With the success of her new film Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins looks to have triple-kicked through the Hollywood’s glass ceiling. But are things really getting better for women who direct films, or does the industry still have a stubborn sexism problem?by Lucinda Smyth / June 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
2017 is shaping up to be a good year for female filmmakers—or so we’re told. In May, Sofia Coppola became the second woman to win a Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival. Last weekend, the release of Lucia Aniello’s Rough Night made her the first woman to direct an R-rated comedy for a major studio in two decades. Then there is the summer success story: Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman has raked in a record $570m at the box office, making it the highest ever opener for a female filmmaker. With a $150m budget, Wonder Woman is also the most expensive female-directed film in history.
The odds are that you’ve already heard some of these statistics. Whenever something is achieved by a director who happens to have two X chromosomes, it is framed within a narrative of female empowerment and then splashed about by the press as evidence for women’s “gradual progress” in the industry. As Wonder Woman hit its box office high last weekend, the media clamored over Jenkins, and continued to draw comparisons with other women in cinema. Sam Taylor Wood’s Fifty Shades of Grey was cited by many. Few pointed out that $570m is $200m above the total box office gross of Superman Returns, or that it is $80m more than that of Green Lantern and The Incredible Hulk put together. Hardly anyone mentioned the fact that $570m is an impressive sum in its own right.
It is irritating and depressing that these directors’ achievements are never looked at with an objective eye. $570m should speak for itself, without it being randomly pitted against other films directed by women, or against superhero films with male protagonists. It shouldn’t be surprising that Coppola has won Best Director at Cannes—she has a 20 year record of quality filmmaking—nor that a woman is directing a major blockbuster comedy. Such patronising pats-on-the-back and coos of surprise are enough to make anyone flinch.
But data shows that a conversation is necessary. According to a 2016 study conducted across 1000 films, women only account for 4 per cent of directors. That pathetic figure improves slightly across the top-earning 250 films: 7 per cent. But that is still frighteningly low—and it is shrinking. In 2015, 9 per cent of the top earning films were directed by women, the same as in 1998.
This representation is a reflection of cinema culture: Hollywood hates seeing women at the helm. It is an industry which prefers, instead, to view them as “niche” audiences, to applaud films which offer “disturbing” representations of women at prestigious festivals, and to hand its highest accolade to an actor who has faced sexual multiple assault charges in the same year. Among this dearth of support for women it’s no surprise that female directors are so underrepresented.
“In 2015, 9 per cent of the top earning films were directed by women, the same as in 1998”
It is also no surprise when you consider the discrepancy in film budgets. Coppola’s The Beguiled had a budget of $10m—to date, her most expensive film has cost $42m. Though Wonder Woman‘s record $150m sounds like a lot by comparison, Jenkins was only the second female film-maker in history to make a film costing over $100m. That is a standard budget for blockbusters. The two films I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Green Lantern and The Incredible Hulk—which each took in less than half of Wonder Woman’s earnings at the box office—racked up well over that amount: Green Lantern cost $200m; The Incredible Hulk matched Jenkins’s $150m.
Indeed, compared to the most expensive male-directed film ever made—$378m for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—Jenkins’s “record” looks paltry. On Stranger Tides has a score of 32 per cent on the Rotten Tomatoes film website; Green Lantern’s is 27 per cent; The Hulk’s 55 per cent. On the other hand, Wonder Woman’s is 92 per cent. This gives some indication of how much better women directors have to be in order to succeed in Hollywood.
It has been argued that commercial and/or critical successes like Wonder Woman or The Beguiled will ensure women are given higher budgets in future. Jenkins in particular seems a triumph in this regard: a real life Wonder Woman who triple-kicked through the glass ceiling, took on the superhero boys’ club and won—proving for once and for all that audiences and critics do like “superheroines,” as well as female directors. Vanquished mogul sceptics should concede defeat and commission more women to direct films about women.
But if the figures are anything to go by, progress isn’t a certainty. Indeed, those who think it is might heed the fate of Coppola’s Lost in Translation—it drew in $119m off a $4m budget, and that changed very little. Hollywood has a deeply entrenched sexism problem, and it will take more than one or two films to solve