01/27/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Oscar Season Is Here: So We Ask "Does Gender Matter?"

It's true there's no business like show business. Yet film and television productions embody cultural art forms and also represent a team sport. Storytelling in motion takes inspiration and drive along with a strong group effort. And there are multiple leaders within the different layers on set, but clearly directors and producers lead and help establish the tone and manner. There are both men and women who do these jobs but looking at that playing field, we see it is not equally distributed. Realizing this, I partnered with independent film producer Tracy Marino to explore some of the how and why behind the people who continue to reflect and expand on the age-old bedtime plea, "Tell me a story!"

In the U.S., women comprise 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers and editors (The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-The-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2010). And within these numbers the incidence is higher with female producers (24 percent) vs. female directors (7 percent). These numbers are actually slightly down from 1998. And yet, for the first time in history, the 2010 Best Director Oscar went to a woman. Internationally, a snapshot in Ireland shows the percentage of female directors making features was 13 percent from 2000-2005 and from 2006-2010, it was 19 percent (Louise Ryan, Marketing and Communications Executive at the Irish Film Board).

In the festival circuit, the numbers seem to be a bit stronger. In the past five years, according to Genna Terranova, program director at the Tribeca Film Festival, generally 20-30 percent of submissions are made by women filmmakers with the same percentage reflected in yearly awards. Last year, however, saw women taking a majority of the accolades, winning five of the nine juried 201g1 feature film awards. Moreover Genna sees it as an important part of her job to bring different perspectives of storytellers to the audience. And different perspectives include gender diversity.

Similarly at SXSW, Janet Pierson, film program director, says, "We look for a balanced program without hard quotas." And she's seen "no shortage of women directing documentaries, but there is only a fraction of narrative films from women." Why is that? "Who knows, maybe this has something to do with ego. To be a director you have to be completely self-absorbed in your vision, whereas the producer role is all about supporting a team."

Elizabeth Avellán, producer of big budget films like Spy Kids and Sin City as well as indie films like Blacktino (with filmmaker Aaron Burns), believes being a producer is a lifestyle, not just a job. "The way I produce, you are a family. We all work together towards a goal. In a more nurturing environment, there is more of a desire from people to do a better job." Elizabeth also gives credit to having been inspired by women who "not only knocked on the door, they kicked it in." Women like Dawn Steel, Sherry Lansing, Lynda Obst, Kathleen Kennedy and Debra Hill, who encouraged Elizabeth early in her career.

Likewise, Kat Candler, screenwriter, director and film lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas State University, believes "there is a great value in mentorships. Just someone to ask questions, career advice, or simply say, 'you can totally do this.' Hearing those words and believing them was huge for me."

For Rose Troche, who has been Director and/or Producer across both film and television (Go Fish, The Safety of Objects, The L Word, Concussion), she believes women have not been able to access the same gateways as men. Certainly we see the numbers lower in general but there are even fewer female directors and yet, when asked about her work as director vs. producer, Rose says simply, "Both roles are stressful, just in different ways." And there is a difference between leading your own project and when you come onto someone else's project. "On my films, I didn't have to prove myself" in the same way as coming onto someone else's project where a woman might encounter more initial resistance when walking on set than a man would based on the dynamic of women being in the minority of directors which triggers gender-biased reactions.

Irish Producer, Martina Niland (Once, The Honeymooners, Pavee Lackeen, The Rafters), having worked with both male and female directors, says, "I can't really say I noticed a difference in method, style, or attitude." And when thinking about the characteristics of a good producer, feels "it's about the producers themselves. I have my opinion as to what I believe a good producer should be but this has absolutely nothing to do with whether that person is a male or a female."

While producer Karin Chien (Circumstance, The Exploding Girl, Jack & Diane, Stones in the Sun) has seen, especially in first time female directors, a certain fearless "going for broke" type drive, which may be even stronger than a male director perhaps because circumstances warrant it.

Along those same lines, Rebecca Fulton (script supervisor; Tree of Life, Friday Nights Lights, Transamerica) thinks "we don't see as many women in the director's chair from simple lack of audacity. We women are much more inclined to believe we need to be 'ready.'" But "you're never ready for anything you've never done until you do it."

Whichever your gender, though, drive and confidence help get any project done which means the road of opportunities may well be the deciding factor.

From her perspective in Ireland, Martina Niland says the U.S. film industry does seem to be a business, first and foremost, while in Europe, "there is a huge cultural aspect involved. It is still a business but there is more maneuverability in terms of the content funded and produced."

And producer Karin Chien sees the landscape in a numbers vs. structural vs. content point of view. The numbers, while shifting, still have men in the majority of film makers. And Chien has seen a nuance to the structure depending on East Coast vs. the West Coast, with varying degrees of an "old boy" network experience still in play. And then this structure affects the content produced. But in a classic "which came first" type scenario, does content establish audience or does audience establish content?

In a 2011 60 Minutes interview with Morley Safer, Meryl Streep said of the big blockbusters films these days, that's "the narrowing of the audience. The movie business has worked very assiduously to discourage intelligent, discerning people from the movie theater. They have worked hard to get rid of you, because you don't go, then buy toys and games."

Film and television are an interdependent enterprise, with distributors, creators and audience all exerting influence on the equation. And yes, the business end will always strive for return on investment, but the creators and the audience have the responsibility of making their voices heard to help evolve and grow a healthy diversity of story telling. And this evolution gets fueled when things happen like...

Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director for Hurt Locker recognized that women should be contenders for awards and helps desensitize a stereotype around gender as it links to content.

We see producers like Karin Chien focusing on making the films she wants to see, which includes woman protagonists. Or like director/producer Rose Troche, who is currently working on creating a collective for female filmmakers, to help facilitate more voices being heard.

And whatever stage we are at or role we play, understanding the significance and responsibility of mentoring, not as a way to herald one gender over another, but in terms of being curious about both female and male voices encouraging individuals of both genders.

Because, in the end, most people likely do not look at film or television options through gender biased glasses... they just want to hear, and see, a great story.

Karin Chien: Circumstance trailer:

Kat Candler Sundance selected short:

Martina Niland: Snap trailer

This post was co-written by independent film producer Tracy Marino.