After I completed my survey of New Zealand feature directors by gender, I wanted to put the New Zealand statistics alongside those from other countries. It's impossible to do this globally. The figures are unavailable for Lebanon, for instance. Lebanon has about the same population as New Zealand, but a very different cinema history and no state funding. And it's impossible to make exact comparisons between countries; the available figures often measure something different or differently. In the United States, the volume of filmmaking of all kinds makes it impossible to establish a comprehensive picture. But here's some information which gives a general idea, for directors of narrative feature films only (Nicola Depuis' thesis on Irish women screenwriters offers related research on women in that country's industry).
Australia (five years to mid 2011) 18%
Canada (2010) 16% (all state-funded) via Women in View
France (2010) 21% (state-funded, but with lower budgets than men-directed films) my research
New Zealand (2010) 16% (same percentage in both state-funded and not state-funded lists) my research
Norway (2010) 19% (from the Norwegian Film Institute database, not known if all state-funded)
Sweden (2010) 11% (19% of all state-funded films) via Swedish Film Institute
United States (2011-12) 18% (films from round the world shown at selected United States festivals) via Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film
United States (2010) 7% (250 top-grossing films, a steady decrease from 9% in 1998; 5% in 2011) via Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. I better understood this especially low percentage and the decrease when I saw this graphic.
For the first time, I feel confident that although there are some local differences the percentage of women directors of narrative features is about the same everywhere in the world. Consider these figures in association with the percentage of films with women as protagonists (thank you, Miss Representation!), 16 percent, and it's obvious the problem is serious as well as complex.
But there's hope! By chance I received an email that shows that women who make decisions within the entertainment industry are not only aware of the problem but trying to analyse it and seek solutions. The notes helped me think and I hope they're helpful for you, too.
I don’t know where these women met, two middle-aged women, two Queen Bees. They live on different continents and they work in different sectors of the entertainment industry. Each is a major decision maker with a biiiiig budget. Was it an airport lounge? A conference? A film festival? An awards ceremony? A party? Anyway they were talking and the conversation turned to women directors. And one of them took notes which, much later, she sent to me. (I get many more emails from people I don’t know than I get comments here, even though there’s an ‘Anonymous’ option.) My understanding from the brief email – this is a very busy woman – is that both participants in the conversation have a strong commitment to women who write and direct feature films. But I have no idea whether they want 'the loud trembling unspoken story of women can break through' or simply to ensure that more women are employed in the industry. The good news, however, is that these two appear not to be like those to whom Jodie Foster referred last year, when it was mentioned that many studio executives do, in fact, look like her — a 48-year-old white female veteran of the industry:
...the lists that come out of the female studio executives: guy, guy, guy, guy. Their job is to be as risk-averse as possible. They see female directors as a risk.After I read the notes I asked to publish them without attribution. Here they are, with warm thanks to the women concerned, in three parts, slightly edited for clarity (I hope).
1. Women's commitment
Do women directors really want to make movies? Some women take time out for childrearing and then won’t make the commitment required.
2. Women often have specific needs – more intensive support, to be enabled, to have their confidence built
Each one requires a bespoke pathway and mentoring. There’s a need to ‘curate individuals’.
3. At the moment the pathways don’t always work. [These are pathways established within 'the industry' presumably, because that's where these women are located, far away from processes like crowdfunding.] What kinds of structures and pathways might work, eg short films to one-hour films?
I've thought a lot about these notes over the last few weeks, as I consider the motivations of the writer characters in my Muriel Rukeyser play, Throat of These Hours. My thoughts are below the jump if you want to read them. But I hope that when you look at the stats and read these Queen Bee notes, you'll have your own thoughts. And I'd love to hear what they are!
1. Women’s commitment
a. Do women writers/directors really want to make movies?
