Lights, camera, discrimination! Women fight for equal future on film sets



Lights, camera, discrimination! Women fight for equal future on film sets

By Miranda Manier

Co Co Hong made her first film in seventh grade. She replicated a short film her teacher had made, inserting a bit of her own flair, and it sparked something in her. Since then, she has always known that filmmaking was her future. 

What Hong, a junior cinema and television arts major, didn’t realize until she began her studies was the lack of female filmmakers and stories in the industry.

In 2017, only 4 percent of cinematographers in the 250 top-grossing films were women, according to a study done by Women and Hollywood, a group that educates and advocates for gender equality. Of the 1,100  top-grossing films from 2007–2017, only 4.3 percent of all directors were women with only four black female directors, three Asian female directors and one Latina female director within that sample. During the 75th Golden Globe Awards, Jan. 7, actress Natalie Portman presented the Best Director award and made sure to point out the nominees were all male. 

In the history of the Golden Globe Awards, only seven women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one won—Barbra Streisand in 1984, who said as she presented an award in January, “That was 34 years ago. Time’s up. We need more women directors and more women to be nominated for Best Director.” 

For Hong, however, underrepresentation does not act as a deterrent. “I feel a little scared, like I am going into a boxing fight, and I know I’m going to end up with a bloody nose,” she said, “but I still want to be in that fight because I know that the more women are out there, the easier it will be for the people after us.” 

Maya Nudo, a junior cinema and television arts major, agreed that though she may be daunted by the inequality in the industry, it motivates her.

“It makes me excited to see those numbers grow and to have a hand in that because I know that there’s more than 4 percent [of women] who are working in the industry,” she said. “There are so many women who want to put in the work.” 

To place herself in the ring for the equality fight, Hong recently began a Facebook group called “Feme in Film” after realizing the lack of Columbia student organizations for women in film. According to Hong, the Facebook group is meant to make opportunities on sets of student projects accessible to other women and to spark a conversation about their experiences in the industry. 

When Jennifer Warren founded the Alliance of Women Directors in 1997, she was striving toward a similar goal.

While at a dinner for the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, a mentoring program for female screen directors, Warren and some of the other few working female directors realized what it was like to be in the company of their peers—an opportunity they rarely had—and started the AWD. 

“Everybody was so thrilled to be together to finally have somebody who had gone through some of the same problems that they had,” Warren said. “When I got up to speak, I said, ‘This is too good. This is too important to all of us not to keep this going.’ We can give each other support and information and band together at this time when nobody [is] interested in having a woman direct anything.” 

According to Warren, the AWD acted as a support group more than anything over its first 18 years. The women who belonged to it struggled with being shut out of the industry, and often had to create their own independent projects and attach themselves to the material. 

According to a 2014 study done by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, 70.2 percent of movies with a female director submitted to the Sundance Festival from 2002–2014 were distributed by independent companies, which have lesser financial resources and industry clout, compared to only 56.9 percent of movies with a male director. 

“[Agents] would say, ‘Oh, there aren’t any women directors,’” Warren said. “Or, ‘Oh, there are a few, but they’re all working.’ We have over 300 members. Obviously there are a lot of women directors; it’s just that nobody wants to face the problem. It’s discrimination.” 

Because of problems like this, producers started bypassing agents altogether and coming to the AWD to find female directors for specific projects. The AWD has responded by compiling a database that organizes its members by genre and budget so producers can reach out to them directly. 

Groups and resources such as AWD are imperative for women entering the industry. In 1980, Sherry Lansing became the first woman to head a major studio when she became president of 20th Century Fox Productions. While Lansing could have used her position to do her part in leveling the playing field by starting programs like AWD, she did not, nor did she begin any mentoring programs like AFI’s. Women opening doors for other women, is what Hong hasn’t seen even in an academic environment at Columbia. 

Hong has witnessed senior females at Columbia who refuse to offer help to younger students, she said, so everyone will have to struggle against the same obstacles. 

This is the mentality that must change so that women like Ciara Holloway, a 2017 cinema and television arts alumna who moved to Los Angeles in 2017 to pursue screenwriting and producing, can have opportunities in the industry. Holloway has struggled, not just as a woman in the industry, but with the feeling of being the lone voice of a minority as an African-American woman.

“Whenever there’s a huge difference in an industry with the majority of people that are working in it, you’re always going to feel like, ‘I can’t do this, no one’s going to listen to my voice.’ But you have to work through that,” Holloway said. “There [have] been moments where I think, ‘I’m African American, so no one’s going to listen to what I say,’ or, ‘I’m a woman, so no one’s going to take it seriously,’ but you just have to look past that because there’s so many people who have proven that wrong in the industry.” 

Women have fought to prove to younger female filmmakers like Holloway that opportunities can be found or created, despite how desolate things may seem. In 2017, movies such as “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins; “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees; and “Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig, all told the stories of women and were met with critical acclaim and box-office success. 

However, despite “Wonder Woman” being the highest-grossing superhero origin film  in history, with global box office totals more than $821.74 million and a 92 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film and Jenkins were shut out at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. “Lady Bird” was nominated for four Golden Globe awards, including Best Screenplay and Best Musical or Comedy, but Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film, was not nominated for Best Director. 

Gerwig also was not nominated at the British Academy Film And Television Arts awards. When questioned about this, chairman of the BAFTA film committee Marc Samuelsson told Variety what agents and executives had told Warren: “There aren’t enough female directors.” 

This lack of recognition and circular rhetoric is what undermines the progress that is made each time a woman is given exposure for her work. 

If women are producing popular and well-received content but are not publicly recognized for their work, they will continue to be dismissed by those in the industry. Major studio executives who want to win awards will still have an excuse to cite for women in behind-the-scenes roles not being competitive contenders on big-budget film sets.

The impact  made when women are recognized for their work is clear. Only four women had previously been nominated for the Academy Award for best director. When Kathyrn Bigelow was the first woman to win the category in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker,” it said to Gerwig for the first time, “This is a job available to you,” according to a January interview with Variety. Now Gerwig brings the count of female nominees to five. 

According to Susan Kerns, co-founder of the Chicago Feminist Film Festival and adjunct cinema and television arts professor, that recognition will continue to motivate and empower women to fight through the barriers that still exist for them.

“You get a sense, when you don’t see people like you in an industry, that that industry is not for you,” Kerns said. “So the more that we can see black women getting recognized for their work, as soon as we start to see wider recognition in all of these [behind-the-scenes] roles … [these] roles in the industry can be opened up to all kinds of people.” 

For Hong, throwing punches and fighting to open up those roles for women is exactly what she wants to do.

“I’m so ready to fight this fight,” she said, “because it’s worthwhile. A bloody nose will be worth it.”