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Guest Post: How Can We Get More Women In Power As Directors?

by Martha Coolidge
September 6, 2012 11:15 AM
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This is an expansion of the piece written for the NY Times forum: How Can Women Gain More Influence in Hollywood.

Most directors work intermittently as free-lance employees and are far from rich or powerful. Only directors who make the biggest hits are sought after, well paid and are offered the best scripts. Some write which is how they got a good script in the first place. Most successful directors use their power to become producers making them more money and giving them more control. A few women have made big hits but no woman director since the early silent era has had a career anything like those of the successful men.

Spielberg was the quintessential ‘wunderkind’, and all studios look for the next “boy wonder”. Thousands of would-be-directors enter film school every year with the hope that they could be the one; but only the best achieve careers. For guys competition is fierce, but for women you are more likely to win the lottery.

To get more powerful women directors we would need more women directing, and to do that we have to start by changing our cultural attitude toward women 180 degrees.

1. Men and women would have to learn to identify with female heroes and leaders. Why? Aside from opening up all the genres to women, we need to collectively imagine a woman as the ‘wunderkind’, the “girl wonder,” a director who tells stories the mass audience wants to see.

2. Young women would have to believe this was within their reach.

3. Thousands of women would have to train for directing careers and hone their craft.

4. Producers and studios would need to hire many more women than they do now and believe one of them could be “it”. They would need to judge women on the strength of their ideas and work, not on their sex appeal.

5. Producers couldn’t limit women to lower budget films, and should expect them to handle big crews, big budgets, big ideas and big stars.

6. All of us, parents and teachers starting in childhood, and later men in the business, would have to take women seriously and never ask them to play into gender based feminine behavior.

7. Competitive women in particular would have to want success as a director before anything else, like finding a man, or having a family. Successful directors are workaholics who define themselves by their careers and seek the company of their creative colleagues.

8. These women would have to feel secure with power, employing and delegating to others and making decisions alone. They should be encouraged to produce, write and direct, love competition, push past boundaries, and welcome any opportunity to overcome failure.

9. We all would have to embrace women in command, and accept eccentric behavior, and even tantrums; frequently caused by extreme pressure – not desirable, but tolerated in men. Most women directors learn to walk a delicate line between not being bitchy and not being wimpy to keep their jobs. Male directors don’t waste time or energy on this.

I know hundreds of directors. Women directors, like their counterparts, are mother and father, general and cheerleader. Men and women who direct have strong male and female sides and frankly, are more alike than not.

What you direct is not about gender. A director can handle material that appeals to them; it’s about their point of view. Plenty of women want to do action movies with big budgets and work with fantasy and effects.

But if it was only about commerce things might be better. There is an uncomfortable truth that especially in the entertainment business many men use their position to indulge in being surrounded by sexy girls or whatever their taste may be, and don't want their wives, sisters and mothers around. Many would deny it publicly but state it privately. Women threaten some men. They say they don’t understand women, and that is why they don't feel comfortable or identify with them.

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  • Liz Rizzo | October 8, 2012 10:49 PMReply

    This one really spoke to me: "7. Competitive women in particular would have to want success as a director before anything else, like finding a man, or having a family. Successful directors are workaholics who define themselves by their careers and seek the company of their creative colleagues."
    I think it's considered very strange that I am like this, but I have strove as time's gone on to simplify, simplify, focus, focus. Finally this year I seem to be getting somewhere and am slowly getting small opportunities. It's incredibly gratifying, even on a small scale. I feel like there are so many other things I'm supposed to care about, but just today I was driving and I realized how I could have made a shot better, and it made my day, that lesson learned, and that I'd made enough progress to see it.
    Thank you so much for writing.

  • dedeej | October 9, 2012 6:38 PM

    I am just getting started in the field. Where should I begin to get the training to become a director? How do you get a foot in the door.?

  • Korky Day | September 7, 2012 7:46 PMReply

    Author Martha Coolidge unfortunately is correct that such a law would not pass, and even if it did pass, it wouldn't work very well. However, a different law could pass, and we have an excellent example. The Canadian federal government about 4 decades ago said that radio stations had to play a certain minimum percentage of music by Canadians. That percentage has been raised, to 40% now, I think. Over the years that created a music recording industry in Canada almost from scratch. From that popular example, which no political party in Canada (except the miniscule Libertarian Party) would dare mess with, we can learn how to do the same for women. Legislate that each movie theatre and movie channel has to show 5% of movie screenings with women directors or women writers. The requirement jacks up 5% every year until it reaches 50%. --Korky in Vancouver, BC.

  • JaySmack | September 19, 2012 6:59 PM

    Your example defeats itself, Korky.
    Canadian radio is a very different beast than american movies. It took 4 decades for, as you say, Canadian-derived music to achieve 40% of airtime. That's far less than the "5% every year," you'd like to mandate for female-written/directed fare for movie theaters.
    All the NATO would have to do is appeal to the studios to lean on Congress for loopholes, (which, as Barack Obama's utter dependence on Hollywood support has shown they would EASILY get!) and your mandate is dead.
    Look, there's no getting around the fact that the only way for female writers/directors to increase is for those women to do more quality work.

    You can whine all you want about the opportunities you feel Hollywood is --or is not-- giving women, but the problem here is female filmmakers are not risk-takers. Think back to the 70's, the wild west era of break-out filmmakers. How many were women. None I can think of. Today we have digital tech that makes it easier than every to make a movie. But consider the video-to-film "phenomenon" of the last 15 years, from Blair Witch to Paranormal Activity. Now ask yourself, how many of those were the work of women? How many of them could have been? The answer in both cases is none.
    Women aren't concerned with making art. They see entertainment as a vehicle for female fantasy wish-fulfillment. Long as they get a bi-annual installment of Twilight or 50 Shades, Hunger Games or some other variety of daydream character choking on her own estrogen they'll be docile and happy.
    Ask women when they'll get off their behinds, up their game, and start doing work people actually want to see.
    Women now, outnumber men on college campuses. But as you've seen, your classes have less and less females in them for the same reasons computer science classes have seen the numbers of women in them decline steadily the last 20 years. Women gravitate to English Lit, Psychology and Nursing. When a field is too competitive or requires more than abstract emotions women are quickly weeded out.
    Social engineering won't change this because women have to want it too, and they don't. Instead of complaining about society or institutional sexism you ought to just focus on improving the bumper crop of female filmmakers in your midst.

    BTW, as the number of female network executives grows I expect that you'll also be complaining soon if/when women's numbers there outstrip their social percentage.
    I'll be waiting to see.

  • Sarah Miller | September 6, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    Thank you for writing this article! I have uttered these very words myself: "I was raised to believe I was equal, and discovered, working in movies, it wasn’t true." It was a very rude awaking!

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