Study shows how women directors get blocked in Hollywood

October 6, 2015, 9:00 PM UTC
Nominee for Best Director Kathryn Bigelo
Nominee for Best Director Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker," flanked by ex-husband and fellow nominee for Best Director James Cameron for "Avatar," reacts as her movie wins for best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing at the 82nd Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California on March 07, 2010. AFP PHOTO Gabriel BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Gabriel Bouys — AFP/Getty Images

Throwing statistical fuel on what is quickly becoming a show-biz conflagration, a just-released study on gender inequality in Hollywood finds that women directors are disadvantaged from the very beginning of their careers — and the disadvantage only grows. And as its lead author put it, “when money moves in, women get pushed out.”

The study released Tuesday – “Gender & Short Films: Emerging Female Filmmakers and the Barriers Surrounding their Careers” – was conducted by Stacy Smith, Ph.D., and her Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It found that for many female film directors, a career can begin — and end — with the making of short films, and that when a woman director moves into a position of making narrative features or feature films, the financing isn’t there, but the institutional biases are.

Looking at 10 of the world’s more prestigious film festivals (including Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, New York, Toronto and Amsterdam’s IDFA) over a five-year period (2010-14), the study found that women represent 28% of the directors of narrative shorts. But “female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers after making a short film,” Smith noted. “For males opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.” Women directed just 4.1% of the top-grossing movies from 2002-2014.

“What’s problematic,” Smith said in an interview, “is that women simply aren’t being considered for the larger directing jobs. People are making a big deal out of ‘Wonder Woman’ because a woman is attached to direct a larger action film.” (Patty Jenkins is directing the film, scheduled for release in 2017). Smith said it shouldn’t be assumed — as it often is — that women don’t want to do those kinds of projects.

The study comes at a time when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has launched an investigation into gender bias in Hollywood, as a result of an ACLU complaint filed in May. The USC study found that women make out far better in the realm of documentary, and low-budget independent films, but that there’s a dramatic drop-off in female participation when it comes to narrative in general, and studio movies in particular.

The study puts statistical muscle behind what a lot of women filmmakers already know. “Women directors face an uphill battle at every stage of their careers,” said Leah Meyeroff, founder of Film Fatales, a support network for female directors. But it “gets progressively steeper as they transition from short films to features and from lower to higher budgets.” The gate keepers in the film industry, she said, “need to work actively against their own passive biases to give women the same opportunities as men.”

Toward that end, Smith and her co-author Katherine Pieper, Ph.D., suggested that Hollywood would do well to adopt a version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, under which the studios (the teams) would agree to consider members of minority groups for their directing (coaching) jobs.

Among its other findings, the study – conducted with the support of the woman-centric LUNAFEST film festival — determined that:

  • Even among the 3,933 short-film directors examined at the 10 top worldwide fes­tivals, only 32% were females. This translates into a gender ratio of 2.13 male directors to every female director.
  • Thirty-seven per­cent of documentary directors were women versus 31 percent of animation directors and 28 percent of narrative directors.
  • Female documentarians were more likely to have films based outside the United States (40%) than from the United States (30%).
  • A majority of study participants said that familial responsibilities (i.e., parenting) made their careers more difficult.
  • Of women who had never made a feature film, 58% reported financial obstacles to creat­ing longer-form content.
  • Women described difficulty, too, in generating financing or interest in films about females, or individuals from underrepresented groups, in stereotypically feminine genres, or for female-ori­ented films.


The study’s position on short-films and gender parity was borne out at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “We programmed blindly, without regard to gender,” said Kathleen McInnis, one of TIFF’s ShortCuts programmers, “until the very end when we checked to see where we were with the numbers. To our happy surprise, we had nearly hit the gender parity point.” Not so the other sections of the Toronto festival. Nor anywhere else.

“One thing the study does,” said Pieper, “is look at a particular point of at women’s careers, where they start, whether they’re on equal footing — which they don’t seem to be — and what that means for their later careers.”

Added Smith: “People hire people who look like themselves, whom they’re comfortable with. So when we have more women in positions of influence at the greenlighting stage, the more diversity we’ll see.”