Missing in action: Female directors. Will the EEOC nail Hollywood?

A defining moment for me as a movie critic?

Here’s one.

Up on screen is Goldie Hawn as Judy, the title figure in Private Benjamin (1980), a twice-wed, once-widowed Philadelphia princess who finds herself, both as a military strategist and as a woman. After Judy spends a blissful night with a male civilian, she reflects, “Now I know what I’ve been faking all these years.”

When the audience erupts in laughter, I feel in my funny bone that a woman wrote that. (Her name: Nancy Meyers. Today, she is better known as the writer/director of What Woman Want and The Intern.)

Like Judy, I did not know what I was missing until I experienced it: In this case, a movie that spoke directly to me as a woman while striking a universal chord. It was a “ha-ha!” moment for the audience – an “a-ha!” one for me. And though there have been other such moments since, they are scarce.

The year Private Benjamin came out, male filmmakers directed 99.5 percent of all American movies and television shows. Last year, they made 91 percent of American feature films and 88 percent of TV shows, according to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Among this summer’s blockbusters and crowd-pleasers – the Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, Jake Szymanski’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – the guys overwhelmingly dominate, with 95 percent of the directorial roles. The only noteworthy major release with a woman behind the camera is Jodie Foster’s Money Monster.

Among the summer’s independent releases such as Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, and Meera Menon’s Equity, women do better: nearly 30 percent.

The ratios skew so overwhelmingly male that in October, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began investigating Hollywood’s gender gap, prompted by ACLU findings that “female filmmakers are effectively excluded from directing big-budget films and seriously underrepresented in television.”

As I write this, the EEOC appears to be moving forward with its investigation, although representatives there declined to comment. “It is our understanding that [the EEOC] has launched an investigation that is very broad,” says Gillian Thomas of the ACLU/New York office.

Catherine Hardwicke, who made a little $37 million movie called Twilight that earned $394 million and launched a billion-dollar franchise, is among the female filmmakers who have testified. “I did two sessions with the ACLU and one with the EEOC,” Hardwicke says.

One thing she mentioned was that, despite having directed Twilight and the skateboarding film Lords of Dogtown, both action-filled movies, she has been told by producers interviewing her for other films, “We need a man for this job.”

Other industry sources who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity say that the EEOC is expanding its inquiry beyond directors to include studio and talent-agency representatives. Should it discover a pattern of gender bias, the commission could sue or pursue mediation.

While moviegoers may not care about who directs a film, the gender inequality behind the camera is also a contributing factor to inequality on screen. So says Walt Hickey of the data analysis website fivethirtyeight.com. According to Hickey, men represent 71 percent of the screen population in films. “When you look at American movies, it’s like something apocalyptic has happened, like a parallel universe, a man’s world.”

When a woman is behind the camera – or the screenplay – that screen world is more equally populated, says Lauzen. Her research shows that in films from female directors, 39 percent of the protagonists are women; in those from male directors, only 4 percent of the lead characters are.

“Why is it important for girls and women to see themselves on screen?” asks Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and the coming TV series Queen Sugar. “Film is a mirror. If you don’t see yourself, does it mean” you don’t exist?

While DuVernay has not testified either to the ACLU or EEOC, she stands with female filmmakers who have.

What’s stopping studios from backing woman-made films about women? “There’s a perception in Hollywood that moviegoers won’t see films with female subjects or by female directors,” Hardwicke says.

“And every time you say, ‘Well, this one made money, that one made money,’ they say, ‘This one made money because it was based on a best-selling book,’ or ‘That one made money because of its hot actress.’ ”

Rarely will anyone acknowledge that, yes, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), as exhilarating an action film as ever directed, grossed more than $83 million worldwide, $147 million in today’s dollars. Or that, according to Paul Dergarabedian at Rentrak, the six comedies Meyers has directed since 1997 have grossed more than a billion dollars.

I’ve had the same experience as Hardwicke speaking to studio executives about the return on investment of female-directed movies of the last 15 years. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation cost $4 million with $120 million in revenue, DuVernay’s Selma $20 million with $66 million in revenue, Anne Fletcher’s The Proposal $40 million with $317 million in revenue, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s Kung Fu Panda 2 $150 million with $665 million in revenue. All too often the response is “Yes, but. . . .”

Fivethirtyeight’s Hickey has had that experience, too. To refute studio second-guessing, he conducted an analysis in 2014 demonstrating that films containing meaningful interactions between women do better at the box office than movies that don’t.

