Director Kathryn Bigelow poses for her new film 'Zero Dark Thirty' in New York December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) - RTR3B7GR
Photograph by Andrew Kelly – Reuters

A new study finds that just 16% of the writers, directors and producers of the top 100 films of 2014 were women. Here's what to do about that.

By Marin Gazzaniga
August 6, 2015

While it’s no secret that Hollywood isn’t a great place to be a woman looking for work, it’s hard not to be shocked by the latest report from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The study finds that only 15.8% of the writers, directors and producers of the top 100 films of 2014 were women. Given that, it’s perhaps not so surprising that only 21 of those top-grossing movies featured a female lead or co-lead.

Typically, the industry’s response to these types of statistics has been to launch women-oriented training programs. In the past two years, Sony, Viacom, Warner Bros., HBO and Fox are have all rolled out training or fellowship programs for women and/or minorities. The Writers Guild West lists another fifteen programs aimed at nurturing diverse writers for TV and film on its website.

While these programs are clearly a step in the right direction, there’s not yet any hard evidence that they’re working. Indeed, the Annenberg report notes that the 2014 stats on women directors are essentially the same as they were in 2013 and even 2007.

 

So, if not training programs, what changes might actually start to increase the number of powerful women in Tinseltown? Here, three recent ideas that caught our eye:

A price cut for women. A Canadian film studio is offering a 50% discount in fees to female directors or showrunners. This offer comes from Peter Apostolopoulos, president of TriBro Studios, and his co-producer Greg White. Their motivation? “We have daughters and we want a world where their gender has no bearing on the potential for them to succeed,” said Apostolopoulos. Of course, it would be nice if men were also motivated by sisters, mothers, friends, spouses or even talented female strangers to improve gender parity in Hollywood, but we’ll take it.

This strategy goes after the bottom line. The entertainment industry is known for being particularly risk-averse, which often means that production companies just keep calling the same people to head up their new projects. Apostolopoulos and White hope their move will give producers a financial motivation to try putting women at the helm. It will be interesting to see if it moves the needle on the number of women directors in Canada (which has a similar record to the U.S.)

Make the plumber a woman. A few years ago, Geena Davis, who founded her own Institute on Gender and Media, offered two easy ways to immediately increase women’s onscreen representation. First, change a bunch of the names in scripts that are in production from men’s to women’s. “With one stroke you’ve created some colorful un-stereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch.” And second, describe any crowd scene as half female. The Institute reports that a recent poll of industry executives “familiar with [their] message” found that their ideas may be getting through. Of those polled, “over a quarter changed the aspirations/occupations of female characters or their dialogue. Close to one-fifth changed story development and 16% increased female characters as secondary characters.”

 

Give Hollywood a break. A tax break, that is. In New York, the Writers Guild East, has been lobbying for tax incentives to bring more writer’s rooms to New York, and included in the bill is a new approach: A credit for hiring a woman or minority. Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) explains, “We know the tax credit has been extraordinarily successful in attracting jobs to New York; producers most definitely calculate various aspects of their budgets with the tax credit in mind and make decisions accordingly. We anticipate the same thing would be true with this diversity tax credit.”

As with the TriBro Studios offer, the idea is to provide a financial motivation to get industry pros to try hiring fresh faces. “We believe there is a strong bench of writers who are women or people of color for whom this incentive would help open the door, to overcome the inertia in which people hire folks they already know,” says Peterson. While the bill didn’t make it all the way through the latest legislative session, it is expected to come up again—likely in the January-May 2016 session.

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