How Hollywood Keeps Out Women
Illustration by Darrick Rainey
UPDATE: The ACLU has now demanded an investigation of the secrecy-shrouded hiring practices of top Hollywood studios, talent agencies and networks, with a focus on bringing gender discrimination charges against them. Please also see: "How Hollywood Keeps Out the Stories of Women and Girls."
In 2005, Diana Ossana was in the green room at the Venice Film Festival, elated. Brokeback Mountain, the film she'd shepherded into being after reading Annie Proulx's short story in The New Yorker eight years earlier, had just won the Golden Lion, top prize at the festival.
Ossana, who optioned the story from Proulx, then co-wrote and produced the film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, was standing next to its director, Ang Lee, basking in their success when, she says, George Clooney walked in. Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck also had been in the running for the Golden Lion.
"He walked right up to Ang, shook his hand and congratulated him," Ossana says from her home in Tucson. After heartily congratulating Lee, Clooney looked right past Ossana, then moved on.
"I really was startled," she says. "It was as if I wasn't even in the room. Ang even commented on it afterward; it was that obvious." Clooney did not respond to a request for comment.
Ossana had been fielding that kind of treatment since before the film's inception. Without her writing partner, Larry McMurtry, she wasn't taken seriously. During meetings with studio execs, at which she was often the only woman, men turned in surprise when she spoke.
"They would look at me as if, 'Oh, she speaks!'" Ossana says. "These were very prominent, very well-known men. If I was any more specific, everyone would know exactly who I was talking about."
Ossana later had to demand that studio executives recognize her with a producing credit on Brokeback, which she and McMurtry had to push through the system. And "when we set about to make the deal with the studio, I'm not certain why, but they said they would have preferred Larry to be a producer." (He got an executive producer credit, she a producer credit.)
Women are not tapped for power jobs in Hollywood. Their numbers trail far behind the percentage of females in executive positions in other heavily male-dominated endeavors, including the military, tech, finance, government, science and engineering. In 2013, 1.9 percent of the directors of Hollywood's 100 top-grossing films were female, according to a study conducted by USC researcher Stacy L. Smith. In 2011, women held 7.1 percent of U.S. military general and admiral posts, 20 percent of U.S. Senate seats and more than 20 percent of leadership roles at Twitter and Facebook — and both companies now face gender-discrimination lawsuits.
In the wake of the Sony email-hacking scandal, and following Patricia Arquette's rallying cry at the Oscars, some well-known Hollywood figures are openly saying that an ugly bias grips the liberal, charitable, Democrat-dominated movie industry.
"You have to be protective and arrogant" to direct, says screenwriter Diablo Cody, winner of the Academy Award for 2007's Juno. "Those are great qualities, but people hate it in women. We talk about this on set all the time. You'll hear about a male director throwing stuff; we just laugh, because a woman would never work again, no matter who it was.
"It would screw her in every aspect of her life," Cody adds. "I just think that there's a deep, rotten core in society. To me, it is just straight-up misogyny."
Director Nicole Holofcener, who's helmed five features including the Golden Globe–nominated Enough Said with Julia-Louis Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, said via email, "Because my career has been so gratifying, and because I've been so lucky, I'm not sure if I could say I had to fight." She adds, "I had to persevere, but many men have to do that, too. I think I'm offered a certain kind of movie because I'm a woman, and that's a drag. Of course the business is sexist and racist and unfair. I just got lucky."
Academy Award–nominated Lexi Alexander, director of Punisher: War Zone (2008) and the acclaimed Green Street Hooligans (2005), says, "Look, I'm still in, I'm still directing. [But] how does a director do Winter's Bone,'' the 2010 drama directed by Debra Granik, which launched Jennifer Lawrence's career, "and it's not the biggest thing we talk about?"
Alexander explains that Granik "basically could not find work. She had to do a documentary because nothing she did was screening. Think about that, you know?"
Alexander is tired of Hollywood studio executives' excuses. "Are you fucking kidding me?" she tells L.A. Weekly. "We all don't take this seriously enough."
At top U.S. film schools, women and men are almost equally represented. Females account for 46 percent of USC's School of Cinematic Arts graduate students. At New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, 51 percent of graduate students are women. Ten years ago, women filled about one-third of the seats.
