The Director Gap

In Hollywood, It’s a Men’s, Men’s, Men’s World

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of “The Hurt Locker.”
Credit...Summit Entertainment, via Associated Press

In late November when Warner Bros. hired Michelle MacLaren for its Wonder Woman movie, it became the first studio to tap a female director for a major superhero project. The news brought me back to the 1970s, when my sisters, mom and I would convene in front of the television to watch Wonder Woman fighting for our rights in her satin tights, as the goofy theme song put it. I don’t remember much about the show, but I do know that the vision of this strong woman triumphing with flowing hair and bulletproof bracelets delighted us. I’m looking forward to the movie, though as someone who watches films for a living, I would be happier if Warner Bros. hired a lot more women to direct its other titles.

The news of Ms. MacLaren’s hiring was big because, after years of young men in baseball caps being plucked from obscurity to direct blockbusters like “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Godzilla,” a woman was getting her shot. In indie arenas like the Sundance Film Festival, female directors have inched closer to gender parity, and in 2013, half the movies in the American dramatic competition were directed by women. But even in the hothouse world of Sundance equality isn’t a sure thing, and when the next festival starts in January, women will have about a third of the titles in the American dramatic competition. That’s not great, but by the end of this year, the six major studios (not including their art-house divisions) will have released three movies directed by women. It’s a number that should be a call to action.

“Incrementally, I think things are changing,” said Jodie Foster, who made her feature directing debut with “Little Man Tate” (1991). “When you decide to take a big pile of money and put it in a bag and hand it to a director who you don’t know — no matter what the person says in the room, no matter how much you know about them — you honestly do not know what’s going to happen.” The problem is that “no matter how many creative controls you take away from them you’re still stuck with the choice and decisions and vision of that person.” To lessen that risk, Ms. Foster said, in the past that meant hiring “someone who appeared less risky,” including directors who looked like the people doing the hiring.

ImageIda Lupino, a rare midcentury female director in Hollywood.
Credit...RKO Pictures/Photofest

Those doing the hiring used to be almost all men. In 1987, Dawn Steel became the president of Columbia Pictures, making her the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio. Since then, women have held power positions throughout the industry and two women now help run studios and others head up divisions. For years, I thought more female executives would mean more female directors. Yet sexism in the workplace doesn’t necessarily surface in clear, crude ways, and it’s unusual for anything damning or actionable in the movie business to leak out. Sexism there often works like a virus that spreads through ideas, gossip, and stories about women, their aesthetic visions and personal choices, and doubts about whether they can hack it in that male-dominated world. Of course, the end result is that female directors don’t get hired.

There isn’t a back-room cabal of cigar-chomping male — and female — executives conspiring against female directors, at least that I know of. Rather, the reluctance to hire women seems symptomatic of a conservative, fear-driven industry that recycles the same genres, stereotypes and impoverished ideas year after year. So, exactly like the outside world, the movie business clings to dusty stereotypes as when insiders refer to directors as generals and ship captains, as if today women don’t have those jobs. All that said, it remains surprising that the industry fails to grasp that women, on screen and behind the camera, are good for the bottom line. The evidence — “Waiting to Exhale,” “Mamma Mia,” “Sex and the City,” “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” “Frozen” — is indisputable.

In July, I asked Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, which has released movies by directors like Nancy Meyers and Sofia Coppola, why she didn’t hire more women. “I try to,” she said quietly. And Ms. Foster is directing her next movie, “Money Monster,” a thriller with George Clooney, for a Sony division.

Credit...Eric Charbonneau/Invision, via Associated Press

Hannah Minghella, a president of production for another Sony division, Columbia Pictures, who works down the hall from Ms. Pascal, said much the same. “I desperately want to hire female directors,” she said in August. I think she and Ms. Pascal were sincere, but good intentions don’t mean much when the six major studios consistently do not hire women even for smaller movies.

The recent hacking of Sony, seemingly prompted by North Korea’s lack of a sense of humor, has revealed private emails that seem to furnish evidence that the industry is every bit as sexist as its critics claim. Among the revelations were nasty digs at Angelina Jolie, who may star in the studio’s exhumation of “Cleopatra,” and apparent pay disparities for Ms. Minghella and Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in the studio’s “American Hustle.” On Monday, Ms. Pascal, speaking by phone from Vermont, addressed some of these issues while declining to discuss others, notably my question about why, in sharp contrast to her male colleagues, she had become the face of the crisis.

Ms. Pascal agreed that “there is a systemic problem in Hollywood, of course,” when it comes to women in the industry. But she said it was “ludicrous” to judge an “entire corporation” from “a few random emails, in fact, taken out of context.” She went on to list a number of movies about women or directed by women that her company has released, projects like Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and the female “Ghostbusters,” directed by Paul Feig, which starts in January. The studio is “committed to making movies about women,” Ms. Pascal said. “I don’t know if any other studio can say that.”

Credit...David James/Warner Bros., via Getty Images

I can’t let Ms. Pascal off the hook. But women in power, often the beneficiaries of male munificence, tend to be treated harshly when they betray that gift by failing. That may help explain why female executives as a group are not better advocates for female directors. What makes this situation even more alarming is that women sometimes seem close to becoming an endangered species on American screens. The researcher Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that in 2013, female characters made up just 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of all speaking characters in the top 100 grossing movies. Female directors tend to make more movies about women than male directors do — but they need the money or a job to tell those stories.

