Why Does Hollywood Make It So Hard for Women Directors to Make It in Film?
March 10, 2023
We would like to thank the Academy for nominating and recognizing the work of more women directors, but they didn’t. Oscar season may as well be called Old Boys Club season. None of the Academy Award nominations announced on January 21 included such filmmakers as Gina Prince-Bythewood, Maria Schrader, Sarah Polley, or Charlotte Wells, who directed The Woman King, She Said, Women Talking, and Aftersun respectively. That’s because the power structures that keep the privileged tushies of cishet white men in the director’s chair are deeply entrenched. In this excerpt from The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, Naomi McDougall Jones explains just how deeply entrenched it is.
For female directors fortunate enough to be working, they can expect the average production budget for their film to be smaller than those of their male peers. Film budgets shrink by 20 percent when a woman has the starring role due to untrue but enduring industry “common knowledge” that “no one wants to see films about women.” Since female directors are more likely to either choose or be given films with female leading characters, they disproportionately suffer from these smaller budgets that are assigned to such films.
Not only is it harder to carry out your creative vision as a director when you have fewer resources, but these smaller budgets have led to a couple of key misperceptions. The first is that that women are only equipped to direct dramas and maybe comedy and so are rarely hired for lucrative genres, such as action films or thrillers. “Males, in contrast, work across all genres.” The reality is that there is no substantiating evidence that there is any difference in the proportion of women versus men who choose to direct drama versus other genres at the indie film level. The majority of all indie films are dramas, because that’s the genre you can most easily make work when you’re dealing with tiny budgets.
The second misperception is that women only like to direct small, intimate films. Again, this is circumstance-driven more than anything else—if you have a limited budget, the only real option available to you is to make small, intimate films. You can’t make Star Wars on a million bucks.
Female directors are then constantly handed the extra baggage of having to go out of their way to disprove these entrenched misperceptions in their work. Jenni Gold, who feels the weight of having to bust stereotypes of women and of women in wheelchairs, chose to direct an action film for her first feature. “I wanted to prove that anywhere a dolly can go, I can go. I blew stuff up. I loved blowing stuff up!”
Of course, because she’s a woman and a woman in a wheelchair, she had to blow stuff up with far less money. “I just once want a real budget,” Jenni told me. “It’s like being told, okay, you and this guy are going to have to each make a chair. And he’s going to have cushions and plywood and steel, and you’re going to have a toothpick. Then those chairs get judged against one another.”
When women are hired into positions of leadership on set or on a production, they often have to fight to command the respect from typically majority-male crews.
Director Jaclyn Gramigna showed up on the set of a film and a production assistant walked up to her and said, “Oh, good. I’m here. I’m going to get the director a coffee. Can you watch the van?” Except that Jaclyn, in spite of being a woman, was the director of the film, not, as he assumed, another production assistant.
One rising star female film producer—we’ll call her Bee—was working with a special effects professional on a film, and the objects he was creating were consistently of lesser quality than she’d requested. Bee called him up and asked, “Why are you sending us objects that are subpar?”
“Excuse me, but how many films have you made?” he shot back.
“Five films. All of them have been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards and one of them won one of the top film festivals in the world.”
The props came back better after that.
These scenarios are so prevalent that an entire Tumblr account has been dedicated to it. If you ever want to spend a couple of hours on something that is equally hysterical and soul-crushing, visit shitpeoplesaytowomendirectors.tumblr.com.
Ava DuVernay, famously, when she (finally) got her first studio job directing Selma, anticipated this problem—which is compounded for a woman of color. She took each one of her crew members out for coffee prior to the shoot and let them know who was boss. She didn’t have any problems, such as lack of respect or being mistaken for a PA, but has said she is 100 percent sure she would have had she not taken that extra step.
The work of filmmaking is difficult and strenuous enough without the added obstacle of having to constantly prove your authority and worth on your own set. Or not getting credit for work you’ve done, as also frequently happens to women in film, as in other industries. Or getting fewer resources than a man would.
Fueling all of this discrimination is the film industry’s fetishization of the male “genius” auteur filmmaker. A prime example of this mythic status is George Lucas, without question one of Hollywood’s Boy Wonder geniuses. In 1977, however, before he was George Lucas, he invited some friends over to watch a rough cut of the first Star Wars film. Brian de Palma, one of the friends and fellow filmmakers present, according to Steven Spielberg, who was also present, reportedly called the film “nonsense” and said it didn’t make any sense. Hearing the criticism, Lucas hired de Palma and screenwriter Jay Cox to rewrite the entire opening crawl, asking them to please help him make sense of the story. Even more crucially, Lucas’s then-wife Marcia Lucas, Richard Chew, and Paul Hirsch—all of whom were editors for the film—heavily reworked the film in post-production to the extent of cutting most of the first half, inserting basic plot points, and reordering dialogue within scenes to create completely different meanings. That iconic male classic, Star Wars, was saved in the edit, primarily by a woman most people have never heard of. None of this is a secret. Lucas’s entire original cut of the film is available on YouTube, along with some great commentaries and mash-ups showing the differences between the original and eventually released versions.
Hollywood also knows this—and has acknowledged it. In a sly nod, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Marcia and Paul the Best Editing Oscar for the film, while snubbing Lucas for Best Director. Yet Lucas is the one who gets the lone male genius auteur label.
None of Lucas’s work has ever been done alone. No filmmaker does it alone. And those considered to be the best filmmakers in the world are so, in part, because they surround themselves with the best teams of people. Every film is the sum total of a collaboration, many times the collaboration of a hundred artists or more, and it is virtually impossible to know, when watching the end product, which of those artists was responsible for what. As the lead voice for how a film comes together and as the person in charge on set, a director’s role is absolutely crucial. But the final product of their work is not based on solitary effort. Neither is their success or failure.
Where this becomes particularly problematic is that women do not benefit from the genius myth. When a woman’s film succeeds, it’s because of the team effort, and a female director is frequently replaced on the sequels since her work isn’t seen as all that crucial. When her film fails, however, the failure is hers alone.
About the Author
Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning actress, writer, and producer. Her TED Talk, “What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood,” ignited a global outpouring of support for the women in film movement. Naomi has written, produced, and acted in two award-winning independent feature films, Imagine I’m Beautiful (2014) and Bite Me (2019), and she is the author of The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood. Connect with her at naomimcdougalljones.com and on Twitter (@NaomiMcDougallJ).