Yet between the day these women graduate and the day, a few years later, that their male college peers begin showing up in film credits, most women filmmakers vanish into obscurity.
Decades of effort have been poured into research on the lack of women behind the camera. But no studies examine the thinking, and the hiring choices, of the mostly male studio executives, top agents and other decision-makers. The two largest studies to date, both led by USC's Smith, focus instead on results.
One of those studies, commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, found that women and men who graduate from Sundance's prestigious labs in Utah finish their films at the same rate and get their films accepted to the world's top independent festivals at the same rate.
Then something unsettling happens. After competing at Sundance and other big festivals, the men who win awards are often tapped to direct for the Big Six: Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony and 20th Century Fox. But Big Six studio executives seem to ignore the award-winning female filmmakers, rarely inviting them to direct a picture.
The festival competitions are among several pathways to helming or green-lighting big-budget films. People rise from crew member to assistant director to director, or claw up from mailroom to assistant to agent. To advance at each step, connections are key.
This year, controversy raged when Ava DuVernay, the black female director of the historical drama Selma, was not nominated by the heavily male, white Academy membership for a directing Oscar. DuVernay would have been the first black woman nominated in that category.
Diana Ossana shepherded Oscar winner Brokeback Mountain into being.
Photo by Andrew Pielage
In speaking to the Weekly, though, DuVernay is matter-of-fact about not being nominated. "It wasn't anything that I thought was going to happen," she says, echoing statements she's made in other interviews. "There was no precedent for it. It was a new math — it would have to add up to something it had never added up to before. I'm grateful I didn't believe the hype or get sucked into that. It's really easy to do. I enjoyed the whole thing in a different way."
Occasionally, a woman soars over the hurdles. That's what happened for Jennifer Lee, co-director of Disney's Frozen and the only woman ever to direct a movie that earned $1 billion. In an interview with the Weekly two years ago, Lee was open in describing the barriers to women in Hollywood.
"I think it's very real," Lee said. "I have seen it and have felt it before." Her connection to Hollywood's elites was her friend and writing partner from their Columbia film school days, Phil Johnston, who wrote Wreck-It Ralph and Cedar Rapids.
She was struck by how Johnston "would just happen to be at lunch with one of the guys that was hanging out with guys, and [they] would all get to know one another and all of a sudden they're making Cedar Rapids" — a movie written by a man, edited by a man, directed by a man and produced by five men, including The Descendants director Alexander Payne.
While not criticizing the industry's propensity for male bonding, Lee said that for women, "It's much tougher to fall into those casual relationships that lead to something."
In 2011, Johnston asked Lee to come to L.A. from Brooklyn to help him write Wreck-It Ralph. Once here, Lee's talent — two of her screenplays had already been optioned and a third was in production — caught the eye of Peter Del Vecho of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Disney offered Lee a co-directing job on Frozen, making her the first woman ever to direct a Disney animated feature. The roles that Lee crafted for Queen Elsa and Anna display nuanced emotions and true bravery — unlike some Disney films.
One would assume that both Lee and DuVernay are now on Hollywood's short lists — the private, almost entirely male compilations used in the upper echelons of filmmaking by agents, studio executives, producers and, sometimes, A-list actors, to attach directors to projects at their discretion.
"People hate risking anything, and they think it's doing something wild and crazy to hire a woman," says one female director. She asked to remain anonymous, saying that if she were identified by name, "I have a feeling that all the companies that I've been dealing with will be really evil to me."
The Weekly contacted a range of celebrities and directors, including some public critics of bias toward women in Hollywood. Most did not respond. Others, through spokespeople, declined to comment, including Meryl Streep, Patricia Arquette, Annette Bening, Jennifer Lopez, Rosario Dawson, John Legend, Clint Eastwood, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Ruffalo.
Explanations for why studio executives and top agents tend to snub talented women have been playing on repeat for decades. Since at least the 1970s, studio execs have deflected discussion of themselves and pointed to the women. They contend that the pool of female talent is too small and that women are not interested in directing action and comic book movies — and have even suggested women can't handle big budgets.
But Barbara Schock, chair of NYU's graduate film program, says, "We train everybody in the whole range of filmmaking. I'm seeing no difference whatsoever in their abilities," whether male or female.
