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Universal Chief Donna Langley: There is No "Magic Bullet" to Improve Number of Women Directors Working on Studio Films

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by Melissa Silverstein
July 11, 2014 1:39 PM
5 Comments
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Donna Langley
Monica Almeida/The New York Times Donna Langley

The Summer DGA Quarterly has hit and director Nicole Holofcener is on the cover. I have been told that Nicole is only the second-ever female director to be featured on the cover, the first being Nancy Meyers.

In the issue, Universal Pictures Chair Donna Langley answered some questions (read the full piece) about how to improve the number of women directors working on studio films. The bottom line is: She has no idea how to do it, nor does she seem inclined to push the issue. She says she and her colleagues need to do better, but she has no ideas on how to do it.

Here's her answer to the question about why there aren't more directing jobs for women:

I don’t think there is a magic bullet answer. Inequality for women is prolific in many different businesses. Whatever the reason, we are not doing a good enough job getting to women early enough in their careers, supporting them, and enabling them to pursue careers in directing. I think the decision makers, and I will include myself in that, [need to do more]. There is a tendency to look at product produced by the studios as being predominantly male when we’re talking about tentpoles and big-effects movies. We’re going after the male audience; we [need to] challenge ourselves to really examine whether or not you can make a big tentpole movie for women. We did it with our own Snow White and the Huntsman, so it can be done. But until those attitudes change, we’re not going to see a big change in the numbers.


Some thoughts on this answer. First, it's great that she recognizes that women need support earlier in their careers, but what about the women who are ready to direct studio films? There is no recognition that there are women out there ready to work for her, and I don't get a sense that Universal is ready to give a woman a tentpole job. That being said, Langley actually has three women-directed movies in the pipeline. None of them are tentpoles, but they will get noticed: Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, Sam Taylor-Johnson's Fifty Shades of Grey, and Elizabeth Banks' directorial debut Pitch Perfect 2.

Also, it is upsetting to read that they are still so focused on the male audience and there is still so much uncertainty whether there can be successful tentpoles for women since we know that there have been many recent successful examples like The Hunger Games, Frozen and Twilight.

Then she gets asked directly whether women can direct the big films about men, the tentpoles as they look like now. She responds yes, but then goes on to say that a woman won't get the job because she doesn't interview many women for those positions:

In my own experience, when we have an open directing assignment of any kind, not just the big films, I would say it is the exception, not the rule, that there is a woman in the group of directors that we are interviewing. I think that’s from the pool being so small. 

At least she's honest. But it's still egregious that women are not included on job candidacy shortlists. And perhaps most depressingly, Langley never says that hiring more women directors for studio films -- the movies that play at 85% of theaters across America -- would be a positive development. 

Langley is a woman in Hollywood with power. If she wants to do better, as she says she does, here's one thing she can do right away. The next time she gets a list of directors for a film and there is not a single woman on it, she can tell her staff to add at least one woman. Universal -- and all the other studios, of course -- just need to go back to the agencies and managers and ask for their female directing clients. 

Qualified, experienced, talented, and willing female filmmakers are out there.

Each studio head should make a commitment to at least interview one female director with the proper credits for each open directing job. It's not the magic bullet, but it is at least a start.

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5 Comments

  • Kathy | July 12, 2014 12:23 AMReply

    Dona Langley seems happy to be a gender decoy - a female leader who supports the male-dominated status quo. Langley would have NEVER become the leader of Universal Studios without decades of feminist activism. She needs to stop taking from the feminist movement and give something back to it.

  • Tess | July 11, 2014 4:42 PMReply

    I find Ms. Langley's comments to be disingenuous, and more than a little ridiculous. If she wants hiring directives for women directors to change, she -- and other women with hiring authority in her ranks, need to issue the edict. Make it a priority, and things will change. Stop passing the buck. DO something.

  • Linn D. | July 11, 2014 4:23 PMReply

    Hear hear! The following directors have all directed strong enough features in the past to at least earn the right to an interview: Debra Granik, Kimberly Peirce, Mary Harron, Shari Springer Berman (and Robert Pulcini), Patty Jenkins, Sarah Polley, Courtney Hunt, Lone Scherfig, Lisa Cholodenko, Nicole Holofcener, and Lynne Ramsay. That's not even counting the up and coming female directors...

  • Finn | July 11, 2014 4:12 PMReply

    Reading Langley's comments made me want to vomit. Just churns my stomach, the impenetrable brick wall that is any kind of significant progress in women participating as equal partners.

  • Debbie Zipp | July 11, 2014 4:06 PMReply

    You are right Melissa! It is egregious that she isn't pro-active on this issue and more informed about all the highly talented and experienced female directors out there being in her present seat of power! I know it must have been an extremely tough fighting the battle and the boys club to get to this position. But She is part of the problem. She IS a decision maker. If a woman can't have the back of women when they are in power how are the attitudes she talks about going to change?! This just infuriated me. No one is asking for a quota or a handout if they legitimately don't feel a particular female director is right for the job but at some point decision makers like her have to force the issue and at least look at women directors as a valid option. Open your eyes and mind and take bigger chances Donna Langely!!!

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