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Hollywood's Glass Ceiling: Why Doesn't the Film Industry Trust Women?

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by Melissa Silverstein
July 2, 2013 6:15 AM
10 Comments
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Here's a piece I wrote for CNN's Leading Women section:

It would be wonderful to say that in 2013 things were looking up for women in Hollywood -- both onscreen and behind the scenes -- but the sad news is that the numbers have remained consistently dismal for the last decade. In 2012, in the US, women made up 18% of the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. And women directors accounted for just 9%.

It's clear that Hollywood has a woman problem. It's not just that they don't trust the vision of a woman to direct; they don't trust that people want to see our stories. There's a prevailing sense that male stories are universal, for everyone, and that women's stories are just for women.

Just look around at your local movie theater and you will see that the male action superhero films have become the dominant narratives of our time. Just this summer, we have already seen the release of the latest versions of "Superman", "Iron Man", "Star Trek", "The Fast and the Furious", and still to come are "The Lone Ranger", "Thor", "Grown Ups", "The Wolverine" among many, many others. The message is loud and clear -- these are the movies that matter -- not only to Hollywood, but, increasingly to the world, as the international box office now accounts for almost 70% of the grosses of these films. And none of the films above are directed by women.

The reality that female directors and producers and writers deal with is the ongoing perception that women will go see movies about men and that men won't go see stories about women. The success of "Bridesmaids" in 2011 helped diminish the case slightly, as did "The Hunger Games" in 2012. But even though women buy half the movie tickets, this perception persists especially for those who want to tell women's stories.

Another problem is that because there are so few movies about women, the ones that are released are held up to absurd scrutiny. If you fail the entire gender is blamed and we take two steps back, but on the other hand, if you are a success you can't get a sequel made because women's successes are still seen as flukes. We are stuck in a catch 22.

It is worth noting that this summer in the sea of superhero films, there are only two films with women leads being distributed by the major studios. "The Heat" is an original comedy, written by a woman Katie Dippold and directed by Paul Feig, the director of "Bridesmaids". It stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy both at the top of their game in a genuinely hysterical film. "City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments" is the latest attempt to build off the success of the "Twilight" franchise.

While neither of the movies being released by the studios is directed by a woman, there are a handful of women directed films you can see this summer, at least here in the US. We have films from Sofia Coppola, Susan Seidelman, Margarethe von Trotta, Shari Springer Berman, Rama Burshtein, Jerusha Hess, Katie Aselton, Maggie Carey and Lake Bell. The problem is that all of these films are small, don't have superheroes flying or cities blowing up. These films will be available on a limited amount of screens, so you need to live in place that has more than just a local multiplex or else you will easily miss these films and your entire summer can go by without seeing a single film by a female director.

But even though the statistics are still dismal, there are women breaking through all across Hollywood. The reality is that there are women decision makers at all levels in the business. Amy Pascal has been successful as the head of Sony for several years. And just last week a new three person team was named to run Warner Brothers and it includes a woman -- Sue Kroll. And let's not forget Kathryn Bigelow who broke through and became the first female to win an Oscar for best director. She can make any movie she wants at any studio. But she chose to make her last film "Zero Dark Thirty" with an independent producer Megan Ellison, who has made quite a name for herself over the last couple of years. And while there are still not enough women directed films at the top tier festivals, this year for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival there was parity in both the US documentary and feature competitions.

But we need more women and more female role models as directors because movies have such power in our culture. They are a reflection of who we are and what we value. They are what we talk about at work on Monday morning. They are how we socialize. When we don't see women, and we don't see women's stories, we get the message that women don't matter as much, that our stories don't count, that our experiences are less valid. And that's something that is just not acceptable.

Hollywood's Glass Ceiling: Why Doesn't the Film Industry Trust Women? (CNN)

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10 Comments

  • Ashley | July 19, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    I think before we see more women behind the camera or in seats of power, we will need to see women on more equal footing with men outside of Hollywood. With women still making roughly $.82 to every dollar that their male counterparts are earning, how can we expect anyone to take us serious?