When I listed New Zealand features across the last decade, I wondered about this too. With one exception (a tiny 6 percent of all features women directed) – Athena Tsoulis and her Jinx Sister – women in New Zealand have written and directed feature films only if their project has government funding. In contrast – thanks to an anonymous comment for this calculation – 44 percent of the listed features that men wrote and directed were made without government funding. In theory, digital cameras give women directors like Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister's Sister)
... freedom to pick up a camera, and call [my] friends and say, ‘let’s go make a movie! And if we fail, like, we’ll just shove it under the rug.In theory, 'new' filmmaking helps all filmmakers clear the financing hurdle. And Anne Thompson of Indiewire thinks it will help women in particular:
The new indie model that is emerging is much more collaborative — barter talent, share roles. All these filmmakers are sort of roaming the country helping each other make films in all these different locations and all these different ranges of experiences and it works. Women are really good at that kind of thing.I love Lynn Shelton's concept and Anne Thompson's acknowledgment that women are very good at the kind of collaboration she describes. Both remind me of quilt-making processes, shared creative activity over an extended period. But this kind of filmmaking's not happening among women in New Zealand. Why?
Is it because women's economic position makes it impossible for us to do one more thing for which we are not paid (let alone 'roam the country')? Women in New Zealand earn less than men, though how much less isn't a simple calculation. The amount differs depending on whether we look at the hourly, weekly, annual, with or without overtime figures; different surveys provide different answers. Most people use the average (or sometimes median) hourly ordinary time earnings, for which the answer is about 10 percent, the narrowest of all the measured gaps.* More precisely, a while back, in Portrait of the Artist, Creative New Zealand (CNZ) provided specific figures for New Zealand artists – including writers and filmmakers – and some gendered analysis. The research showed that the median income for all artists from all sources was only 74 percent of the national median income of all those in employment. But there are significant differences between women and men. Men artists' median income from all sources was 113 percent of national median income but women artists' income from all sources was 54 percent. From all arts work, women artists' median income was just over a third of the income earned by male artists and 11 percent of the national median income. The median income for all women artists from their principal artistic occupation was less than a third of the income earned by men from their principal artistic occupation and 7.5 percent of the national median income. The research was done a while ago, so it's useful to have some Australian data about artists from 2008, the most recent available, via the CoUNTesses:
Australia Council statistics...reveal that two thirds of visual artists are women but that women in the arts (there are no separate income figures for visual artists) earn on average 50 per cent less than men.These realities are exacerbated by the amount of unpaid work all women do. According to the latest New Zealand Time Use Survey the majority of women's work (65 percent) is unpaid and the majority (63 percent) of men's work is paid. In these circumstances, is it surprising that fewer women than men pick up a camera, call up their friends and say 'Let's go make a movie'? is it surprising that fewer women apply for funding? It's altogether possible that the commitment required just to keep our lives on track makes it very very difficult for many women to do more, especially as a team.
I understood this more fully when we re-edited our 48 Hours film. The 48 Hours weekend was manageable, especially as we had one actor and a single indoor location. But after that, the complex work and domestic commitments of the three-person editing group meant that it was a significant challenge for the editor and composer/sound designer to juggle their commitments to complete their parts of the re-edit and for us all to get together at one time and in one place to finish. Even though I'm strongly attracted to the 'quilt-making' concept I can't imagine myself extending it to a feature film because I now understand what it would demand of others. If it's my script, my story, I'm reluctant to accept that commitment from others unless they're paid.
This reluctance is not unique to me as a woman, as I realised when I read an interview with Dean Hewison, director of How To Meet Girls From a Distance, the winner of Make My Movie (the 48 Hours' brother feature film competition). By day Hewison is an asset co-ordinator for Weta Digital. It is, he says, a 50-hour a week job. How To Meet Girls From a Distance was largely written and made after work and on weekends: 'We did it for $100,000 almost exactly, not paying anyone, not paying ourselves. I don't want to make a film with that little money again.' I don't know if the team knew at the outset that no-one would be paid, but I suspect that some women would be reluctant to engage with Make My Movie because it was unlikely they'd be paid. And of course, many women aren't available after work and on weekends because they're doing their unpaid work then anyway.