His conclusion: “It may be only a matter of time before the data of dollars and cents overcomes the rumors and prejudices defining the budgeting process of films for, by, and about women.”

Norma Rae. Erin Brockovich. Nine to Five. Hollywood relishes making the stories of women who triumph over the odds. Helping female filmmakers triumph over the odds in its own clubby universe? Not so much.

So allow me to introduce real-life female crusader Maria Giese, whose fact-finding led to the ACLU findings that prompted the current EEOC investigation. Giese graduated in 1994 from the UCLA Film School and won numerous prizes for her thesis film.

What she didn’t know is that she was “stepping out onto a playing field that was almost vertical,” she says. She directed two features in the 1990s and then saw opportunities for female directors dwindle.

In the new century, while continuing to write screenplays of her own and script-doctor for others, she got involved with the Women’s Steering Committee of the Directors Guild of America (DGA).

By 2011, “broke, depressed, and angry,” Giese turned her negative energy into something positive. She began compiling statistics, such as the number of women directing top-100 box office movies (1.9 percent). She started a blog and asked female directors to share stories about discrimination.

After a 2013 meeting with the EEOC, which needed data that Giese lacked, she took her files to the ACLU. It conducted an independent investigation and, in May 2015, wrote an astonishing 15-page letter to the EEOC that “the statistics and anecdotal evidence we have gathered points to systemic discrimination.”

Few in Hollywood will speak for attribution about how or whether the prospect of the EEOC investigation has had any impact on the industry. I contacted eight producers and two studio executives. Two veteran producers, one male (Producer A) and the other female (Producer B), replied with the understanding they would not be identified by name.

According to Producer A, there is no sense that the Hollywood powers-that-be feel like there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. “I don’t think anyone has taken the investigation seriously – yet,” he says. “Is there bias” against women? “Of course there is. . . . But everything in Hollywood is about economics, not equal representation.”

For him, the pertinent question is, “How can Hollywood address unconscious bias?” To put his question another way, Why do men get tapped to direct big-budget studio movies seen by millions, while for the most part women are making independent films seen by thousands?

“The problem isn’t so much women,” he says. “It’s that studios aren’t interested in anything but an action comic book” that women don’t necessarily want to direct. Case in point: DuVernay was in talks to direct Black Panther, about the Marvel superhero, but did not sign on.

“Is it that women directors don’t want to make these comic-book films, or that those who’d like to direct aren’t being suggested for them?” asks Producer B.

“Part of the problem is that agents aren’t recommending women,” she says. “Execs are under the impression that female filmmakers want to make serious movies like Frozen River or Winter’s Bone” – well-received indies by Courtney Hunt and Debra Granik – “or that they want to make ‘women-led’ movies, which are perceived as not appealing to men” because of their female protagonists.

“Why do we always read about ‘women-led’ films as if they’re the exception and ‘men-led’ is the norm?” asks fivethirtyeight.com’s Hickey, pointing out that movies starring women – Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music – were once the norm.

He might well add that a century ago, female filmmakers were likewise the norm. In 1916, Universal Studios had seven female directors working on the lot, including Lois Weber, the studio’s biggest moneymaker.

Compare that to 2016, when Universal will release one film directed by a woman, Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’ Baby (coming in September), joining one movie from that studio with a female codirector, Jerrica Cleland’s Ratchet and Clank.

In recent speeches, DuVernay has spoken of Hollywood’s “selective amnesia.” The industry doesn’t remember prior breakthroughs made by female filmmakers and filmmakers of color.

Of the investigation, she says: “The EEOC recognizes that the shamefully low percentage of women directing is a systematic problem and requires radical change. If it’s not happening organically, systems should be put in place.”

How radical? What would be a benchmark of progress? Giese would like to see “50/50 by 2020.”

(Meanwhile, in Canada, the public broadcaster CBC announced last week that at least half of the episodes of five of its most popular scripted TV shows will be directed by women.)

I emailed Meyers asking what Judy Benjamin would say about a nation where women are roughly 20 percent of the U.S. Congress and Senate, but only 9 percent of female filmmakers?

Her reply: “Judy would say ‘What’s so good about only 20 percent of Congress?’ ”

Carrie Rickey was an Inquirer film critic for 25 years. Read more of her work at carrierickey.com. Steven Rea is on vacation.

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