For the first time in its 93-year history, the Academy has nominated two women for best director. Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell will compete with David Fincher, Lee Isaac Chung and Thomas Vinterberg for the coveted honor. But before we launch into a monthlong celebration about how “we’ve come a long way, baby,” we should consider exactly what has and has not been accomplished.
Women comprised 18% of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2020, up from 13% in 2019 and 8% in 2018, according to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study. Women accounted for 16% of directors working on the top 100 grossing films in 2020, up from 12% in 2019 and a mind-numbing 4% in 2018. This breaks a recent historical pattern of small increases in the numbers one year, only to be followed by small decreases the next. It is important to note that men continue to direct 80% of films.
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In other roles, the lack of progress in women’s employment is stunning. In 2020, women made up a scant 6% of cinematographers, up from 5% in 2019. The number of women shooters has barely budged since 1998, when women accounted for 4% of cinematographers working on the top 250 films. It’s not a surprise that women are absent from the list of nominees for best cinematography at the Oscars. More than 90% of films did not have a woman cinematographer.
Last year, women accounted for 17% of writers, down from 19% in 2019. In 1998 women accounted for just 13% of writers, for an increase of just 4% percentage points over 23 years. More than 70% of films have only male writers. More than seven out of 10 times when we watch a film, we are watching a story written from a male point of view.
Women accounted for 22% of editors last year, down one percentage point from 23% in 2019 and up only two percentage points over the past 23 years. More than 70% of the top 250 grossing films had exclusively male editors in 2020.
Only an industrywide solution will remedy the industrywide problem of women’s underemployment. While the current patchwork of initiatives by various individuals and organizations are laudable, they fail to appreciate the scope of gender inequities in the film business.
Five years ago, in a column written for this publication, I suggested one way to achieve more widespread progress would be through the creation of an independent organization charged with overseeing issues of diversity. By focusing on the big picture of inclusion, this new organization could consider all aspects of the industry, from financing and casting to production and marketing. Such a coordinated effort would augment and/or replace the current fragmented approach to providing opportunities for underemployed and underrepresented groups.
The time is clearly right for the debut of such an organization. In this open and elastic moment that recognizes the need for greater social equality, it is the next logical action. The question is whether the industry will recognize the moment and the opportunity and organize to meet the challenge.
The nomination of two women for best director in a single year is indeed a history-making event. But in the larger context of women’s progress, it’s just one step in a larger journey toward inclusion.
Dr. Martha Lauzen is the author of the annual Celluloid Ceiling study and the founder/executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
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