Female movie directors: some thoughts and questions

Lake Bell's In A World

I’m keeping track of the movies I watch this year, and it dawned on me during the opening credits of Lake Bell‘s In A World…a funny, poignant, and sometimes scathing comedy about the male-dominated world of the movie-trailer voice-over business that Bell also wrote and starred in, that this was the first non-documentary film directed by a woman I was watching in 2014’s first 22 days. I wasn’t looking for it, and I wasn’t avoiding films directed by women. There are just so few (in my collection, on Netflix, in theatres, ever) that it took this long to come across one naturally, browsing a list of new DVD releases this week.

I specify non-documentary, because The Square and Blackfish were directed by women, Jehane Noujaim and Gabriela Cowperthwaite, respectively. It does seem like women get more opportunities in non-fiction film and television than they do elsewhere. At this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, all five nominees in the “best direction in a documentary program” category are women: Nimisha Mukerji, Ann Shin, Bobbi Jo Hart, Alanis Obomsawin and Min Sook Lee. At the Oscars, two of the five nominated documentaries were directed or co-directed by women, The Act of Killing and The Square. (The producers take home the awards in the best movies categories, but it’s interesting to point this out. Plus, two documentaries that many thought would be nominated, Blackfish and Stories We Tell, were also directed by women, Cowperthwaite and Canadian Sarah Polley. )

In In A World… Bell is the daughter of a voice-over legend. She’s a vocal coach who, on a whim, auditions for a voice-over job and is surprised to get it. Jobs start rolling in for her and, much to the chagrin and disbelief of her legendary dad, she, her father and his protege are the final three contenders for one of the most important and coveted voice-over jobs ever: the trailer for a movie based on a quadrilogy of popular YA novels. The trailers will use the famous “In a world…” line made famous by Don LaFontaine. Until In A World…, Bell was relegated to second fiddle to more established Hollywood leading ladies. She played Natalie Portman’s character’s friend in No Strings Attached, Cameron Diaz’s BFF in What Happens in Vegas and the new girlfriend of Eva Longoria’s ex-boyfriend in Over Her Dead Body (Diaz and Longoria make cameo appearances in In A World…). I was first introduced to Bell on Boston Legal and I thought then, like I think now, that she was a charming actress who might never be given her due. With In A World… she demands it.

It’s a very funny movie with a wholly original story about a seldom visited world. She handles it all beautifully. It didn’t get a wide release in 2013 and the movie was released on DVD on Jan. 21. I hope people will check it out. It grossed $3 million at the box office, good for no. 8 on the top-10 list of the biggest grossing films of 2013, but it’s only no. 159 overall. The full list is at Variety.

I don’t have answers or solutions. I’m not even suggesting this a new problem I’m unearthing, and I won’t pretend to know why there is such a huge discrepancy between the number of films directed by women and those directed by men. But I have thoughts, and hope you’ll share yours.

There are many issues at play here and unresolved questions. Is the number of working female/male directors proportional to the number of women/men in film school? Is it close? Are women also producing and writing at a non-proportional rate? Are producers and studios reluctant to sign on a female director? If so, why? Are female directors less of a draw to filmgoers? I don’t think the average moviegoer pays attention to that stuff, unless it’s a big name. Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino. Those are draws for some. Of the top-10 highest grossing films of 2013, nine were movies based on previously published/super popular material, or a sequel to a testosterone-full franchise (Gravity is the only original film in the top 10). Only one, Frozen, was directed (actually, co-directed) by a woman. Moviegoers are drawn to these popular franchises regardless of the director, so it becomes hard for me to see the problem as not being caused by studios and producers not hiring women to helm their movies, specifically the tentpoles and sure hits. Is it that women aren’t willing, interested or entrusted to direct mindless action movies? Some of the worst movies ever and the biggest box-office bombs were directed by men: seems to me studios aren’t even willing to take risks on female directors.

There are recognizable and established and very respected movie directors who also happen to be women: Jane Campion, Nicole Holofcener, Kathryn Bigelow (to date the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar, and one of only four women to ever be nominated), Sofia Coppola, Lisa Cholodenko, Deepa Mehta, Lynne Ramsay and the late Nora Ephron, among many others. If big and recognizable is what it’s going to take to command respect behind the camera, it could explain why it took Lake Bell this long to make In A World… Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman are also directing movies slated for a 2014 release. But this year isn’t looking any more encouraging. In the first half of 2014, and according to this movie-release schedule, only three releases will be directed by women (Endless LoveBelle, and Laggies). Where there is some hope is that stories about and/or by women are popular and anticipated. Suzanne Collins wrote the Hunger Games series of books, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is getting the big-screen treatment by David Fincher, and Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir Wild is being adapted by Jean-Marc Vallée.

I’m genuinely curious what you think. If you have answers to any of the questions above, comment below. But I really don’t know. Share good articles and books on the subject. I want to learn more about all of this. Do solutions exist?

Read more:

The bigger the film, the fewer the women, via The Independent.

The 10 highest grossing films directed by women of 2013, via Variety.

Where are all the female filmmakers, via Rolling Stone.

Sundance is here and the world discovers women can direct, via IndieWire.

Dear Hollywood: Hiring women directors could rescue the superhero movie. Love, half the human race, via RogerEbert.com.

Lexi Alexander on Hollywood’s treatment of women.


3 thoughts on “Female movie directors: some thoughts and questions

  1. Jamie Sarner January 30, 2014 / 11:23

    There are several reasons that pop into mind why Hollywood looks like one big boys’ club. Lack of female film-makers in the long term for one. Studios even can’t imagine a woman in charge and therefore systematically discourage them in the fund raising process for a movie. This failure to progress has often been blamed on a chauvinist culture and the fact that financing is controlled by men. Secondly there’s been also crisis of character in the movies. Seems like some toys and action is all that’s left to entertain masses of movie goers which again consists largely of teenage boys. Women with their insight for character depiction retreated to TV shows as screenplay writers and producers. Three, absence of influential women on top creates also vacuum of strong female protagonist on the screen. It’s a vicious cycle so embedded in our society, that we might see just a little or no change in the following years. But the landscape is changing fast and with players like Netflix and the rise of good TV series there’s a chance women will find their way behind the movie camera.


    • Chris Hanna February 7, 2014 / 23:44

      Thanks for reading, Jamie, and for your insightful answer.


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