  • Ashley | July 19, 2013 1:54 AMReply

    I totally agree with this article. The presence of women in movies and behind the scenes of films is far too low and does give the impression that this is a male-dominated industry and should stay that way. When audiences don't see women's point of view, or aren't evening willing to see a women's point of view, a serious social problem develops that goes far beyond the culture of film. It creates the idea that a man's point of view is more valuable as well as easier to relate to. I am glad that you are bringing attention to this issue and hopefully expanding some perspectives (however most people venturing to this website are probably somewhat like-minded). Lastly, I completely agree with your point about the successes and failures of women producers as a catch-22; either way they aren't taken as seriously and it's not only unfair, it's unjust. Thank you for writing about this important issue.

  • Sarah | July 12, 2013 1:29 AMReply

    Seeing films like "Bridesmaids" and "Bad Teacher" was such a relief. I finally felt like there were films out there being made for female viewers. Why aren't there more films like them?

  • Alice Paul | July 7, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    Great article Melissa. The male run studios discriminate openly against women as creative voices in terms of writing and directing. They shoved into rom com territory and they've decided they are making no rom coms anymore. Disney and Warners don't hire women. And they woman you mention at WB is in marketing.
    Women need to direct but women need to write too. Like many media you ignore writing to a great degree despite the fact you are one. A director can't direct 120 pieces of blank paper. Execs, producers, directors, writers must all work together. Sadly when women were making in roads in film in the 90's Lynda Obst, Kathleen Kennedy didn't hire or mentor women as directors. These women had a moment and they were islands onto themselves hoping it would magically get better for the next generation. It's not just about breaking through, mentoring must happen as well. It sounds like a lot of work but when there's an opening in the glass ceiling we need to reach out and pull a few sisters through with us before it closes up again.

  • Metalfan1999 | July 4, 2013 11:33 AMReply

    Wow, and I thought CA was the Mecca for equality. How can this be? How can there be sexual discrimination in the People's Republic? What is the Gov doing to combat this? I hope there is a commission set-up by Barack h and the Gov.

    Seriously though, where are the protests from thee omen lib groups? Oh, gotta wait for a repub to be elected first. LOL

  • Metalfan1999 | July 4, 2013 11:32 AMReply

    Wow, and I thought CA was the Mecca for equality. How can this be? How can there be sexual discrimination in the People's Republic? What is the Gov doing to combat this? I hope there is a commission set-up by Barack h and the Gov.

    Seriously though, where are the protests from thee omen lib groups? Oh, gotta wait for a repub to be elected first. LOL

  • Angela | July 2, 2013 1:21 PMReply

    Great article. Interesting to see the percent of women in Hollywood that accounted for Women directors, 9% is low, but I think there is hope for women, in Hollywood. The more women are celebrated and successful, the better off women in Hollywood will be. Successful women in the film industry represent our culture and show what we value. Recently studied in a Women Studies class about women in film, the lack of successful women in the film industry was a focus in the class. We talked about how women like to go see "men" films because no matter what the film is about women seem to find a way to connect with the characters in the film regardless of their gender. Overall good article, with interesting facts that show women need to be represented in Hollywood more now than ever.

  • Tom Haverford | July 2, 2013 11:59 AMReply

    Great article, as usual. I'd only point out that Fast & Furious 6 isn't quite as male-oriented as a story about racing might appear, since Michelle Rodriguez has her own story arc, her and Gina Carano have two major one-on-one fights that illustrate both their sparring capabilities, and Gal Gadot gets her time to shine as well.

  • No | July 2, 2013 9:41 AMReply

    Perhaps I misread it, but Alyssa Rosenberg was nearly blaming Kristen Wiig for not doing a sequel to "Bridemaids" as one reason for women not making in the film world on Slate.

  • Katie Carman-Lehach | July 2, 2013 9:24 AMReply

    Fantastic article Melissa! Though it of course pains me to think that such a low number of women working in Hollywood could be anything close to "success". It is improvement, but still
    so far from where we need to be.

    I recently read about Pixar announcing that they would produce an 'original' film a year and fewer sequels -- I wondered if any studios would ever make such a bold statement such as Pixar, but to say "We are going to produce X numbers of films a year by women, or about women, etc." I think it would be a fantastic way for a company to stand out and show they are on the right side of history, promoting women artists and women's stories. (I know, I know, an impossible dream for sure...but still. Maybe it could happen?)

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