Film & Television

Hollywood News: The (Relative) Upside of a Down Year

The pandemic has taken a greater toll on the health and lives of marginalized communities. It’s also taken a greater toll on the professional lives of women. After a decade of momentum, women in the workforce have lost ground this year. 

Many have left voluntarily in response to the pandemic. There are two main reasons for this, both centering on children across the country being asked to learn remotely. Without school or other childcare available, households are reverting to traditional roles, with mothers assuming the bulk of parenting. And in many households, the man still earns more, so if someone is going to stop working it will be the woman. According to CNN, 617,000 women left the U.S. workforce this past September, compared with only 78,000 men. 

In December numbers released by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, 156,000 women lost their jobs due to layoffs, furloughs, downsizing, or businesses closing. (To add insult to injury, 16,000 men actually gained jobs.) If you look at all of 2020, 5.4 million women were affected versus 4.4 million men.

Oddly enough, one industry that seems to be experiencing the opposite is Hollywood.

For years, Women’s Voices for Change, along with other progressive and female centric publications, has bemoaned the lack of opportunity for women in film, particularly as writers and directors. The women leading film projects, not to mention those lauded for their efforts, can only be described as exceptional. And, I’m not talking about the quality of their work; I literally mean that a woman who manages to secure a budget to make a major motion picture is an exception to the rule. In 92 years, only 5 women (of a total of 460) have been nominated for Best Director the Academy Award. Only one has ever won: Kathryn Bigelow in 2008 for The Hurt Locker.

San Diego State University’s “Celluloid Ceiling” has tracked women’s employment on the top-grossing films for more than 20 years. It’s the oldest and most comprehensive study of its kind, named after the industry’s own version of the glass ceiling that blocks women from achieving top positions across most industries. Women have been and remain active in independent films, like Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, and Natalie Erika’s Relic. But it’s of particular interest to look at women’s inclusion in top-grossing (which usually means liberally financed and highly promoted) films.

With most movie theaters shuttered and production slowed or temporarily halted, “Celluloid Ceiling” adjusted its usual report, eliminating the “500 Top Films” category and including instead an analysis of films “Watched at Home.”

Across all major roles measured (director, writer, executive producer, producer, editor, and cinematographer), there was a modest increase of one percentage point for the top 100 films, and two points for the top 250. But, women directors saw significant growth, helming 16% of the top 100 films, up from 12% in 2019 and a deplorable 4% in 2018. There was also steady improvement for women directing the top 250 films, with 18% in 2020, in contrast to 13% in 2019 and 8% in 2018. 

Founder of San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, Dr. Martha Lauzen, sees the growth as encouraging. She recently told The Guardian, “Even without the release of some of this year’s most anticipated big-budget films by women — including Chloé Zhao’s Eternals and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow — the percentage of women working as directors inched upward in 2020. The good news is that we’ve now seen two consecutive years of growth for women who direct. This breaks a recent historical pattern in which the numbers trend up one year and down the next.” But, she points out, “The bad news is that fully 80% of top films still do not have a woman at the helm.” 

Nevertheless, not only were there more women directors, but some were entrusted with the industry’s most anticipated — and big budget — titles. 

Patty Jenkins released the sequel to her famously successful Wonder Woman. After a delay, Wonder Woman 1984 was released for video on HBO Max, and didn’t achieve the rave reviews of the first movie. (The first earned 93% on the critics aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes; the sequel, just 60%.) Jenkins has been vocal about her creative battles with Warner Brothers, but is already contracted to direct the next Wonder Woman film.

Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) also missed out on a big opening weekend, releasing in just a handful of open cinemas and on demand. Produced and starring Margot Robbie, the demented tale of female empowerment earned respectable reviews, and has won awards from comic and superhero fan groups.

Another superheroine movie of sorts, Disney’s live action Mulan, was directed by Niki Caro, known for 2002’s gorgeous, mythic Whale Rider and the more recent The Zookeeper’s Wife. Again, plans for lucrative box office receipts were thwarted by COVID; Mulan debuted as a pay-per-view option, and is now available on Disney+.

If 2020’s top female directors proved they could tackle action and adventure (not to mention magic lassoes, baseball bats, swords, and state-of-the-art CGI), their peers are receiving the level of serious critical attention that often leads to Oscar nods. 

Emerald Fennell (known better for her acting in Call the Midwife and The Crown) makes her directorial debut with Promising Young Woman, a provocative revenge fantasy/dark comedy that takes the #MeToo movement to a shocking and satisfying new level. Oscar-winning actress Regina King is also making her feature film debut (after years of television directing) for One Night in Miami, which chronicles a fictitious meeting of Malcolm X, Mohammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.

Director Chloé Zhao is also getting her share of attention for Nomadland, in which a woman who has lost everything becomes a modern-day rover. Zhao’s leading actress, Frances McDormand, already a two-time Oscar winner, is attracting award season buzz as well. And, finally, veteran if underrated director of Meek’s Crossing (2010), Kelly Reichardt, tells the story of an unlikely partnership in the nineteenth-century American Northwest in her film First Cow

We’ll have to hope for the best at the Oscars. Meanwhile, the marked increase of women directors is a reason to celebrate. Then again, you have to stop and think that it’s rather sad that a gender that makes up 50% of the students in film schools (not to mention slightly more than that in the overall U.S. population) directs only one in five films. 

Still, 2020, by most counts a very bad year, did deliver some good news … relatively speaking. Someday, maybe, there will be genuine and meaningful equity behind the camera.

Let’s just add this to the list of things we can hope for in 2021.


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