(Where did the Make My Movie money – from the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and New Zealand on Air (NZOA) – go, if not to people who worked on the movie? Equipment and studio hire? Lawyers? Feeding cast and crew? No idea. And what about the $129,000 that NZOA's Digital Media Fund contributed to the competition's website? That's $229,000 state funding to make a film and if none of it went to the filmmakers where did it go? Who benefits financially from this kind of project is an important issue, especially when the language around funding is often careless. I've read that films made without state funding are 'self-funded', but this is a euphemism. They're not self-funded by a single self, they're funded by all the generous people who contribute time and equipment without payment, who care for the children whose parents donate their time and by people who contribute to crowd-funding campaigns. All these generous people also contribute to state-funded short films and features. And this is how the state-funded How To Meet Girls From a Distance got made, too, though without the crowd-funding.)
Economics including the economics of family responsibilities may be why this year woman directors were attached to only 28% of the applications for the NZFC's Fresh Shorts programmes, one pathway to making feature films; it's well known that the Fresh Shorts director fees are tiny, often deferred (for ever!), and child care costs are not part of budgets.
But economics aren't all. There's also cultural context. For instance, women direct a very small proportion of 48 Hours projects, much less than 28%, even though a single weekend is manageable for most of us. Gender was certainly an issue in Make My Movie, which built on the 48 Hours track record for training film teams in general and male writers and directors in particular. But in contrast, the Inspiring Stories competition had a highly diverse group of participants and finalists and women directors did well. This may be partly because it's a documentary project, but more importantly Inspiring Stories seems to have an inclusive culture and structure that embrace and support women as storytellers.
One element of the problem, I think, is that in many projects, women find it 'easier' to get seduced into other roles, particularly producing roles, for a variety of reasons. People ask me about women producers every time I write about the writer/director statistics. It's happened again recently. My response always is that even though it has 'creative' elements, producing is not storytelling and I'm interested in the storytellers, particularly women who tell stories about women's lives. Furthermore it is *much* easier for a woman to become a producer than to become a writer or director. The barriers are not the same. Using 48 Hours as an example again, although very few women direct 48 Hours projects, there are many who produce them. Earlier this year, in a podcast, Gaylene Preston observed that many women at 48 Hours take a director role alongside men right up to the moment when shooting starts. Then the woman takes one step back and the man takes a step forward. She defers. According to Gaylene, there are many men who would be happy to take a step back if asked by a woman who wants to step forward.
As a producer myself I know that producing has a skill set that I very much enjoy using – working with a community to initiate and complete a project and supporting everyone to make the project work as well as possible. It's hard work and fun and satisfying. The skills are very similar to those necessary to run a household or a small business – problem-solving, assertiveness, support. And they're very similar to those necessary to organise other arts projects. All arts production – a festival, an exhibition, publishing a book – involves finding money and other physical resources for artists to produce and/or disseminate their work, so they can get it in front of an audience, though film production may be more complex than most because of the processes involved and the resources required. And, as with running a household, those with appropriate skills are always in demand. In contrast to producing, scriptwriting and directing are highly specialised and require specific storytelling skills that are not easily transferable from common day-to-day experiences. I had to learn scriptwriting from scratch, and as one highly regarded director told me the other day 'it is arduous writing alone' (and then some). The director's job is specialised and arduous too, with responsibility for what goes into each frame of the film. I love these roles but I'm much less confident about taking them on because I don't have the same long and readily transferable experience that I have when I produce.
b. Some women take time out for childrearing and then won’t make the commitment required.
Is it 'won't' or 'can't' make the commitment, given women's economic and social situation? The other day I followed a tweet stream debate about sexism in the broadcasting industry, following a BAFTA report about career pathways, which had identified some gender problems.
Mothers direct features in New Zealand – the late Merata Mita, Gaylene Preston, Niki Caro, Roseanne Liang, Kirsten Marcon, Simone Horrocks, Dana Rotberg. A common factor from what I know of some of these women's lives seems to be access to a strong community of direct support of all kinds for the woman and for the child, often from extended family. Other women I know have delayed having children until they've made their first feature, and then regretted it. Others probably do take time out for having children and no longer prioritise filmmaking. Or may come (or come back) to features later on when children have left home, like Rosemary Riddell. But this tweet stream is another reminder that women's unpaid work commitments need to be taken into account. I was a little surprised to read the tweet about men and responsibility for child care, because it's been a long time since I've known a father who did not share child care responsibility. I thought those attitudes had changed, even though I knew that filmmaking mothers usually needed more than a supportive partner to get their work done, a larger extended 'family' network.