Researchers such as Susanne Quadflieg, a neuroscientist and an expert in gender bias at Bristol University in London, say these claims are based in bias: "The majority of people who do research on gender stereotyping think that these stereotypes don't have much of a kernel of truth."
Instead, DuVernay says, these are simply attitudes that permeate the studio system and much of Hollywood.
"It's misguided and steeped in patriarchy," she says. "There is an antagonistic context toward images of women by women, images by black people, brown people, indigenous people, that are outside of dominant culture. And the way that things are — they're run by men, there's a comfort level there. They are the first that come to each others' minds. ... I'm saying this very matter-of-factly, with no passion. It's just the way it is."
Hollywood wasn't always like this. When the film industry coalesced in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, some of its most powerful players were women.
Initially, film "wasn't considered a very desirable business to work in," says Hilary Hallett, author of Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood, and so "it was open to people outside of the establishment."
Screenwriter Frances Marion wrote nearly 200 films between 1915 and 1989, and often collaborated with other women. Globally famed actress and businesswoman Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists, a breakaway outfit created by actors in defiance of the studios. Lois Weber was one of early Hollywood's most prolific and powerful directors, with more than 130 films to her credit.
But two events in the 1920s brought that glimmer of equality to a halt. In 1921, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was implicated in the death of young actress Virginia Rappe. "The Fatty Arbuckle scandal was used to create this public discussion of Hollywood encouraging young women to do things unchaperoned," Hallett says. Then, beginning in 1929, the Great Depression and Hollywood's transition from silent films to talkies forced executives to deal with Wall Street for loans. Hollywood began answering to Wall Street, sidelining women because the financiers didn't back them.
After the United States joined World War II in 1941, the government enlisted Hollywood to create movies as propaganda. Women were often cast as Stepford-like wives and mothers to reinforce tradition and patriotism.
Between 1949 and 1979, the robust female talent behind the cameras all but disappeared. To watch films was to see a world made up of men, acting out men's stories financed by men, written by men and filmed by men, with women often thrown in as sidekicks or arm candy. During that 30-year period, just two of every 1,000 films were directed by women — 14 of the 7,332 movies produced in America.
In the late 1960s and '70s, women started fighting back. The Women's Committee of the Screen Actors Guild was formed in 1972. In 1973, activists founded the Committee of Women Writers at the Writers Guild of America.
In 1979, six female directors established the Women's Steering Committee at the Directors Guild of America. Producer-director Victoria Hochberg was one of the six. "We had all reached a certain level of success," says Hochberg, who later directed Bad Boy and TV shows including Melrose Place. "I had been nominated for an Emmy, one of us had won an Oscar and another had won a Peabody ... but at a certain point, it just came out. 'Are you working?' 'No.' 'Are you working?' 'No.'"
Hochberg and her group dug up the data showing that just 14 films had been directed by women in the previous 30 years. "Now that," she says, "is a startling statistic." They confronted studio executives but were ignored. So in the early 1980s, they sued. That got executives' attention: Between 1985 and 1995, the number of films directed by women skyrocketed to 16 percent from nearly zero.
Maria Giese of the Alliance of Women Directors
Photo by Danny Liao
Says director Maria Giese, a member of the Alliance of Women Directors, "To this day, that was the highest it ever got."
In light of the Sony hacking scandal, some media and critics offer a dark explanation for the paucity of women in power: anti-woman attitudes coursing through Hollywood's male executive suites at the studios and talent agencies.
The Daily Beast revealed last December that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, the female stars of American Hustle, were paid far less than even a secondary male actor in the film, Jeremy Renner. Hacked Sony emails between Andrew Gumpert of Columbia Pictures, Doug Belgrad of Sony Motion Picture Group and Amy Pascal of Sony confirmed that superstar Lawrence got seven "points" of back-end compensation, compared with Renner's nine.
Hochberg says that studio executives in 2015 behave like the men who ran many of the studios in the 1970s and '80s: "Whatever repressive ideas were set up [then] are still hanging in."
The most well-trod road to success in Hollywood is via the top-tier independent film festivals, such as Sundance or Cannes. Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, says, "We've seen it as a very powerful network for filmmakers to push their work forward," helping to launch Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and others.
