into your very first episode sets the tone for future episodes, and praised the ABC family of networks for pushing equality in all of their shows. Todd Holland of MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE discussed DGA visits to shows and studios that are failing to include diversity in front of and behind the camera, and how mentorship and trainee programs are essential to bringing more diverse voices to media. NASHVILLE showrunner Callie Khouri talked about her majority-female writers room, and echoed Rhimes’s thoughts about challenges of casting women and people of color in complex roles without sliding into stereotypes.
While all the panelists were wonderful, this evening was tough in that everyone in the room was in agreement regarding equality issues within the industry, but only a few concrete solutions were given — more women in crowd/extras scenes, focusing on children’s media, and WGA/DGA mentorship and trainee programs focused on employing diverse folks. As Mazzara expressed in his opening remarks, part of the issue in solving the equality puzzle is that everyone blames each other, and no one takes responsibility: studios blame showrunners, showrunners blame agencies, agencies blame studios. It is incredibly important that these conversations are happening, but as we’re a problem-solving society, it’s hard to walk away from them with more questions than answers.
Last night, we headed to Beverly Hills to see The Sundance Institute and Women in Film: LA present findings on a massive study about films from the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance based on the gender of their directors. Professor Stacy L. Smith from USC presented the sobering findings: of 1300 top-grossing films released 2002-2014, only 4.1% were directed by women, or about 23.3 male directors for every female director. For the rest of the findings, I’m going to let this incredible, sobering study speak for itself. It’s essential reading:
- Females directed one-quarter of the films in SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition between 2002 and 2014. Of the 208 U.S. Dramatic Competition films at SFF between 2002 and 2014, 25.5 percent had a female director (n=53) and 74.5 percent had a male director (n=155). This translates into a gender ratio of 2.9 to 1.
- Gender did not play a role in receiving theatrical distribution out of SFF Competition. Of the 208 SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies, 177 received domestic distribution (85.1 percent) and 31 did not. Female-directed films (88.7 percent) were just as likely to receive distribution out of SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition as male-directed films (83.9 percent).
- There are differences in the types of companies that distribute male- and female-directed films. Movies with a female director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than female-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/ Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach.
- Theatrical density was not related to director gender among SFF films with Independent distribution. Male-directed and female-directed SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition films with Independent distribution were equally likely to be shown in 1-75 theatres as to be shown in 76-250+ theatres.
- At the highest platform of theatrical distribution, above 250 screens, male directors outnumber female directors by a factor of 6 to 1. Among films distributed by Studio Specialty/Mini Major companies, a greater percentage of male-directed films (32.1 percent, n=18) were shown in 251+ theatres than female-directed films (21.4 percent, n=3).
- Gender is related to the types of stories told by directors in SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition. Three-quarters of all SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies featured drama, comedy, and/or romance, with female-directed films (92.5 percent) more concentrated in these genres than male-directed films (69 percent). Lead character gender was also associated with director gender. Male-directed films were more likely to feature male leads whereas female-directed films were more likely to feature female leads.
- The director gender gap is at its widest in top-grossing films. Across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors (n=59 of 1,433) were female. This calculates into a gender ratio of 23.3 male directors to every 1 female director
- The prevalence of females decreases notably when moving from independent to mainstream film. In 2014, there was a 25 percent difference between the percentage of female directors at SFF (26.9 percent) and the percentage of female directors across the top 100 films (1.9 percent). This is almost double the gap observed (12.7 percent drop) in 2002.
- The results from this study demonstrate that female directors set out on a course that confirms and triggers a stereotype that may affect the deals they make and the opportunities they are offered. As such, the choices female directors make early in their careers can have lasting financial consequences.
There were, of course, qualitative findings to their study as well: “The previous phases of research have established the fiscal cliff women face as they move from independent to more commercial fare. To continue this inquiry, the qualitative section of the report uses data from 59 interviews (39 male, 20 female) with buyers and sellers who had, on average, 17.5 years of experience in the entertainment industry. We also conducted interviews with 41 female directors. Buyers and sellers were asked about the reasons for the lack of female directors in top 100 films. Respondents could mention, question, speculate or hypothesize about the topic. The major barriers that emerged were consistent with results from previous phases as well as other research. Those impediments were:”
- Perception of a Gendered Marketplace
- Scarcity of Talent Pool and Experience
- Women’s Perceived Lack of Ambition
- Industry Gender Imbalance
- Little Support and Few Opportunities
- Competence Doubted
In summary: “Across three years of research, it is clear that the film industry must grapple with not only the paucity of female directors working at its highest ranks, but also the image industry leaders hold regarding female directors. To journey from gender inequality to parity, decision-makers and advocates must work to alter their perceptions about what women can and want to do in their careers. This requires moving away from narrow and limiting stereotypes to conceptions of women that are as open and unbounded as those surrounding men. By making the choice to act strategically, the industry can bridge the gap between business, advocacy, and creativity to foster an environment in which it is possible for female directors to flourish.”
Photo credit: Sundance Labs
So what did we learn from these two evenings? How can we use them in our own lives? In our own work within the industry? Well, we learned that issues of equality are rippling through the industry, and that some major players — ABC, The Sundance Institute, WIF, USC, Google, WGA/DGA, The Geena Davis Institute — are taking major steps to make diversity a priority behind of and in front of the camera. We heard research in action as Peter Paige, after Davis’s suggestions about crowd/extras casting, discussed how he planned to work with ADs to assure equality on his own set, something Shonda Rhimes is already doing. Hopefully, the study commissioned by WIF-LA, the Sundance Institute, and USC will be widely disseminated so that we can further pinpoint just how women are being failed by the industry, and continue to develop their amazing findings (the idea of female filmmakers facing a “fiscal cliff” particularly resonated with me.)
Of course, it would have been ideal to walk away from both events with a clear set of solutions and action items, but the kind of change necessary to fix the industry is going to be slow going — Davis’s research suggested that if we continue including women in films at the current rate, it’ll take us SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS to reach gender parity. Pretty disheartening, eh?
But for every disparaging anecdote, there were glimmers of hope too, and those are what we can focus on. The more of an uproar we create, the harder it is to ignore these issues. Rhimes stressed the importance of mentorship and training within the industry (“Hire a woman or a person of color as your writer’s assistant, help them grow. The current showrunners on GREY’S ANATOMY were assistants on the pilot.”) and that’s something everyone can do, no matter what your level in the industry may be. I urge you to share the WIF-LA, the Sundance Institute, and USC study far and wide. Make sure you’re exposing any young folks you may know to diverse entertainment (may I suggest a list for that…) and talking to them about problematic or stereotypical depictions of women and people of color. And perhaps most importantly, we have to keep talking about these issues, no matter how disheartening stats like Davis’s 700-years-until-gender-parity may be.
Whether we like it or not, media is a major factor in shaping how we perceive ourselves and the others who inhabit the world around us. We must start making ALL media reflect the incredible diversity of our planet, supporting female filmmakers and filmmakers of color at every level of the industry (especially the higher ones, where they’re least represented), and become dedicated to making sure the entertainment we give our children doesn’t only rely on easy caricatures and “traditional” values. The change isn’t going to be easy — the progress will be incremental, the setbacks will be disparaging, and the victories will be constantly judged against other, bigger industry successes — but it is vital to transform the industry from within.