So what factors that might make a difference, according to those two Queen Bees?
2. Women often have specific needs – more intensive support, to be enabled, to have their confidence built
The larger context is more than individuals' economic and social circumstances, as a gorgeous History of Film graphic reminded me this week. It includes 2000 features in 20 genres, over 100 years. I looked for the films directed by women and found just one before I gave up, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.
Women directors' specific needs are complex. How, for instance, do we address the reality that women don't have a strong tradition of women-directed films to refer to, particularly films that tell stories about women? Yes, there are many women directors, and there were lots of women directors in the early days of cinema. But the film director matrilineage is still fragile and fragmented. It's often hard to find the features that women have made, especially films that are about women. Few women directors have a continuous body of work themselves or access to mature work from a diverse group of women filmmakers. When I heard Ava DuVernay refer to black American filmmaking as in the 'toddler' stage the other day, I thought 'Yes, and that's probably true for women, too, with some isolated exceptions, and Ava's work is central to any discussion about the growth of women's filmmaking'. Talking about her own films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay explained that black filmmakers have not 'been allowed' to mature in their filmmaking. Because there aren't 'enough' black love stories she and others are having to build a tradition from scratch and this affects themes and characterisation (see from 1:50 in the clip below). All women have limited opportunities to 'mature' as directors and if they (we) want to make films about women they (we) may have to cobble together a tradition beyond the dominant male tradition that's entrenched in every one of us. Can we identify a rich, complex, diverse, women's film tradition if collectively we put our minds to it and search globally?
And how does that male tradition become entrenched? Partly by what we see and hear, from an early age. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media's most recent research found that 'no matter what their age, children and teens do not consistently see girls and women in the popular media they consume'. In 'family' films, when MPAA ratings moved up from G-rated to PG-rated 'girls move out' and at every age 'being female is about being sexualised'.
And there are other factors that undermine women directors' potential and create needs like those the Queen Bees identify. I've just returned to writer Tillie Olsen's Silences, a study of the needs and work of creation and the circumstances that obstruct or silence it – gender, economic class, colour, the time-and-place where a writer is born. She was attempting to understand why only one in twelve writers were women, back in the twentieth century. This is what she wrote about women writers, but it could just as well be about women directors:
How much it takes to become a writer [director]. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one's right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one's own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman. The leeching of belief, of will, the damaging of capacity begin so early. Sparse indeed is the literature on the way of denial to small girl children of the development of their endowment as born human: active, vigorous bodies; exercise of the power to do, to make, to investigate, to invent, to conquer obstacles, to resist violations of the self; to think, create, choose; to attain community, confidence in self. Little has been written on the harms of instilling constant concern with appearance; the need to please, to support; the training in acceptance, deferring. Little has been added in our century to George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss on the effect of differing treatment–'climate of expectation'–for boys and for girls. But it is there if one knows how to read for it, and indelibly there is the resulting damage. One – out of twelve.Or, in feature films, one – out of five.
It seems a little strange to return to Tillie Olsen, but I remembered her when I read in CNZ's Portrait of the Artist that women artists are more likely to rate formal classes among their three most important forms of training/experience/skill development, whereas men were more likely to rate self-teaching/learning on the job/practical experience/learning from mentors. I think this difference may offer one reason why women do so well at university (and tend to earn less afterwards) and why in New Zealand we tend to make features only if we're 'good enough' to receive state funding. If the characteristics that Tillie Olsen lists have been leached from us and all we see is a male tradition that features male protagonists and sexualises women and girls, we look for formal structures where we can work hard to fit those structures' expectations. But within these structures, whether it's university courses, the NZFC, or 48 Hours, because male traditions are foregrounded, women tend to take on board the male protagonist and other embedded elements. Tillie Olsen refers to something that academic Elaine Showalter wrote, which for me explains what influences women, and the consequences of those influences. And why, for instance, there hasn't been a single outstanding woman protagonist in New Zealand cinema in the last decade.
