It’s long been a problem in Hollywood: a lack of women who move on from film school to take the helm of major motion pictures. It’s a problem that has been slowly but surely correcting itself over time, although the numbers are not fantastic: for the longest time only about one in a hundred Hollywood productions were directed by women, a number that rose up to around eight or nine percent in 1998. Flash forward ten years later, though, and that number has remained relatively steady. Women make up more than half of the population, so it’s always been a little odd that so few of our big-budget films wind up being directed by women.
The statistics aren’t that great in any category of filmmaking, really. Looking at the top 250-earning films of 2008, a San Diego State University professor found that 9% of them were directed by women, 12% of them had a credited female writer, and only 4% of them had a female cinematographer. The behind-the-scenes role that had the “best” representation of women was production, where 16% of all executive producers and 23% of all production roles went to women. Those are pretty depressing statistics overall, and they naturally raise the question: why are the contributions of women to big-budget films so marginal?
One of the (many and various) reasons given for the dearth of women directors at the big-budget level of filmmaking is that many of those films are almost required by nature to appeal to teen boys (the least discriminating category of filmgoers, and the most likely to make repeat trips), and if you’re hitching your $200 million wagon to the tastes of teenagers, you’ll probably want to go with the known quantity of a Michael Bay rather than someone who has never directed on that scale before, and that might go doubly so for a female director. Part of that is part of a larger-scale imbalance between women and men in positions of power in Hollywood; even if a woman might be the most-qualified person for the position, she’ll still be staring down a room full of men when she pitches herself for a high-profile directorial gig.
The last few years have seen some interesting milestones, though, with Kathryn Bigelow earning the first-ever Best Director Academy Award given to a woman, Jennifer Yuh taking over from Catherine Hardwicke and Twilight the honor of having directed the highest-grossing film ever made by a woman with Kung Fu Panda 2 and this last week seeing Patty Jenkins announced as the director of Thor 2. That last bit of news isn’t a quantifiable milestone in the way that the other two events might be, but it’s still interesting to see a woman take the helm of a big-budget comic book movie, of all things.
Marvel’s currently working on one of the Hollywood’s most sustained high-wire acts at the moment with the the ambition of The Avengers, as well as self-financing so many of the films that they’ve been releasing. (Although being bought by Disney alleviates some of those concerns.) Comic-book films have attempted to break out into the four quadrants (old, young, male, female) over the past decade, but they still require a fair amount of repeat traffic from young men to ensure their profitability, especially as their budgets have skyrocketed into the $200+ million range. This (quite naturally) leads to a fair amount of conservatism when it comes time to pick directors; even Yuh would have been unlikely to be offered the directorial reins on Kung Fu Panda 2 had she not been intimately involved in the first film in the franchise.
Which is why it’s encouraging to see Marvel take a chance on Jenkins, who has only directed a single film in her career, the decidedly low-budget Monster of 2003. Her efforts did win Charlize Theron an Oscar for her performance, so she can definitely direct actors, which is perhaps what Marvel is intent on improving in their films. To a degree, a lack of knowledge about CGI and action direction can be compensated for with a great team surrounding a director, but a director’s ability to work with an actor and bring something out of him or her that translates to a great performance on screen is something that’s harder to make up as you go, as the floundering of some of the cast members in the Star Wars prequels and some other flashy, CGI-heavy films might indicate. Actors on many of these films are expected to create credible performances while looking at a green screen and people wandering around in mocap suits for 90% of their shoots; it’s a difficult job, and one which the right director might be able to elevator from horrendously difficult to at least doable, with the right attitude towards filming and rehearsal.
This is all just supposition on my part: I know nothing about why Marvel and Disney chose Jenkins over any other director who might have wanted the reins of Thor 2, and I assume there were many. Marvel’s made an unconventional choice in this vein before, by choosing karate enthusiast Lexi Alexander to create the gleefully crazy Punisher War Zone of 2008. That lost them quite a bit of money in the end, unfortunately, but then it was also a hard-R rated tale; Thor 2 comes with a built-in audience and bigger stars than Ray Stevenson and Julie Benz, with Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins both expected to return. Marvel took a flyer with Kenneth Branagh when they were looking for a director for Thor, and it worked out for them, with that film handily exceeding financial expectations.
So, my point, assuming I have one: it’s a good thing to see, even if it seems like it’s taken too long to happen, a woman chosen to direct not only a big-budget blockbuster special effects film, but a comic book movie to boot. And I'll go ahead and acknowledge that even bringing her Thor 2 casting into a wider discussion of women director's is probably insulting in and of itself; I doubt she really thinks of herself as having any different skills or capabilities as any other director working now. And before you can go accusing me of being a PC commie pinko liberal, I’ll clarify that I think studios should always hire the right person for the job. When slightly over half the population is female and only 10% of Hollywood films are directed by women, though, something tells me that that’s not always the case at the moment.
Why do you think so few women become film directors? Do you think anything should be done to fix that imbalance or should everything be left to balance itself out on its own, over time?