This Movie Gave Me Cooties: Why There Are No Female Directors
Name all the female movie directors you can in one minute, right now. No Google. I’ll wait.
Are you done? Now, let me make some predictions here, tell me if I’m wrong. You probably mentioned Sophia Coppola. You probably got Kathryn Bigelow, or more likely, you said “The Hurt Locker lady.” Depending on how film-savvy you are, you may have said Norah Ephron, Amy Heckerling, or if you’re a history buff, Leni Riefenstahl. More than likely, you struggled after three or four names. If you got more than ten, we’ll send you a T-shirt. (Note: No, we won’t.)
The truth is, there’s no actual shortage of female film directors. What is in short supply, however, is opportunity for these women to gain exposure to a massive mainstream audience. We all know there’s a gender disparity in Hollywood. It’s 2012, time to start talking about it.
Somewhere along the line, a myth started that Hollywood is liberal and progressive. No one quite knows why, maybe it’s because film studios don’t hate gay people enough. In any case, this is a falsehood, because all major film production companies are held captive by the same determining factor: The ticket-buying audience. The first factor in the Hollywood gender battle is the fear of losing the demographic that makes a major tentpole release the most money- males ages 18-35. There’s a fear in the entire entertainment industry that men won’t consume works coming to them by female authors. This is nothing new. It’s the reason the Harry Potter books were written by J.K. Rowling and not Joanna Rowling. It’s worth noting that for some reason, male directors are afforded the privilege of appeasing multiple audiences, but women are not. Rob Reiner and Garry Marshall have made their entire careers out of making movies for women, but it’s highly unlikely to see a woman directing a Batman movie, for example.
I have to mention the notable exceptions to the rule, starting with 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander. While it’s debatable if this is the better of the Punisher films, it’s definitely the most violent and gory. As far as comic book characters go, Frank Castle is in the upper echelons of testosterone, and here we have a woman understanding the character just as well, and arguably better, than her male counterpart, 2004 Punisher director Jonathan Hensliegh. I am ignoring the 1989 Punisher film with Dolph Lundgren, because it is terrible and should not be discussed by anyone. Then of course, we have to consider The Hurt Locker. We’ve all focused on the wrong part of this story. The fact that Kathryn Bigelow was the first female director to win a Best Director Oscar is not the important part. The fact that she won with that particular film is. The Hurt Locker is primarily a man’s story, in a genre where female points of view are generally ignored. Let’s consider that Oscar Race for a second, actually. You put a female director telling a story about adrenaline junkies in a war zone who love making things explode up against a male director, (her ex-husband, no less!) who has a movie about a forbidden romance in a fantasy world with lots of pretty colors and giant blue magic horses. Bigelow had the manlier movie. This also may be why she won, but that’s another issue entirely. Then, of course, there’s the fact that Triumph of the Will, the most important war propaganda film of all time, a film created for the sole purpose of inspiring war was directed by a woman, and is still consulted today.
We’ve proven time and time again that women are capable of telling “men’s stories” as well as men are, but none of them have proven marketable enough to be worth mainstream attention in Hollywood’s eyes. For example, Alexander’s Punisher film was given a bigger budget and made a lot less money than Hensliegh’s, which makes studios like Marvel/Lionsgate not want to work with her, or female directors in general, anymore. Even American Psycho, which wins the “That was made by a woman?” award has never achieved more than cult hit status, similar to that of say, The Boondock Saints. It’s a ridiculous cycle. Because women have not proven profitable, studios aren’t giving them proper opportunities and exposure… which is why they have yet to prove profitable. This is why the majority of estrogen-helmed cinema is found in the indie circuit, with low-budget, low-risk films like The Iron Lady or Wuthering Heights. For whatever reason, Hollywood doesn’t trust women yet, because their society is permanently in the “girls are icky” part of childhood, and considering the current political climate, they may be right.