Women are estranged from their own experience and unable to perceive its shape and authenticity, in part because they do not see it mirrored and given resonance in literature [/film]...They are expected to identify with masculine experience, which is presented as the human one, and have no faith in the validity of their own perceptions and experiences, rarely seeing them confirmed in literature [/film], or accepted in criticism...[They] notoriously lack the happy confidence, the exuberant sense of the value of their individual observations which enables young men to risk making fools of themselves for the sake of an idea.Tillie Olsen's comment immediately following: 'Harms difficult to work through. Nevertheless, some young women (others are already lost) maintain their ardent intention to write [direct] – fed indeed by the very glories of some of this literature [/film tradition] that puts them down'. I thought about this as I edited an essay this week, about my own writing experience, which documented the benign transmission of the master narrative on one occasion. And again when I read a Bitch Flicks post today, Female Literacy as Historical Framework for Hollywood Misogyny.
Women brought up in households where there are women artists and where making art is 'normal' are hugely advantaged, I think, if they want to write or direct films, perhaps partly because they practise invention and build resilience early, don't experience that early 'denial of capacity' that Tillie Olsen writes about. There's Jane Campion, whose parents established and ran the New Zealand Players and whose mother acted and wrote fiction. In New Zealand, scriptwriter Briar Grace-Smith's mother was a writer and her mother-in-law is a writer. There's Sofia Coppola whose parents are both filmmakers and who thanked 'my mom for always encouraging me to make art' when she won her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation. There's Lena Dunham whose parents are both artists, and who had an extra 'parent' in Nora Ephron, in a relationship that had domestic as well as professional elements and went far beyond what is usually called 'mentoring'. Some women benefit from post-childhood relationships with male artists, too, receive what I've described as 'relationship capital' (and some don't benefit at all from these relationships).
Then there are the actor directors (and often writers) whose acting experience builds their confidence in their story-telling capacity. New Zealand's Gaylene Preston's parents weren't artists but she and her sister participated in arts competitions - music, speech, drama – from an early age. And there are many women who act as adults and direct as well: Maiwenn (Le Bal des Actrices, Polisse); Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go From Here?); Jodie Foster; Brit Marling (co-director Boxers and Ballerinas, co-writer Sound of My Voice, Another Earth); Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground); Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell); Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine). And I bet there's a lot more I could add to the list. My writing buddy's an actor and she reads and writes scripts from a depth of visceral experience that is totally unavailable to me. I suspect that more women actors would direct if not for the kinds of reasons that Meryl Streep articulates here.
But there are many women directors whose historical circumstances are entirely different than those women brought up around women artists or who are actors. Are these the ones that the Queen Bees refer to, who have less confidence and need more intensive support? Like me, in fact!
(‘Confidence’ was highlighted in the WIFTV debate, too.)
a. Each woman requires a bespoke pathway and mentoring. There’s a need to ‘curate individuals’.
These are my favorite two sentences in the notes. 'Bespoke pathway'! 'Curate individuals'! Gorgeous terminology. And this conclusion seems spot on, given the complex obstructions that affect women directors. It means identifying each individual's strengths and identifying what she needs to mature as a director. Does she come from an artist family? Is she an actor? If not, how to accelerate her confidence and experience? Where has she been adversely affected by 'Tillie Olsen' factors? How to support her to transcend them? What specific economic and domestic commitments adversely affect this individual's directing practice? Would some childcare funding make a huge difference? I think it also means making a different kind of longterm commitment to women than those currently made, where individuals are supported through the conventional short film to feature pathways; these work more often for men than for women.
3. What kinds of structures and pathways might work, eg short films to one-hour films? At the moment the pathways don’t always work.
I doubt whether any pathway will work without a widely embraced deep commitment to a cultural shift that acknowledges the long-entrenched social and economic realities that hamper women and prioritises investment in films by women directors and, particularly, their films about women. This shift could happen as a result of a wide understanding that the world needs more films by and about women, and/or simply as a matter of human rights.
