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Women Directors Hit a Celluloid Ceiling in Hollywood

  • Gloria Hillard

Oscar nominations for 2005 are just around the corner. In the history of the Academy Awards only three women have been nominated in the Best Director category. For women who work in Hollywood that doesn't come as much of a surprise.

A recent study found that there are fewer women working behind the scenes as directors, editors and cinematographers than ever before. Reporter Gloria Hillard found that when it comes to helming a movie, it's still very much a man's world in Hollywood.

Director Martha Coolidge is putting the finishing touches on her latest film, Material Girls. She is somewhat of a rarity in Hollywood: a 50-something woman who is still sitting in the director's chair in an industry that she recalls was not all that encouraging when she began her career, more than 30 years ago. "Everyone told me when I was young that it was impossible because it couldn't be done, and I don't think you can say that to a young woman today."

But today's young women may be surprised to learn that the film and television industry is still not all that welcoming.

"There's not much to be encouraged by" is the assessment of Martha Lauzen, a professor of Communications at San Diego State University. For the last ten years, she has been conducting studies on women working behind the scenes in film and television. She says the numbers weren't that great a decade ago and they're no better now. "What we've found over the last three, four or five years," she explains, "is the percentage of women working as directors, executive producers, producers, editors, writers, cinematographers has been steadily declining."

In her study, Professor Lauzen found of the 250 top grossing films in 2004, 95 percent were directed by men. Women's names appear under the screen credit 'Written By' only 12 percent of the time… and under 'Cinematographer' just 3 percent. She concludes, "Women comprise 46 percent of the workforce, so when you look at these numbers you would say, 'Gee, women are dramatically underrepresented as the storytellers of our culture.'"

And that's in an industry that is perceived as a progressive oasis, and in a city where women run four out of six of the major studios.

But director Martha Coolidge says studios - whether they're run by men or women - make the movies they think their target audience wants to see. "Those movies are teen movies," she says. "They're male oriented, the people in the audience who go out the first night or weekend." They are the action and big budget movies… the ones filmmaker Patty Jenkins knows women directors rarely, if ever, get a shot at. She says frankly, "I definitely think I could not have [gotten my foot in the door] without developing and writing my own project and staying attached to it the way I did."

Jenkins wrote and directed the 2004 Oscar-winning film Monster starring Charlize Theron, based on the true story of a female serial killer. "Just being someone who had a successful film out of the gate made me someone [the studios] were interested in," she says.

From her home in Los Angeles, the 34-year filmmaker has a picture window overlooking the famous Hollywood sign. On the heels of her success, the Hollywood studios did come calling, but she was surprised by the offers. "Everybody says to me, 'Do you want to do a remake? Or do you want to adapt a TV show?' And I'm thinking, 'I just did an original film. Do you guys not want to see if I can do another original film?'"

That exchange doesn't surprise Oscar-winning actress, and two-time director, Jodie Foster. "It's much easier for most male producers to want to go with that risk when they can shake the hand of someone across from them who they know looks like them. They want that person to reflect their own personality and that's why it's been so difficult for women to get into that aspect of filmmaking."

Lucy Fisher owns Red Wagon Productions, along with her husband Douglas Wick. Her company's most recent films are Jarhead and the critically-acclaimed Memoirs of a Geisha.

The producer says she was mentored by other women and tries to do the same when she can. She's dismayed to hear the results of Martha Lauzen's study. She calls it a shame, adding, "It's the same for people of color, the same for minorities. It's just a very bad record. People say it's a men's club. I don't know if that's it - the aspect of people giving jobs to people they know, or just that an effort has not been made for real."

Meanwhile, back in the editing room, director Martha Coolidge says she didn't think she'd be having this conversation today, some 30 years after the women's movement began.

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