Why Are So Few Mainstream Movies in 2013 Directed by Women?

Why Are So Few Mainstream Movies in 2013 Directed by Women?

Jan 03, 2013

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Kathryn Bigelow

What rises must fall. After the killer cinematic end to 2012, it was easy to have exuberant hope in the New Year – excitement that transcended our usual resolution writing, “This will be the best year ever!” optimism. Women were integral parts of the top-five box office champs, proving their monetary worth. They also kicked ass literally, from Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow to Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman stiletto slicing the throat of that wretched Catwoman movie (before kicking miserable ass as well). Hushpuppy rocked the indie world and offered us some much-needed artistic diversity. Judi Dench upstaged the rippled pecs and PPK of 007. Best of all, Kathryn Bigelow promised to kick off 2013 in the best way possible, with the wide release of the almost universally approved Zero Dark Thirty.

Unfortunately, she isn’t leading an estrogen-filled charge. It might seem like The Hollywood Reporter is once again forgetting women exist with its 15 most-anticipated films of the coming year, but the pickings are super slim. For over 130 films currently slated for release (culled from IMDb) – films that are generally our big mainstream releases and the occasional indie gaining traction – less than five percent feature female directors.

There are exactly seven movies featuring female directors, four of which are solely directed by women. The four solo offerings are Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, which is categorized as a 2012 release and doesn’t completely count), Carrie (Kimberly Pierce, a horror remake), We the Peeples (Tina Gordon Chism, a Tyler Perry protégé), and The To Do List (Maggie Carey, offering up a sex comedy). Jennifer Lee almost makes the bunch, being codirector alongside Chris Buck for Frozen (an animated film), and then there are the ensemble/anthologies; Elizabeth Banks is the sole female helmer in the upcoming comedy Movie 43 (one of 12 comedy directors), and Angela Bettis and Hélène Cattet are two of 27 directors in the upcoming The ABCs of Death.

The one perk of this abysmal percentage is the diversity within the group of four. They consist of a 60-something director investigating terrorism and war, a lesbian filmmaker reimagining a horror classic, an African-American writer making her directorial debut (a protégé of Tyler Perry), and a comedy writer making her feature directorial debut. If that percentage could just have a zero after it, before the decimal point, we’d be on to something. But parity in Hollywood? That’s poppycock just as otherworldly as H.G. Wells’ 19th-century science fiction offerings.

Things aren’t all that much better on the screen. We might get more Katniss, a new girl-centric Stephenie Meyer production, a reunion of Dragon Tattoo’s  Noomi Rapace and Niels Arden Oplev, and Diablo Cody’s spin on The Evil Dead, but for every even minimally female-infused production (many of which are horror films like ED, Texas Chainsaw 3D, and Mama) there are 20 bits of macho mayhem – Gangster Squad, The Last Stand, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, Stand Up Guys, A Good Day to Die Hard, 21 and Over, Pain & Gain, The Hangover 3, The Fast and the Furious 6, Now You See Me….

Sarah Polley

Enter the indies. There might not be an onslaught of femme-directed films to level the playing field, but thankfully, four of the most-anticipated indies directed by women feature two Oscar winners, an Oscar nominee, and an Independent Spirit nominee. Susanne Bier is offering up Serena, a period drama featuring Silver Linings Playbook stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Sofia Coppola is lightening things up with the Emma Watson-starring Bling Ring, Sarah Polley returns with the beautiful and critically applauded documentary Stories We Tell, and Kelly Reichardt is getting environmental with Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves. At least one – Polley’s Stories – has rightfully knocked the socks off critics, but sadly, high praise doesn’t equal high cash.

As for the percentage, it might get helped by this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which will kick off 2013 with an unheard of twist: gender parity in its Dramatic Competition. This means eight female-directed films competing against eight male-directed films for the prize: Lake Bell’s In a World…, Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, Liz Garcia’s The Lifeguard, Francesca Gregorini’s Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, Jerusha Hess’ Austenland, Cherien Dabis’ May in the Summer, and Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight. Once again – great for the indie folks, but not filmmaker wallets if last year’s Sundance comedies Safety Not Guaranteed and Celeste and Jesse Forever are any indication (neither managed to even hit a $5 million gross).

It certainly dulls the pain of Hollywood’s estrogen-empty slate, especially if all of these films get picked up for distribution this year, but for any of this to have any impact, the studio system has to pay attention and evolve. Kathryn Bigelow won a Best Director Oscar in 2010, and two and three years later female filmmakers are still absent from many Best Director chats. The first Sex and the City film almost five years ago prompted a new discussion of women as box office heroes, which was matched by Sandra Bullock’s powerful, one-two box office punch with The Blind Side and The Proposal, and further bolstered in 2011 with Camp Apatow’s most successful film: Bridesmaids, but there has been no rush for big, mainstream femme-centric fare. Thus far, great, big, wonderful blips of female success don’t mean a whole hell of a lot to the mainstream machine.

Melissa McCarthy in The HeatThere are some exceptions to potentially break through the monotony. Leading the pack is Melissa McCarthy, whose scene-stealing turn in Bridesmaids has led to two starring gigs this year: Identity Thief, opposite Jason Bateman, and The Heat, which will attempt to combine the magic of Feig plus McCarthy with Sandra Bullock for box office gold. Erin Cressida Wilson, whose pen whipped up the cult favorite Secretary, has once again worked on a Nicole Kidman film, this time as contributing writer to Stoker, which features both Kidman and Mia Wasikowska. And, hopefully, there’s a lot more than meets the eye to powerful witches waiting for James Franco to come and save them in Oz: The Great and Powerful, which seems likely given some of the trailer’s clips and the talent involved.

Please, please, please, go see all these films – especially the indie ones that could just lead this women to awesome mainstream success. Before Black Swan, Aronofsky offered the modest Pi, before Nolan hit Gotham, he served up the $48,482 grossing flick Following. It’d be nice to see all this talent rake in big cash, and then sit down at the end of this year and have piles of female-directed films for a 2014 preview, because attempting to do so this year and only finding seven is down-right depressing.

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