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Guest Post: The Celluloid Ceiling is Much Lower Than You Think

Women and Hollywood By Mary Liz Thomson | Women and Hollywood March 31, 2014 at 2:01PM

I'll never forget one of the first film networking events I went to right after graduating from my MFA program at the top of my class. I've never been groped so much in my life.
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Director Mary Liz Thomson
Director Mary Liz Thomson

After many years working in the film industry, I am struggling in to find work. It's hard for me to admit when I need help, and even harder to ask for it. I got into film so I could tell stories about the world from a woman's voice. It's in my nature to care about social issues and the environment. I've won awards as a director, worked as an editor, and done various jobs for producers and post facilities.

It's true that working in Hollywood is tough and competitive for everyone. I've made my own mistakes, but I believe the biggest impediment has been the industry's rampant sexism. I'm not alone either. A panel of women directors at this year's Sundance discussed how they were routinely judged as not competent enough to be in charge of technical things, no matter how great their experience. The issue is getting more attention. Dozens of articles have been published recently in places like Variety, the LA Times, Huffington Post, Indiewire, Parade, The Hollywood Reporter, and Slate with titles like:

  • Percentage of Women Working Behind the Scenes in Film Drops Below 1998 Levels
  • Men Still Largely Outnumber Women in Movies and TV Shows
  • An Oscar-Nominated Director Gets Real About How Women Are Treated in Hollywood 

Geena Davis' Gender Institute says only 7% of directors are female. What is sometimes called the "celluloid Ceiling" often applies to any job that is creative or technical. 

The biased factors of the film industry have hugely affected my ability to make a living and pursue a directing career. In spite of my drive and educational background, I don't think I can ever get beyond these obstacles without some help or new awareness in the industry. I know a lot of other female filmmakers can relate. Maybe my own story might help explain why.

All I ever wanted to do was direct. Before I went to graduate school at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, I had directed music videos for Island Records and documentaries that were on PBS. I wanted to move on to narrative features, so I studied film and visual effects to become a more advanced storyteller. I thought I could use my computer-graphic skills to make money in the industry as I progressed in directing. It didn't quite work out that way. 

I'll never forget one of the first visual effects networking events I went to right after graduating from my MFA program at the top of my class. I expected to be able to mingle and make new contacts as a fellow professional in cool 3-D software. Instead, I've never been groped so much in my life.

It was an evening event. A lot of alcohol flowed, and it was very crowded, but only about 10% of the techies were women. Just trying to walk through the aisles, I was grabbed on my ass, my boobs -- everything. Most of the other women there were treated similarly. I remember thinking how much it reminded me of the Tailhook sexual-assault scandal.

This is not atypical. Women face these obstacles constantly, which makes it incredibly difficult to get the mentoring and professional connections one needs to move forward. I had another incident just a few months ago, where a man grabbed my leg in the middle of talking with me about editing work. Sometimes it's just a silent process. I might subtly make it clear I'm not interested in dating, and then I usually never hear back from them.

I thought about making a list of all the times sexism cost me a job. I counted at least 38 specific incidents. Here are a few samples of the kind of direct comments I've gotten: I won't tell you how to get a job here unless you go out with me; You're too glamorous for the job; You're distracting; You're a Hollywood Babe -- you don't need a job. These don't include the constant unspoken assumptions that you just aren't competent enough.

I've tried not to be a complainer; my natural instinct is to push on. But I think I haven't spoken out enough. The truth is, I can't solve this problem alone.

After I graduated with an MFA, I had trouble getting Visual FX work. I did manage to get two well-paid directing jobs, though. Before I moved to LA, I directed two complex, feature-length interactive educational projects with Stanford, Harvard and Hewlett Packard. The clients loved my work. But it didn't help me.

When I moved to Los Angeles shortly after this, I was told not to tell anyone I wanted to direct. Take it off your resume. If you want to direct, don't be a first AD. Don't be an editor. Don't be an assistant. No one will ever see you as a director. So what are you supposed to do? There is no apprentice path to becoming a director. Instead, women are routinely shuttled towards the lower-paying assistant and coordinating jobs. I tried to resist that, but I couldn't; it was the only kind of work I could get.

With huge student loans, I could never afford to do an unpaid internship to help me gain a foothold. I remember watching a fellow filmmaker I knew from Germany come to LA and intern for a year with the companies of her choice, paid for by her government. She was able to progress in a logical manner much more easily with this investment, and I always wished I could have had some financial support for mentoring like that. This kind of backing is part of why there are a lot more European female directors.

I have had some great jobs, but the hardest part has been finding enough work to add up to full-time work. This ties back to being judged as not competent enough, no matter how much I do. I think it's similar to what women entrepreneurs face in finding funding. Recent research studies by Stanford and Harvard show that even with identical business plans, men will be rewarded with venture capital 93% more than women. It is a similar bias for women in the film industry pitching their ideas or scripts, or pitching oneself for work. 

All along the way, I have been writing scripts and developing myself in my craft as a filmmaker. I've learned a lot. I'm talented. It has been impossible, though, for me to put enough money aside to direct another work sample of my own. This is the crux of why women can't prove they can direct: Money.

Recently, I worked my way into the opportunity to direct and edit a feature documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari? It was very well received; one reviewer called it "one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen."

Still, I can't find enough work. Even though women direct more documentaries, we cannot use them as a sample to get into better paid directing work through studio shadow-directing and diversity programs. Since I took risks and flexible jobs, my uneven work experience also makes it hard to find a "regular" day job.

I am writing a short sci-fi script for myself to direct as a narrative sample. It's gotten good coverage, and I hope I can raise some money for it. But I need to survive too.

I realize that the whole entertainment industry itself is in flux and it's difficult for a lot of people to find enough work. But there is a larger question of whether women are ever going to be included in any significant numbers.

The truth is we need to be given chances and support, just like men are. 


Mary Liz Thomson is an award winning filmmaker, most recently Director and Editor of the feature documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari?. The film won 6 awards, and is an inside account of the battle with Big Timber to save the last of California‚Äôs ancient redwoods, and a victorious civil rights lawsuit against the FBI.   She has an extensive background in development of indie and studio movies i.e. Freddy V Jason, Post and VFX producing for Features and TV, SyFy Channel movies, and the Sundance TV series The Sierra Club Chronicles.  

This article is related to: Women Directors


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