So the problem lies in getting those precious “breakthrough” jobs which take a director from independent films into the mainstream. Bigelow and Coppola got them, and all they had to do was respectively marry and be fathered by an already-established director. But by far the most egregious and ridiculous example of the “cootie fear” that producers seem to have comes from Catherine Hardwicke and her work on the first Twilight movie. Hardwicke is the most commercially successful female director of all time, and she should be a perfect example of what should be happening. She made a well-recognized independent film (Thirteen), had a few notable misses, then was offered what should have been a no-brainer. Twilight is aimed at young girls, and Hardwicke had already established she knew that audience. However, here’s the key point. When Hardwicke was hired, no one had any idea how huge Twilight was going to be. The rights were picked up by Summit on the cheap when Paramount lost them because they didn’t do anything with them. It was a starter movie for a new company, and when they bought it, they were purchasing a script where Edward fought FBI agents. So when Summit studios began to realize what a cash cow they had, they began to pull away, and ultimately fired Hardwicke from the sequels. (For the record, Hardwicke still claims it was her choice, for the record.) However speculative it may be, it seems suspicious at the very least that the one time a female director was given a high-level project, albeit accidentally, she was rejected in favor of safer, more dependable men when it came down to making actual money.
In order to end this bizarre fear of women, both moviemakers and movie-goers alike have to change concepts. The first step is already happening, we’re changing the way films are marketed towards women. The Hunger Games is a highly experimental film because it’s taking a genre which is normally mens’ domain, the sci-fi dystopia, and targeting young women with it. 2010’s criminally unseen Never Let Me Go worked similarly. Black Swan was a Cronenberg-esque body horror movie about ballerinas. In fact, somehow romantic comedies have been usurped by PG-13 horror and thriller movies for the crown of Girl’s Night Out choice. Hollywood is realizing what we all should have learned by college: That women are not a separate species whose brains evolved differently to like cuddly stuff and hate movies about people punching people. Hell, we need to re-think the entire outdated demographic system, but that’s never going to happen. It seems to me that putting a female director like Lexi Alexander at the helm of a Hunger Games sequel is a no-brainer, because if she can handle The Punisher, Katniss Everdeen should be simple enough.
Second, we don’t just need more female filmmakers, we need braver female filmmakers. What we don’t need is another Norah Ephron, a middle-aged woman who is fairly successful because she makes movies exclusively for middle-aged women to watch. This is basic logic: If you only make teen movies, you become a teen movie director. If you only make action movies, you become an action director. However, what Ephron does is essentially what studios want women to do: make quaint little romantic comedies that placate their female audience members. Ephron doesn’t make challenging films, what she does is the filmmaking equivalent of Staying In The Kitchen. What we need, from both genders, are filmmakers who aren’t afraid to take risks and work outside their comfort zones. We need to continue to show that female directors are able to tell stories that appeal to the precious male demographic, or even *gasp* both genders equally.
Finally, we need to offer female directors the luxury of failure. After having several hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including the fantastic Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, one poorly received film (2000’s Loser, which in all fairness, isn’t very good.) was all it took to doom Amy Heckerling into direct-to-video obscurity for the past decade. Any other director with five hit films to their name would have been afforded other chances, but somehow not Heckerling. Until studios stop thinking of hiring women as a “risky” maneuver, all women will somehow be lumped together. If a woman’s movie bombs, she’s hurting not only her own career, but the careers of her entire gender. It’s an unfair practice which has been in place forever, and probably won’t go anywhere. So how do we fix this? We can’t fight the bad, so all we can do is support the good. I’m not saying we should see movies simply because women directed them, I’m saying we should support good movies because they have talented women behind them. Coppola, Bigelow and even Hardwicke have had some minor victories recently, but there’s still an air of immaturity around the whole concept. For being over 100 years old, Hollywood is still very much a teenager, and it’s time to grow up.
Editor’s Note: Martin started writing this piece while the director’s chair for Catching Fire (Hunger Games) was up in the air, but now it seems as if it is coming down to some decidedly male choices. I, for one, 100% agree with Lexi being given more films, because she is a talented director who needs her time to shine. – Donald