And it's there, at film festivals, that the number of women filmmakers begins to plunge. In developing their projects, filmmakers must approach potential investors for backing. But the women, Putnam says, aren't received as well as men, "particularly when those resources are male-dominated."
Of all films submitted to Sundance between 2009 and 2012, 20.7 percent were from female directors. However, women who do compete in these top-tier festivals ended up winning awards on par with the men. "Women are punching at equal rates," Putnam says.
Hollywood executives and agents don't seem to notice. Almost none of these women are approached by studios to direct.
That's what happened to DuVernay. "I went from Sundance and winning Best Director to no offers to do anything else," she says. "It wasn't jumping from Sundance to studio. Paramount came in after to distribute the film. ... [Selma] does still belong inordinately to a large group of women who have not had the same trajectory as our male counterparts out of prominent film festivals. It's not something that I've noticed; it's statistics. It's hard data. It's not an assumption."
It's also what happened to Lexi Alexander.
The German-born filmmaker was urged by Chuck Norris to try her hand in Hollywood after she became world champion in karate and kickboxing in the 1990s. "[Norris] said to me and a bunch of other martial artists, 'You guys should come to Hollywood, we need people like you,'" she says. "Everybody's idea was I should be the female Jean-Claude [Van Damme]. But I hated being in front of the camera."
Here and there, she got chances to direct and "loved it."
Hollywood latched onto Alexander. Her first short film, Johnny Flynton, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003. She then directed Green Street Hooligans, the first film to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award for narrative feature at South by Southwest. Joe Leydon wrote in Variety, "Alexander ... has the chops to bring a fresh take to on-screen rough stuff. Hollywood will beckon."
Alexander and her reps agreed. "We thought there would be a bidding war" over Hooligans, she says. Instead, the film was released by the financiers and shown in just three cities. "That's the first time I heard, 'That wouldn't have happened if you were Guy Ritchie.' At that time, I didn't believe it."
She'd slammed up against Hollywood's double standard for women.
Another example of the double standard: Women with a box office failure often don't get hired again, but men who fail do. "If a movie starring or written by or directed by a man flops, people don't blame the gender of the creator," Diablo Cody says. "It's just kind of weird how the blame is always immediately placed on female directors."
Along those same lines, studios frequently take risks with inexperienced male directors. Inexperienced women, almost never. Says Martha Lauzen, a professor at San Diego State University and a leading expert on women in film: "They feel more comfortable taking risks on those who reflect the demographic profile of the majority of their own executives."
Powerful talent agents who can package films with a writer, director and stars also have a double standard for women. "By and large, agents are resistant to take on any women," says director Maria Burton, who lectures on filmmaking at USC and the American Film Institute, "because women aren't going to bring in as much money" — a result of low-ball deals the studios press upon female filmmakers, payments from which agents take their percentage cut.
After Hooligans' limited release, Alexander refused to be marginalized; she took meetings with studios, wrote another screenplay and networked with insiders. "For two years, I lived at different studios, because this is what you do," she says. When she finally was brought on by Lionsgate to helm Punisher: War Zone, Alexander noticed, as Diana Ossana did, a palpable attitude from men in the studio executive suites.
"I said something about marketing," she says. "I said, 'We don't want to release this movie during Christmas, it's not a Christmas movie.' They looked at me like, 'Why is she even talking? What is she saying?' Nobody had any trust or respect for me. Sure enough, later all the papers wrote, 'Why did they release this movie at Christmas?'"
Last year, company leaders at Google, where women make up just 8.3 percent of senior executives, issued a mea culpa when announcing its diversity statistics.
"It's time to be candid about the issues," they wrote. "Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity."
It is hardly a contested notion that Hollywood, like Google, is one of the world's most influential cultural arbiters. The repercussions for women and girls across the world, who are seeing primarily the stories of men on screen, are profound.
"If you don't see yourself or people like you represented, what kind of an impression are you going to get?" asks Tracy Everbach, an associate professor of journalism at the University of North Texas. "You're going to see women through the eyes of men, not women through the eyes of women. And we see ourselves differently."
