Lights, camera…sexism?

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” released last summer, started a growing buzz that she would be the fourth woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Achievement in Direction. Jane Campion is garnering similar Oscar talk for her historical romance, “Bright Star” (2009) and Best Actress hopefuls Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep were both featured in female-directed films by Lone Scherfig and Nora Ephron, respectively.

Unfortunately, there is hardly any chance that the movie-going public has ever heard of Bigelow or Campion, despite the fact that each has been making movies for over 20 years. As a matter of fact, female directors rarely take the spotlight the way male directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze so frequently do. There is also no female equivalent in popularity to powerhouse directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese.   

Catherine Hardwicke might be the only female director to recently capture the public eye, thanks to the “Twilight” (2008) phenomenon. The amount of exposure she received was great, but the film was not — arguably because of its direction. Rarely ever are women directors lauded for their camera work or their ability to draw great performances out of their actors.

Of the top 250 highest-grossing films of 2007, women directed only a cool six percent. According to Women Make Movies, a non-profit organization that addresses the discrepancies in gender in the film industry, that statistic indicates a decrease from 2000, when films directed by women made up 11 percent. The numbers vary from year to year, but the pattern is obvious: While adult women are one of the largest movie-going target groups, hardly any Hollywood films are being made by women.
Words from women on filmmaking        It’s important to note that film school isn’t discouraging women from making films. In fact, film school graduates are split by gender roughly 50-50. It’s the inner workings of the film business that somehow put up numerous roadblocks for women, especially when it comes to receiving funding for their films.

Filmmaker, screenwriter and lecturer in the drama and dance department Susan Kouguell has worked in the film business for years, including with powerhouse production companies like Miramax and Paramount. Now, on top of running her own screenwriting consulting firm, Kouguell also teaches a screenwriting class and a course on women in film at Tufts.

While the reasons behind the “boys club” attitude of the business are impossible to discern, Kouguell agrees that women are consistently undermined by the major studios.

“There seems still to be a — I don’t know if ‘lack of trust’ is too strong a phrase — but perhaps that, in giving female filmmakers the financing for films,” Kouguell said.

Even though she was allowed into the inner circle of a male-dominated domain, Kouguell still feels the difficulties of working in the Hollywood film business as a female filmmaker.   

“I think there’s still discrimination,” Kouguell said. “I hate to say it but I see what it’s like and it’s really hard. You have to have a tough skin and you have to really stand up for yourself. But I think [that’s true] across almost every job industry.”

Another female filmmaker who is just starting out in the business is Lauren Tracy, a 21-year-old student at Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the founders of X-Factor Filmmakers, an organization dedicated to helping fund female-directed films.

After beginning film school, Tracy realized that the industry wasn’t as welcoming to female filmmakers as to men. Tracy wanted to help other women get their films made. Along with her graphic designer father Rick Tracy, they decided to sell female filmmakers t-shirts to raise money to help women filmmakers succeed.

The organization gave out its first award last May and is hoping to expand by partnering with other non-profit companies. X-Factor Filmmakers also hope to get more traffic to its website by holding a bracket contest in which viewers can rate 32 movies by female directors, narrowing down to one winner. Predictions end Nov. 15 and anyone interested can go to

Tracy has learned how to handle working on film sets, especially since noting that there are hardly ever other women surrounding her.   

“People were surprised when I said I wanted to be a director,” Tracy said. “Because I’m a woman, it seemed like they were surprised but then more interested and would ask me questions about it.”        Running an organization that specifically caters to female filmmakers has made Tracy sensitive to gender issues within the business, but she maintains that it’s important never to pigeonhole a man or a woman into a certain type of artistry.

“I wouldn’t necessarily go to a film because it’s directed by a woman,” Tracy said. “I don’t feel that I have a feminist mentality; I have a fair one.”   

She also takes a more positive view of how the business actually works for women, adding, “It’s not that I think women are being treated poorly on set on purpose. It’s just how it’s been from the beginning, and it’s changing slowly for this industry.”

What women are (and aren’t) doing

Despite the difficulties of getting films made, anyone who follows directors and knows their work can say that there are a plethora of talented female filmmakers out there: Campion, Bigelow, Mira Nair, Sally Potter and Sofia Coppola, to name just a few. The problem is that rarely ever do their movies make large profits, at least not the kind of money Hollywood executives can get from a Michael Bay picture, for example.   

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeanne Dillon has been teaching film classes at Tufts for many years and she agreed with the theory that many women’s films don’t get made because they aren’t deemed money-making enterprises.

“It’s a commerce world,” Dillon said. “Movies aren’t treated as an art form; they’re treated as a form of entertainment.”   

There are exceptions to the rule, such as Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron, who make romantic comedies like Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give” (2006) or Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) — both of which grossed over $200 million.

“I don’t just show movies [in class] because they’re made by women, because that doesn’t do it for me,” Dillon said. “I’m not out there to say movies done by women are the best, because they’re not.”

Whether women are making films about war, relationships, history or sex, it’s important that they too have a voice. When men direct and write movies for women, like “He’s Just Not That Into You” (2009) which made over $100 million and women don’t get to respond, the viewing experience is skewed.

“The idea of a man writing or directing a film for women has always intrigued me,” Tracy said. “But there are many men who like to make these movies and are good at it, so I don’t think it matters.”

Because of the huge discrepancy between films for women by men and those for women by women, many women in the entertainment business have banded together to try to change the old ways and break in.

Organizations like Women in Film and Women Make Movies provide an opportunity for women to raise money and screen their films outside of the traditional business. An arts activist group called Guerilla Girls created billboards and advertisements a few years ago that aggressively put the gender differences in Hollywood front and center.

Though funding their films remains a challenge, women might find opportunities through new, more readily available technology — as films can be made on a handheld camcorder and turned into massive Hollywood projects overnight. Kouguell claimed that this change was the most significant since she got involved the business, and probably the one that would help women get their work out there more prevalently than before.

“What’s really changed things since I started is that it’s not as expensive to make a film anymore. You can do it on a digital camera. There are so many ways to make an inexpensive film, and then you can post it on YouTube,” Kouguell said.