Just a few years ago, not many people were aware that the employment numbers of women directors in America was “criminally low.” The discussion about the exclusion and censorship of female voices from our nation’s media had not yet taken hold. Today, thanks to the powerful support of the ACLU and a strong surge of sympathetic media coverage, a movement has begun. Now, as the EEOC ramps up an historic industry-wide investigation into discrimination against women directors, new opportunities abound. Everyone, it seems, is talking about women directors, and big players are jumping in to join the cause. But is the scope of their efforts significant enough to have a real impact?
This week, the legendary House of Chanel has teamed up with Tribeca to create “Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program.” This program brings together mentorship and artistic development, and some cash to help propel a woman director from script to screen on a short film. The program is set to start up in New York next week, and links actors Julianne Moore, Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer with feature directors Catherine Hardwicke and Rebecca Miller, and producers Donna Gigliotti, and Christine Vachon, among others, to support seven emerging women writers and directors selected to participate.
According to Tribeca’s announcement, one short narrative film project will receive $75,000 and production resources in an effort to help advance women filmmakers and increase their representation. The intentions may be good, but will an effort such as this truly help create change? Or does it run the risk of perpetuating the ghettoization of women directors by bringing so much attention to such a small offering?
So far in 2015, U.S. media revenues have been staggering. This year, Hollywood’s global ad revenues alone topped half a trillion dollars, yet as many as 96 percent of studio features and 84 percent of episodic TV shows are directed by men. If women, who make up 51 percent of our population, are to get a fair chance at contributing their voices and perspectives equally to our nation’s media (America’s most influential global export), we are all going to have to think bigger—a lot bigger.
According to the Directors Guild of America, in the two decades from 1995 to 2015, female director employment numbers have experienced stasis and decline. These statistics tell of a generation of American women filmmakers lost to sex discrimination and a failure of our industry to comply with the U.S. equal employment opportunity law, Title VII. When speaking out, many women filmmakers often complain that they are simply not taken seriously, especially when it comes to getting paid.
In looking at the employment numbers, one sees that women directors actually have fewer problems getting work when they aren’t getting paid much. For example, as of 2012 women made up 39 percent of documentary directors, the lowest-paid category in filmmaking. And according to Variety this April, the male-to-female ratio of mostly independent films in competition at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2014 averaged 3 to 1. Among the top 1,300 highest grossing films of that same period, however, the same study showed a ratio of 23 to 1. Only 1.9 percent of the top-grossing 100 U.S. films of 2013 and 2014 were directed by women—leaving 98.1 percent of the highest-grossing films to men. When it comes to taking female directors seriously enough to pay them based on studio budgets—Hollywood doesn’t.
It is admirable that multinational companies catering to women—such as Chanel—are showing an interest in supporting women’s voices in media, but as statistics indicate, the problem is deep and serious; a light makeover won’t create lasting change. As Jane Rosenthal, CEO of Tribeca Enterprises says, “[Women] have been underrepresented in the stories that are written, produced and directed. We need to support one another and I am proud that with Chanel, we can cultivate, support and empower women storytellers.”
In pursuing this goal, “Through Her Lens” will begin with a three-day workshop to provide seven U.S.-based female filmmakers with master classes, one-on-one mentoring and peer-to-peer support as they pursue their short film projects. This process leads to a pitch presentation before a jury of industry “experts,” culminating in the selection of one winning project. The classes will include script-to-screen development and distribution strategies.
It’s uncomfortable to criticize good intentions, and this program is designed for “emerging” filmmakers, but so much talk of “support,” “nurturing” and “mentoring” seems to perpetuate the sexist impression that women are not as ready as men to direct, that they need help. What does this say to the 1,271 experienced and professional, yet mostly unemployed, women director-members of the Directors Guild of America? What about the thousands of talented, highly trained non-DGA women directors who also can’t get work in an industry that keeps women shut out?
Having huge players like Tribeca and Chanel bring so many prominent women filmmakers together with glitzy publicity just to fund one short film seems somehow demeaning. Why shine such a hot light on women directors’ need for “master-classes” and “artistic development”? How would people respond if a program involving such extensive support and training for the sake of one short film were offered to male directors? It would seem silly, trite, insulting even.
Chanel is an international luxury goods company that, according to Forbes, has a brand value of $6.8 billion as of May 2015. Maureen Chiquet, global CEO of Chanel, appears to understand the need to create gender equity in U.S. media. “Chanel has always fostered creativity,” she says. “It is an honor to join Tribeca in celebrating women in film and empowering them to tell their stories.” If Chanel really wants to empower women to create media, however, then it should do it in a meaningful way.
Activists for women directors have long called for companies that focus on women’s fashion, beauty and luxury goods to forge pathways to increase female voices in global media. Chanel’s collaboration in “Through Her Lens” should represent an auspicious beginning of corporate responsibility toward women who spend billions each year on their products. But awarding one women a small budget to make a single short film hardly seems substantive in the overall battle women directors are fighting so boldly today.
Every effort to support women directors should be celebrated, but it’s important that we consider the connotations when we take actions that may set an example for further action. I, for one, am grateful to Chanel and Tribeca, and the many gifted women who are giving their time to support this program. I wish, however, that the publicity fireworks surrounding it would illuminate the need to help women stand as the equals of men in the directing profession.
In presenting “Through Her Lens,” Chanel and Tribeca are setting the bar for other companies and film festivals that might do the same. Let us hope they have not set the bar so low as to demean the powerful work that is being done to create real change.
Photo via Shuttestock