Why are so few women directing blockbusters?

Hollywood Hills – Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

How many female directors can you name?

Don’t feel self conscious about the answer, when I asked myself the question I was lost after three. Google helped me to realise that I had seen films and television shows from a few more than that, but very few of them have ever been given the two-hundred million dollar budget of the modern blockbuster.

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism recently carried out a study to explore the lack of female directors of big budget cinema in Hollywood, and last month The Guardian compiled stories from nine women working across the film industry regarding their experiences with sexism.

A number of interesting things were revealed by these two pieces, first, women directors predominantly find success in low budget cinema, such as short fiction and documentaries. But very few are able to get bigger budget projects off the ground, the reason seeming to be that executives do not trust women with big budgets.

There are a number of possible reasons for this, but the most interesting is the fear by executives that if they vouch for a female director on a project and then they mess up, it will reflect badly on the executive.

This rationale is used to explain how women executives, who are invariably outnumbered by men in their job, can also cave to a peer pressure that breeds this institutional inequality.

One female Director and former karate master, Lexi Alexander, has a rather telling story about a driver who refused to believe that she was a director and so refused to drive her.

Sexism in the industry seems to show itself in subtle ways, though sometimes it’s outright obvious. One unnamed action movie star apparently threw out the possibility of a female director on an unnamed project because he “refuses to be directed by a woman.”

An Endemic Issue in the Industry

These problems are of course faced by more than just directors, The Guardian article speaks to women with experience in every area of production – from screenwriters and costume designers, to cinematographers and editors.

The one area it does not focus on however, is the actors, who by no means have it easier. There seem to be just as many accounts of sexual advances from movie bosses today, under the guises of an audition, as there ever have been. And as female actors get older their casting opportunities become less and less varied.

Liv Tyler, who you’ll know from Armageddon and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has said that at 38 she’s only being offered parts as either The Wife or The Girlfriend, which is understandably frustrating after playing a badass like Arwen.

An even bigger issue for female actors however is the disparity in their pay when compared to their male co-stars. Last years Sony hack revealed that Jennifer Lawrence’s pay for the film American Hustle was less than her male co-stars’, despite her arguably being the films biggest box office draw.

On the subject of disparities in her own pay compared to her co-stars in the Iron Man movies, Gwyneth Paltrow had this to say: “It can be painful. Your salary is a way to quantify what you’re worth. If men are being paid a lot more for doing the same thing, it feels shitty.”

Again, the issue seems to be the same as with women directors; executives do not seem to be comfortable giving the women they employ large amounts of money, be it in budgets or pay.

Finding Success Elsewhere

To escape the problems of budgetary issues, many female writers and directors in recent years have been finding work and recognition in television.

Arguably the best example of this being Michelle Maclaren who has directed episodes for The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad – the latter of which she has won two Prime Time Emmy’s for as an executive producer.

In writing (and this may come as a surprise to some) Mad Men’s writing staff at one point was composed nearly entirely of women, seven of the nine writers, and throughout its run had a significant number of its departments composed of and run by women.

So we come to the question again, why is it so difficult for aspiring Directors like these to make it into cinema?

Ultimately, it comes down to just plain old boring prejudice, there is no real justification for it, it’s just a status quo that’s been perpetuated for too long that nobody is quite certain how to fix. Some suggest introducing diversity quotas, others believe that the solution will only come as more women reach positions of control in studios and the system becomes less dominated by men.

The landscape seems to be changing little by little, we are at least talking about it in mainstream publications and studying it openly. The upcoming movie adaptation of Wonder Woman is being directed by the aforementioned Michelle Maclaren, I wish I could believe that other female directors will land big budget projects as a consequence – but only time will tell.