My feeling is that this will happen only if extended legal action is part of the shift, because so much energy has already been expended on establishing the facts and advocating for change, without much effect. As I've written before, in Sweden, where the state's Swedish Film Institute is required to work towards gender equality in key film production roles, its success to date has been mixed, but the legal requirement has made the organisation focus on solutions. In the United States, Maria Giese, a member of the Directors Guild of America, is looking beyond government entities, at the big studios. In Women Directors: Navigating the Hollywood Boys Club she writes about the possibility of suing them, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, following Marisa Rothstein's argument re woman playwrights on Broadway. I've long advocated legal action against the NZFC for their inequitable gender investment on the basis that it compromises women's right to participate in public life. But Maria identifies a number of problems including one that I think would exist wherever and whatever legal action was initiated:
Can women get going? Are women willing to fight fear of reprisals from studios, production companies, episodic TV producers and show-runners? More daunting than that, will women overcome their dread of acting in discordance of the urgings from their guild, which for most of DGA members is a beloved entity for which their membership is a mark of distinction and honor?Legal action demands the same level of confidence and commitment that filmmaking does and women directors themselves, ourselves, would most likely prefer to put that energy into making films. Women in Film & Television – in New Zealand anyway – is dependant on the NZFC for their funding, which would be at risk; internationally Women in Film & Television International is about celebration and encouragement, not activism, though its objectives do allow it to 'Develop bold international projects and initiatives'. But could legal action work if women like the Queen Bees and their male allies – including visionary male directors and influencers from other fields – initiated legal action and/or offered support? If lawyers like Marisa Rothstein helped? I like to think so.
Yesterday, the NZFC announced the short list for their Premiere Shorts programme, its most heavily funded pathway to feature making, where decision-making is devolved to three producer groups, which allocate $90,000 to each successful project. Because the NZFC has no gender equity policy, the groups are not required to be proactive in seeking projects with women directors attached, nor as far as I know to keep gender statistics. Of the thirteen short-listed projects only two have women directors attached (15 percent) and there appears to be only one project with a woman protagonist (7 percent). My fantasy this morning is to start another activist PhD, one where I initiate a range of legal actions. In fact it's a little more than a fantasy. Anyone like to join me?
Beyond legal action, which presumably isn't a realistic option for the Queen Bees, I suggest identifying filmmaking programmes which work for women storytellers, like the Inspiring Stories competition, to learn how and why they succeed. Brainstorming about the best ways to curate individuals and to establish bespoke pathways, too. And then becoming proactive. Would a rigorous five-year Outward Bound-type programme help, with lots of challenges for a whole group, alongside bespoke pathways? In New Zealand, this might include identifying the few women directors at 48 Hours, some of whom participate year after year, and some of whom do engage with the NZFC short film programmes, and asking 'How Can We Help?' Why them? Because they've already demonstrated commitment and participated in a very male-oriented event. Repeatedly. They're motivated. What will help them move forward? Here and elsewhere, it might involve bringing together women who've made one or two short films or features and asking the same question plus another 'What Do You Need Over The Next Decade To Mature Your Work?' It would be great to have a website of films by and about women and a social media component that encouraged debate about the films and their audiences so we become really clear about what our matrilineal film tradition includes and can be built on. Women Directors: Navigating the Hollywood Boys Club provides a forum for women directors to talk about their experiences, but what will encourage more women directors to write there and once having written to take action? And what action could they safely take?
I often return to Jane Campion's well known question: "Women may be 50% of the population but they gave birth to the whole world, why wouldn't we want to know what they think and feel?" (I want to know what women who don't give birth think and feel, too.) But today I feel a sense of urgency, from Eve Ensler, whose words begin this post and from playwright Theresa Rebeck, quoted by Marisa Rothstein at the beginning of her article. The quote comes from the end of a talk that Theresa gave in 2010, reprinted in Women & Hollywood. It's an extraordinary, marvellous talk (check it out!) and Theresa concluded
It’s time to hear both sides, to hear all voices, to build a culture where stories are told by both men and women. That is the way the planet is going to survive, and it’s the way we are going to survive.Both sides. All voices. How can it happen?
PS I like to think that we can collectively do a Patti Smith. Watch her take over the stage!
*Thanks to economist Prue Hyman for this.