The recent release and subsequent box office success of Bridesmaids has sparked an onslaught of articles in various publications and across the internet re-thinking the role of women in cinema and contemplating how women have been regulated into so tight a niche that almost everyone predicted that Bridesmaids, a film starring an ensemble of female leads and written by two women, would not be very successful at the box office. To many, Bridesmaids has proven (and is still proving, judging by its continually strong box office receipts – it has been topping Thor in daily gross this past week and might even surpass the comic book movie come this weekend) that, contrary to popular belief, women are very much capable of writing and starring in a film that appeals not just to a niche audience but to the same general audience that many male directors appeal to. I decided to run with this idea, but take a look at it from a film school standpoint. So where exactly do women stand in film school?
Statistically, the situation doesn’t seem too bad. The latest estimate I had heard was that the NYU film program’s male-to-female ratio is 60-40 in favor of men, and I assume that this statistic is similar in other film schools as well. The numbers are different in the other film departments – from what I could gather, both the dramatic writing and the cinema studies departments skew 40-60 in favor of women, much like the male-female ratio of the university as a whole. But in the film production department, there is a clear skew towards males.
But NYU’s statistics are nominally better than those in the actual film industry, which unfortunately, really don’t bode well for the future of all my female classmates in the industry. According to the Celluloid Ceiling 2007 Report, women accounted for 10% of the writers in the top 250 domestic grossing films released in 2007, and only 6% of the directors. In fact, according to the same report, 21% of the top 250 domestic grossing films released in 2007 did not employ women directors, writers, producers, writers, cinematographers or editors at all, meaning that literally all of the major creative roles of one fifth of the top grossing films released in 2007 were filled by men. And women interested in cinematography? Don’t even bother – less than 2% of the cinematographers working in the industry are women. The fact that no woman had won an Academy Award for directing until last year, and that only 4 female directors were ever nominated in the history of the Academy, speaks volumes about the role of women in the film industry.Luckily for my female classmates, the statistics bode slightly better in the indie film world. Highly acclaimed auteurs such as Jane Campion, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik, Miranda July, Mary Harron, Kimberly Pierce, Andrea Arnold and others have found great success in the festival circuits, and especially at Sundance, which remains a beacon for independent female-directed films. But fact of the matter is, very few of these films find much success outside of limited release. Of course, this has nothing to do with the quality or content of the films – there just seems to be this inherent bias against women directors among studios, both in the production and in the distribution stages – despite the fact that many studio heads today are women! So where does this bias begin?
Unfortunately, I have to go back to film school again, and report that the situation is even less encouraging than the male-to-female ratio I mentioned earlier might imply. As I have mentioned many times before, I have worked on a number of student film sets this past year, and I have seen the average gender make-up of crews myself. The results aren’t encouraging – sure, many women write and direct films in production classes here, just like their male counter parts. But in terms of crew positions, there seem to be some inherent biases that I rarely have seen shattered. Often women fill the more organization-oriented roles – assistant director, producer, etc. Art directors and costume designers are also typically women. Sound mixing actually has a healthy balance, with a slight skew towards women. But camera department is still almost exclusively a boy’s club. I know a number of women cinematographers who are talented and dedicated and fantastic, but even then, their grips and gaffers are almost always men.
So is this bias changing? I’d hope so, but the statistics look grim. According to the same Celluloid Ceiling 2007 Report I mentioned earlier, the percentage of women in key creative roles in films has almost halved between 1998 and 2007. Even a successful film like Bridesmaids was directed and produced by men. And much has been said about Kathryn Bigelow winning an Oscar for what was essentially a “man’s film”. Once again, the independent world shows encouraging signs – there are currently 40 film festivals throughout the world solely dedicated to showing the work of women directors. In addition, a few years ago NYU began running the Fusion Film Festival – a festival dedicated to films with women in key roles [Sam: In the UK there is the Bird’s Eye View Film Festival, which does the same thing]. However, in my opinion, the mere necessity of these festivals speaks volumes about the separation and segregation of women filmmakers as opposed to male filmmakers. I can only hope that there will come a day when we will all simply be known as “filmmakers.”