The individuals who routinely decide not to hire women to tell Hollywood's stories are well protected from scrutiny, but that changed on April 16. WikiLeaks published the infamously hacked Sony emails — including discussions between Angelina Jolie and Sony insiders Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin about who should direct Cleopatra, in which Jolie will star.
The three tossed around directors' names as casually as someone might consider where to eat lunch. Pascal, who has taken hit after hit in the Sony scandal, at one point proffers the following: "female director might be cool."
In the WikiLeaks posts, neither Rudin nor Jolie responds to Pascal's suggestion. A representative for Sony told the Weekly via email, "We're declining comment." But those five words — casually tossed in — bring up a significant question: Is it possible that the solution to Hollywood's shutting out of women is as simple as a one-line email?
Lexi Alexander expected a bidding war over her festival hit, Green Street Hooligans. Instead, it got a minimal release and vanished.
Photo by Franck Robichon/EPA/Newscom
According to Mina Cikara, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, research shows that change starts at the top. "If the most powerful person at the table neglects to even look in the direction of the sole female fleet member," she says, "then yes, other people are going to pick up on that info and follow suit."
Hollywood's top-level executives do just that. They have maintained radio silence on the industry's gender imbalance issue for decades. In trying to reach CEOs or presidents of the Big Six studios for comment on these issues, the Weekly didn't get far.
The net number of films the Big Six produce is difficult to determine, because some are created by subsidiaries or via independent studios. The Weekly contacted the following Big Six executives to confirm their film counts between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2014 — and the number of those films directed by women. Warner Bros. and Universal responded. The other executives had no comment, did not respond or were said to be too busy:
— Kevin Tsujihara, chairman-CEO of Warner Bros. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Warner Bros. produced 72 films from 2010 through 2014. One was directed by a woman. A Warner Bros. representative said via email, "WB released 72 films ... 53 of which we produced; 19 were only distributed by WB. Of those 53 films produced and distributed by WB, three were directed by women."
— Twentieth Century Fox chairman-CEO James Gianopulos and film studio co-chairman Stacey Snider. Twentieth Century Fox, 20th Century Fox Animation and FOX 2000 produced 45 films. One was directed by a woman.
— Ronald Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal. Combined, Universal and Focus Features produced 101 films. Five were directed by women and one was co-directed by a woman.
— Brad Grey and Rob Moore, the chairman-CEO and vice chairman, respectively, of Paramount Pictures. Paramount produced 51 films. One was directed by a woman; one was co-directed by a woman.
— Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures. Sony's largest studios, Columbia and TriStar, produced 62 films. One was directed by a woman.
— Alan Bergman, president of Walt Disney Studios. Disney Studios and Disney Animation produced 52 films. Two had women as co-directors.
So why do executives in one of the world's most progressive and cosmopolitan communities make decisions like these? Researchers are fascinated by the dichotomies and have come to some conclusions. Many say gender bias isn't a "what if" but a given.
During a Skype conversation, Quadflieg explained that MRI-based brain studies show stereotypes are activated in about 170 milliseconds. No matter how open-minded we fancy ourselves, these biases kick in without our realizing it, she says.
In a 2011 study in the journal Neuroimage, Quadflieg reported that the areas of the brain associated with body recognition had to work much harder when the test subject was shown a person who didn't fit his or her expectations — for instance, a woman in a pilot's uniform.
Quadflieg says a process known as "implicit stereotyping" allows these split-second biases to kick in despite political or personal beliefs. When a woman defies these biased expectations, "You're very good at coming up with reasons for why that might be: 'Oh, her dad was a professor, too.'" But with a man, "They just think, 'OK, yeah, there's a man who's good in math. Big deal.'"
Says Harvard's Cikara: "If someone is the only woman in the room, the most salient characteristic will be her gender, [and] that activates a stereotype, affecting how people treat her before she's even opened her mouth."
The research, however, doesn't stop there. It also points to an elegantly straightforward solution to this problem that has loomed over Hollywood since the 1940s: Studio executives and top agents should just hire more women.
In essence, these power players would be turning tables by embracing the notion of training themselves, not the new hires.
"If you had a lot of exposure to these unexpected [roles for women], you would, over time, adjust your expectation," Quadflieg says. "The easiest way to overcome stereotypical expectations is to get them repeatedly violated."