When discussing the hurdles faced by female directors, executives often point to the pool of talent. In September, Donna Langley, the chairwoman of Universal Pictures, said she and her team start with a list of candidates when looking for a director. “I don’t go through that with criteria of male or female,” she said, “even if it’s a big sort of action film.” The problem is who makes it onto that list. “When we start our interview process what I find is, more often than not, that the majority of candidates are male,” she said. Like other executives I spoke with, including Jonathan King, executive vice president of narrative film production at Participant Media, Ms. Langley invoked the types of movies that men tend to direct — the little monster movie, say, that leads to the big — that suggest a director can make the leap to big-studio work.

Yet cool portfolio films don’t explain this broken system, which is why Melissa Goodman uses words like bias, discrimination and civil rights when she talks about female directors. Ms. Goodman is the director of the LGBT, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “There’s a culture in Hollywood that anti-discrimination laws don’t apply,” she said, but “Hollywood is not a law-free zone.”


In late October, I visited her office in downtown Los Angeles to talk about the A.C.L.U. webpage called “Tell Us Your Story,” which is asking female directors to submit the kinds of stories few share publicly. The A.C.L.U., she said, hopes to understand the specific barriers that keep women out and underemployed.

The truth is that even female directors with a good track record don’t get hired. “It’s hard to talk about your career and your life and having had a feature career and then not having one,” Mimi Leder said when we met in August. She turned down a lot of work after directing the hit action movie “Deep Impact” (1998) to spend time with her daughter. “Perhaps it hurt my career,” Ms. Leder said, “but it didn’t hurt my life.”

She went on to direct “Pay It Forward,” a 2000 flop that landed her “in movie jail,” where many female directors seem to languish longer than their male counterparts. More recently, she has been directing episodes of the HBO show “The Leftovers.” When I mentioned that Ms. Pascal said she tried to hire women, Ms. Leder shot back, “Well, Amy Pascal has never asked me to make a film.”


The Directors Guild of America website has pages filled with the names of its female members. You can find Ms. Leder among them, but many of the names will be unfamiliar because these women haven’t broken out. In early and silent cinema several dozen women, many lost and forgotten, directed films in the United States, including Alice Guy Blaché, believed to be the first female director. By the late 1920s, female directors had become the industry’s real gone girls and from then until the mid-1960s only two women are thought to have directed in Hollywood: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. There are many more female directors now, as the Directors Guild site shows. But many of them face a vicious cycle: if a woman isn’t hired she can’t get experience, but she can’t get experience if no one hires her. “I think we have to be better as an industry,” Ms. Minghella said, “about giving more women the opportunity to prove themselves in the way that men so often are.”

Scholars have theorized that women were squeezed out of the industry once the business of movies became big business. Money — getting it, keeping it and putting it on screen — remains one of the biggest barriers that female directors confront. The producer Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) is the president of the production company Mandalay Pictures and of the advocacy group Women in Film. She has a history of success. But, she blurted out in an interview in August, “My success rate is horrific in getting the movies with female directors made.”

It was such a surprisingly candid admission that I asked her to repeat it. She did, adding: “I can’t get the money. It’s not the projects, it’s not the development, it’s not the writers, it’s not the directors and the actors. It’s the money.”

The producer Cassian Elwes, who’s helped get movies like “Dallas Buyers Club” off the ground, said that equity financiers want to make good movies. The “tricky part,” Mr. Elwes said, is that foreign sales companies provide the presale estimates for the value of a movie in territories outside the United States. Producers are able to borrow money against those estimates to help finance the movie. “And the moment that you mention that it’s a female director” to foreign sales companies, Mr. Elwes said, “you can see the eyes start to roll.” It is, he said, “a male-dominated world.” He added: “The buyers want action films and they don’t see women as action directors. That’s where the whole thing kind of blows up.”

Among the female stories that Ms. Pascal helped shepherd earlier in her career was a lovely adaptation of that classic, “Little Women,” by Gillian Armstrong. Ms. Pascal had her share of critical and commercial successes, but those films were often also singled out for their subjects: women. In 2000, Variety predicted that Ms. Pascal’s forthcoming releases would “go a long way toward restoring some hormonal balance to the femme-heavy offerings marking her reign.” Movies like “The Patriot” and “The Hollow Man,” the article continued, as if to reassure anxious men everywhere, “will all provide a sharp blast of testosterone to the screen — and, it is hoped, a shot of adrenaline to the Sony ledgers.” That year, its biggest hit turned out to be the femme-heavy “Charlie’s Angels.”

Back in July I asked Ms. Pascal if those digs about the movies she made with women had affected her. She said that for a long time she felt “really embarrassed by that, because chick flicks are movies about girls who don’t work. They’re not really movies about girls who do. But then, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s all she can do.’ So, maybe I overcorrected a little bit. Maybe I overcorrected and that’s not really a good thing to do.” She expressed excitement about some of the hits with female protagonists that had come out in the summer, though none were from Sony. “I think that the world has moved on,” she said, “and we’re not acknowledging it.”

In August, Sony announced that it was developing a female superhero for its “Spider-Man” franchise. No word yet on a director.