One of the sharpest observers of the business of making movies is Anne Thompson, and I am very excited about her new book, The 1 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System. There is an excerpt on Jennifer Merin’s website for the Association of Women Film Journalists, of which I am a proud member. Here is a brief sample from the chapter about “Zero Dark Thirty” from this meticulously researched and profounding insightful book:
Gender politics in Hollywood—as everywhere else—are complex, layered, often unconscious, and difficult to parse. One can argue that things are slowly improving for women in the film industry, but they are still woefully underrepresented in too many areas, from hiring, especially as directors, to roles onscreen.
In 2012, female representation in popular movies hit its lowest level in five years, according to a study by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. That was despite a steady succession of high-profile box-office successes starring women over the decades, from Silkwood and The Rose to A League of Their Own, 9 to 5, The First Wives Club, Sister Act, Mamma Mia!, Bridesmaids, and two recent mighty franchises, The Hunger Games and Twilight.
Among the hundred highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office in 2012, the USC study reported, 28 percent of speaking characters were female. That marked a drop from 32.8 percent three years ago—even though, as actress Geena Davis pointed out at CinemaCon 2013, 51 percent of the movie going audience is female. In the United States, 40 percent of managerial jobs are held by women, but in Hollywood, the much lower proportions have stayed the same for at least twenty years: in both the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild, only 13 percent of members are women.
According to Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, of the top 250 grossing films for 2012, women accounted for only 9 percent of directors. That’s a boost of four percentage points from 2011, but dead even with the percentage of women directors working in 1998. Significantly, Lauzen, a leading researcher in the field who teaches at San Diego State University, titled her 2012 report The Celluloid Ceiling.
At the same CinemaCon at which Davis revealed the latest research findings from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which she founded in 2004, Hollywood Reporter editorial director Janice Min assembled and moderated a panel titled “Driving Financial Success: Women + Movies = Bigger Box Office” that included Davis, director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat), producer Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games), Amy Miles (CEO of Regal Entertainment Group), and Vanessa Morrison (president of Fox Animation Studios). They addressed a few of the myriad issues concerning women and Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera.
Clearly, despite all the evidence over the years showing a consistent number of box-office hits aimed at women, from Thelma and Louise to Sex and the City, the Hollywood studios would rather chase after young men—who account for an average of 44 percent of the opening weekend crowds—with big-budget VFX than feed even modest-budget pictures to the underserved, starving women’s audience.
“There is an overwhelming belief in Hollywood that women will watch men but men won’t watch women,” says Davis. “Which is like the Bible or something. You cannot go against it. It’s a myth that keeps getting propagated, but it’s just not true.”
And yet while young men can be counted on to show up on opening weekends, they are not the most frequent moviegoers, according to MPAA research. Adults twenty-five to thirty-nine are. “There’s this pursuit of the young male, the most distracted demographic, between video games, sports, and girls,” says Jacobson. “There’s a lack of diversity overall which excludes many people as we obsessively pursue a demographic that’s the most elusive of them all. And there’s room for franchises to be made of many different sizes. It does not have to be a $200 million movie where a lot of things blow up. The remedy for a lot of the issues that afflict female representation in movies is also the same remedy for the marketplace.”