Glass Ceiling

Hollywood’s Women Problem: Why Female Filmmakers Have Hit the Glass Ceiling

Despite making up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, women are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, comprising 17 percent of directors, writers, and producers. The situation is dire.

03.22.15 10:45 AM ET

In 1998, women comprised a measly 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, and executive producers working on top-grossing films made in the U.S. And in 2014, women comprised 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, and executive producers working on top-grossing films made in the U.S.

These stagnant statistics are part of a yearly study, “The Celluloid Ceiling,” conducted by Dr. Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. Dr. Lauzen started her study in 1998 to clarify some public disparities.

“I noticed a disconnect between reports on women's status in the film and television industries and the behind-the-scenes credits,” Dr. Lauzen says. “Media reports suggested that the numbers of women working in the businesses were at an all-time high. But the number of credits and representations I saw on screen didn't seem to match the hype.” Sadly, she was right.

In her latest, 2014 installment of “The Celluloid Ceiling,” looking at the 250 top-grossing films of the year, including such films as The LEGO Movie, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, etc., the study found that women made up 23 percent of producers, 19 percent of executive producers, 18 percent of writers, 7 percent of directors (down two percent from 1998) and 5 percent of cinematographers. Also, women only directed 17 of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014.

In recent articles for the New York Times and The New Yorker, film critics Manohla Dargis and Richard Brody speculate that what accounts for these figures are the six biggest studios deciding which films to make (and which not) and the critics reviewing them.

“In part,” says Dr. Lauzen of the explanation for why these figures have remained virtually the same, “many of the powers-that-be in the mainstream film industry have not perceived the under-employment of women as problematic. If you don't identify a situation as dysfunctional, you're not going to take steps to significantly change that situation.”

With International Women’s Day celebrated this month, highlighting women’s achievements worldwide, it seemed pertinent to see how women were faring as filmmakers not just in the U.S., but around the world, too.

Headed by Dr. Stacy Smith, the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California published a study in 2014 called “Gender Bias Without Borders” exploring “the visibility and nature of female depictions in films worldwide,” and featuring statistics on women’s off-camera work. The study analyzed films from the ten “most profitable territories internationally,” including Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, as well as films from the U.S. and films made via collaborations between the U.K. and the U.S. Ten popular films were chosen from each territory, having been released between early 2010 and mid-2013. Averaged together, overall figures were not much different abroad: women made up 7 percent of directors, 19.7 percent of writers, and 22.7 percent of producers.   

Asked about some of the difficulties women face in creating films abroad, Maike Mia Höhne, a film curator at the Berlin Film Festival, one of the biggest and most highly regarded international festivals in the world, explains that in Germany, at least, the problem starts at the very basic point of planning out a life.

“I think,” she says over email, “at least here in Germany, you can still find yourself in discussions about good and bad mothers—good being the ones at home, bad being the ones ‘far’ away from home. So, without getting deeper into this point, we, women, need more role models. Women combining different lives into one.” So the problem, she says, is deep-seeded, and cultural. Still, the number of female filmmakers at the festival is comparatively high. In 2015’s festival, 30 percent of the films were directed by women.

Opening the Berlin Film Festival this year was renowned Spanish director Isabel Coixet with her film Nobody Wants the Night, which tells the story of two women, an American and an Inuit (played by Juliette Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi, respectively), struggling to survive in the North Pole while fighting for the affection of explorer Robert Peary. Coixet is originally from Barcelona, Spain, and has, since beginning her career in 1988, directed seven feature-length films, as well as documentaries, shorts, and commercials.

One of the first questions asked at Night’s press conference was how Coixet felt being the first female director to open the festival. She was bored. Not by being the first (which she says she was not), but by the question itself. It’s one she’s been faced with every year since she started in film.

“You don’t leave your tits and your vagina in your room before going to set,” she said at the conference. “You do films as you are.” Sitting in a café in her borough of Brooklyn, Coixet reflects on that day and the film industry at large.

“They never look at you with the same eyes,” she says of the treatment of men versus women. “Producers, distributors, reviewers—everyone.” Even for a veteran, she says, the process is a battle. Reviews for the film were harsh, for example, with critics asking about the merit of telling the stories of the explorer’s lover and wife as opposed to that of the explorer himself. And, they’d insinuate, that of course it was because she’s a woman that Coixet would tell these stories of women. The script, however, had been written by a man.

Working on another film project, Coixet recently encountered another shocking example of the mistreatment of women in cinema. A Hollywood financier sent her a list.

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“It was a list of actresses with three different values,” she says. “One was ‘A’, one was ‘B’, and one was ‘No Value’… I’m wondering, do they do lists like this for men? Is this a slave market?”

Among her other projects—producing a short film by up-and-comer Jennifer Cox, producing a pilot for a TV series called Foodie Love, and adapting Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop, Coixet is currently serving as president of the European Women’s Audiovisual network, or EWA, promoting greater gender equality in Europe in the audiovisual fields. The organization is researching the status of women and striving to make a coalition among them. With the economic, political, and societal situations in so much upheaval on the continent, it seems a key time to unite women as artists, she says. Among these countries, it seems France is leading the way.

“I think women are much more respected in France,” she says. “Even if you see the ministers—they are half of the cabinet.”

“You know,” she concludes, agreeing with Höhne, “it’s a culture thing.” So, ultimately, in every society, it goes deep. And in order to accomplish real change we must alter long-standing attitudes concerning gender roles in society. 

Describing the film industry in talks and at universities, Coixet uses a metaphor: the industry is like a rocky mountain. Boys climb the mountain equipped with boots and picks and axes, and girls must climb the mountain naked except for a pair of stilettos and a suitcase filled with stones. So, ultimately, what does a woman really have when making a film?

“Well,” says Coixet, “she has herself.”