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Martha M. Lauzen Headshot

Hollywood Pipeline: Still a Pipe Dream for Women?

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Once again this year the nominees for many of the most coveted behind-the-scenes Oscars (best director, original screenplay, editor, and cinematographer) are exclusively male. The demographic homogeneity of these honorees reflects the largely male voting membership of the Academy, as well as the continuingly stubborn gender imbalance that pervades the film industry.

According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study of the top 250 domestic grossing films conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women accounted for a spare 9% of directors, 15% of writers, 20% of editors, 2% of cinematographers, and 25% of producers in 2012. In fact, 38% of films employed 0 or 1 woman in the above roles.

Those interested in shifting the gender dynamic in labor markets in general, and in filmmaking specifically, frequently mention "the pipeline" as a remedy to women's under-employment. This model suggests that more women will attain positions of power if more women enter and work their way through this mythic and underspecified pipeline. The pipeline is taken for granted as a direct and effective way to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions.

But what if it's not the clear solution?

Have we ever questioned what constitutes the pipeline for women working in film? Where does it begin? Is the launch pad graduation from top film and television schools across the country? Success with independent features? Short films? What about recognition in music videos or in cable and broadcast television? All of these venues have provided entry points for individuals interested in filmmaking, but are they clear paths to successful leadership? Unlike other types of businesses where there is a more clearly defined trajectory from point A to point B, the path to a successful film career is less clear.

The pipeline model is value-neutral in that it assumes industries are free of bias and that all individuals make their way through their careers similarly. Hollywood is far from being a pure meritocracy, however. The pipeline may be shorter for fledgling male talent than for female talent.

As Jay Fernandez pointed out in a 2011 article in The Hollywood Reporter, with some regularity studios entrust even relatively inexperienced men to direct 100 million dollar plus films. According to Fernandez, Columbia hired Marc Webb, who had only directed a single feature, 500 Days of Summer, to direct The Amazing Spider-Man with a hefty budget of $230 million. Similarly, Universal hired Carl Rinsch to direct 47 Ronin, a Samurai story budgeted at approximately $170 million. When he was hired, Rinsch had only directed a few short films. Disney hired Joseph Kosinski to helm Tron: Legacy with only commercials on his resume.

On the other hand, Anne Fletcher, who has directed three films since 2006 that have made more than $100 million in worldwide sales according to Box Office Mojo - including The Proposal, which grossed $317 million globally in the same year that Webb's debut grossed $61 million - has never helmed a film with a budget larger than $40 million!

The pipeline model assumes that talented individuals with sufficient drive will make it through, regardless of gender. If individuals fail to progress through the pipeline and find success, it's due to their own shortcomings. Similarly, former Harvard President Larry Summers suggested that the dearth of women scientists and engineers in tenured university positions is attributable to their "different availability of aptitude at the high end," rather than structural inequalities and bias in the tenure process. For filmmakers, this translates into the notion that women are not sufficiently driven or talented enough to work on big-budget features.

Furthermore, the pipeline model ignores tangential activities that are crucial to helping individual's careers. In the case of the film industry, the model doesn't consider, for example, that the majority of film critics and writers in this country are male. According to a study conducted by the Center, men write 70% of reviews appearing in the top 100 newspapers (by circulation) in the United States. Informal interviews conducted with editors and writers reveal that many male writers express a preference to review male-driven and/or male-directed films. Are we surprised such films get more and better media coverage? In turn, this visibility likely reinforces the largely (white) male Academy member's natural inclinations to identify with male protagonists and male filmmakers.

The fact is the pipeline metaphor is an insufficient way to think about the labor market for women in film. Attracting larger numbers of well trained, ambitious, and talented women alone is largely irrelevant if executives and investors holding the purse strings to film financing and distribution make decisions based on less-than-positive gender stereotypes about women's abilities. Finding and training talented filmmakers, who happen to be women, is the easy part of this equation. Changing widely held and deeply ingrained industry and social attitudes about women's skills and drive, that's the tricky part.

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen serves as the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University and is the author of numerous original studies of women working in film (The Celluloid Ceiling) and television (Boxed In).

Jennifer Siebel Newsom wrote, directed and produced the Sundance documentary Miss Representation. She is the Founder and CEO of MissRepresentation.org and an Executive Producer of the Academy Award-nominated The Invisible War. Her new film series, The Mask You Live In, is currently in production.