Hollywood's Gender Gap: What's Next?

04/30/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Last week, Sundance and Women in Film released the results of a three-year study and the news wasn't great for women who aspire to direct studio-backed films. But what action, if any, is being taken? I took the time during the past week to find out.

"We discovered the most profound and the most obvious thing," Cathy Schulman, president of production at STX and president of Women in Film, told me of the new research.

The obvious thing is that there's a gender imbalance in Hollywood. On the other hand, how profound that after all of this research and 30,000 data points, we discovered a gendered marketplace where potentially unconscious biases are actually preventing certain kinds of media being made or getting seen.

The authors of the report found that the ratio of male- to female-directed movies in competition at the Sundance fest from 2002 to 2014 was about three to one -- not a great ratio, but not tragic.

However, something dramatic happens after a woman directs her first indie feature -- nothing. After successfully directing that first film, the offers to direct a studio feature come flowing in like molasses. For the top 1,300 highest-grossing films released from 2002 to 2014, the ratio of male-to-female directors was more than 23 to one.

"When we started this work three years ago, one of the main obstacles was lack of awareness of the problem," Keri Putnam, executive director at the Sundance Institute recently told me. "The industry, both the women and the men, weren't understanding that it was a systemic problem that hadn't made progress over time."

Just a few years ago, it seemed that even though there were few women in the director's chair of major films, no one really wanted to talk about it. Now, the topic surfaces in articles and Twitter feeds quite frequently, but not often enough, perhaps, to combat some surprising biases against female filmmakers.

Here were some of the shocking stereotypes that industry execs listed as reasons for the gap:

-- 44 percent said female directors are perceived to make films for a subset and/or less significant portion of the marketplace;

-- 42 percent blamed a scarcity of female directors and a small pool from which to choose for big-budget features;

-- 25 percent cited women's perceived lack of ambition when taking on directing jobs;

-- 22 percent said lack of representation of women in decision-making roles in the industry was a factor in limiting job opportunities for female directors;

-- 12 percent said they believed that women "can't handle" certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew;

With such biases against women in the director's chair, it's going to be a while before we'll see gender parity. But there are fantastic female directors whose careers are happening right now. So as depressing as the news is, here are a few of the incremental changes I found being made to address the issue:

Producers Guild toolkit and Sundance's Female Filmmaker Initiative Resource Map

Both are works in progress and aim to put data at the fingertips of those pitching female-driven projects, helping them to combat stereotypes and biases with hard scientific data.

"It's the data to debunk the myths we saw out there," Lydia Dean Pilcher, producer and VP of motion pictures at the Producers Guild, told me. "Number one being the misconception that female-driven content isn't commercially viable."

The toolkit will be a data set, which producers can have at their fingertips in an effort to address institutional bias.

"The thing we also show in the toolkit is the power of the female demographic; we make an argument that there is money being left at the door," Pilcher said. Expect the toolkit to launch at Cannes.

Sundance is also working to make information more accessible. Its upcoming Female Filmmaker Initiative Resource Map will be a user-friendly searchable database compiling the opportunities, events, services, programs and resources available to U.S.-based women filmmakers.


"This is an area of work we're incredibly excited about and we feel we've made great progress on over the past year and a half," Putnam said about the efforts from Sundance.

We need to try to bring information, knowledge and empowerment around money ... access to financing specific film projects, skills like negotiation and general comfort around money, which has been a gap for women.

To that end, Sundance is providing mentorship and workshops for women at various points in their careers to work on skills necessary to lock in financing for their features.

There are also efforts underway to conduct more research on who it is providing the funding for the films being produced.

"We have to get a sense of the foreign marketplace frontier," Schulman said.

Unless a studio writes a single check, which is a very rare opportunity for anybody, most movies are financed by what I call the three-legged stool: foreign presales, soft money in the form of tax credits or subsidies, and then, equity.

Are we able to sell to buyers around the world, who essentially have a big handle on greenlighting most of our movies, movies that are by, for and about women? So far the answer to that is no, we're not.

More research

The latest study was big, but there's still more we don't know about where female filmmakers are getting lost in the system.

"We're going to try to understand what's happening at the collegiate level," Schulman said of upcoming research. "Although we do believe, based on relatively anecdotal sources, that we're seeing an equal number of men and women in the film schools, what we have no idea about are the politics happening inside the schools."

There will also be outreach to other industries to see how they achieved meaningful shifts in their business practices.

"We looked at the sustainable apparel coalition and how companies that are competitive within the apparel industry came together to help 'green' their industry outside of their competitive practices," said Putnam.


"We're not here to point the finger or to tell anyone in the industry what Sundance thinks should happen," said Putnam. "Our goal is to use this research and this dialogue to build a foundation for some really concerted work with a broader set of allies that goes beyond the non-profits."

Schulman stated,

We're going to try to convene a number of important stakeholders in this issue shortly to start talking about the systemic change with evidence we've gathered over the three years of research ... as to what might happen and what might be fixed.

Some people would like to see the conversation move faster. Legal action has been floated as a measure that would hold companies more accountable in their hiring practices. Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., director of USC Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative and author of the recent study, told the Hollywood Reporter that the industry might want to take a page from the NFL's playbook.

"To battle this bias, consider the Rooney Rule, an NFL-wide commitment to considering people of color for head coaching positions," Smith said. "A Hollywood Rooney Rule would ask execs and studio heads to, at least, interview women for director jobs."

Others don't believe that goes far enough.

"I've been pushing for the Rooney Rule for a while, but at this point we're so far down the road, in a bad way, that I believe only a quota will do," director Lexi Alexander told me. Alexander's Twitter feed has become a hub for the conversation around getting more female filmmakers in the director's chair.

As long as women directors make executives or heads of studios nervous and afraid -- because shareholders tend to get upset if a movie bombs, and in their mind we can only deliver bombs -- hiring women almost has to come with a protection clause, which, in this case, is a quota. You wouldn't lose your job because you took a risk for the diversity cause.

Alexander pointed out that most studios strive for diversity in all departments except creative.

"Look, this is obviously humiliating for those of us who know that we are as good as male directors, but there's no benefit in sticking our heads in the sand about the psychology that's at play here."