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Categories: Features

With Wonder Woman doing wonderfully it may look like there’s going to be a change to the status quo of Hollywood directing, one that cannot come soon enough…

News has probably not escaped you that Patty Jenkins has recently secured the record for largest opening for a female directed feature ever with Wonder Woman (the first to be in excess of $100 million), and people are greeting it with celebrations tinged with a slight air of sadness. Celebrations due to the milestone and the sign of progress, sadness at how long it’s taken to get to this point.

Outside of the obvious appeal which news like this has for marketing executives attempting to instill a sense of hysteria over their product, you may be wondering what the fuss is about in regards to women directing a “superhero film” and why you’ll be seeing a lot of people getting mad over there not yet being any so-called “Marvel movies” with a female director. (Marvel Studios’ first is scheduled to be 2019’s Captain Marvel, which will have a female co-director, but a lot can happen in the very volatile world of franchise filmmaking between now and then.)

When Disney acquired Marvel Studios, they inherited both the successes and the shortcomings of a growing giant. Disney have always had a distinct appeal to female audiences but a lousy track record for hiring female directors. Marvel Studios has been no different. In fairness, not all of this is Disney’s fault, having only acquired the company in 2009, but the fact remains that Marvel Studios has never released a film directed by a woman. Only one Marvel comics adaptation has ever been directed by a woman (Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone [pictured below], a film famous for being so interfered with that it ended up being less successful than its own soundtrack).

DC comics has beaten Marvel Studios to the punch with Wonder Woman but it is their first ever female-directed film. The scramble going on to rectify this imbalance is almost beginning to seem like an obligation. An obligation, I might add, that both Fox and Sony appear exempt from for some reason. In reality, it’s a necessity. Not a moral imperative. A necessity.

The relative number of female feature film directors, overall, has always been woefully low. Directing isn’t always the most appealing job in the film industry, in terms of artistic or financial merit, and the strides made by women have been typically been made in the much more profitable, and desirable, field of producing. That said, the allure of “The Director” is still a powerful thing and, frankly, there should just be more female directors than there are. Numbers have gradually risen and women are now directing more films, about more subjects, than ever before yet there is still a grave issue.

Film is, first and foremost, a business. In the open market, films and their makers are judged on their ability to make money. If you take a list of the top one-hundred grossing films of any year in the mid-nineties (US domestic box office, as it’s still the yardstick), and then jump ahead twenty years to compare, then you will notice a pattern. In every instance the number of female directors in that list halves.

In 1991, eight of the highest grossing films in the US were directed by women. In 2011 it was four. In 1993, six of the top one-hundred were directed by women (not exactly something to write home about) but by 2013 that number had dropped to two. A lot of nineties numbers held through the early 2000s but, overall, in the space of two decades Hollywood has not gone forwards – it has gone backwards. Big-budget female directors aren’t getting more common. They’re dying out. Why?

The simplest answer is that the type of profitable films that women were directing in the nineties simply don’t exist anymore. A lot of successful female directors established their careers in genres which have undergone significant transformations over the past twenty years. Live-action kids films and melodrama have both been progressively going the way of the dodo, taking with them the relevant experience of some remarkably successful female directors. (Tamra Davis, Penny Marshall, Penelope Spheeris to name but a few.)

Both comedy and horror, another stronghold for successful female directors, have undergone a somewhat unwanted renaissance over the past two decades. Horror shifting to cheaper, and younger, ideas while comedy underwent a huge paradigm shift in America to “men’s humour” (which, as you may imagine, relies very heavily on casual misogyny to prop itself up) in the early 2000s. (No doubt as a result, at least partially, of the impotence felt in the wake of the September 11th attacks.) In the place of the once-dominant live-action family film we now have computer-generated animation. (Dreamworks has been quite consistently diverse but the famously incestuous Pixar has only very recently started to include female co-directors.) And of course there’s Young Adult and comic book films. These last two feed into a much wider problem.

In the nineties, there were a few years where the number of successful female directed films dropped substantially, the figures resembling more what we have now. These years were 1997 and 1999. What sets them apart from other years is their number one film.

In 1997, it was James Cameron’s Titanic and, in 1999, it was the return of Star Wars with The Phantom Menace. These films were not just successful – they eclipsed their nearest rivals by at least double profits and laid the foundation for the mega-blockbuster model that Hollywood now aims for.

The problem isn’t just that these films absorbed a huge amount of the audience that female directed Hollywood films often relied on, it’s that female directors have also been consistently excluded from these kinds of films. Even the more female orientated Young Adult franchises of today, arguably replacing the success of the out-dated “chick-flick”, are consistently directed by men. The Hunger Games. The Divergent Series. All but one of the Twilight franchise. I cannot be the only person who finds it a little absurd that not one of the nine Harry Potter films has been directed by a woman.

The most frustrating thing about it is that studios are often only looking for a competent manager in situations like this, letting producers take most of the weight, yet that manager has barely ever been a woman. Francis Lawrence (the directorial equivalent of watching paint dry) was chosen above any number of competent female directors to tackle The Hunger Games series. Marvel is no different from this. In fact, they’re well-known for wanting competent directors who will take a back seat and allow the studio to take creative control. If all the studio wants is a face then why on earth can’t that face be female?

Sadly this was the case with Thor: The Dark World before Patty Jenkins left due to creative differences. (She eventually found her way to Wonder Woman after Michelle MacLaren left after another set of creative differences.) Back in 2014, Marvel Studios made a public song and dance about shopping around for female directors – Angelina Jolie for Captain Marvel and Ava DuVernay for Black Panther, coincidentally the only two female directors in the top one-hundred of 2014.

Not to accuse Disney and Marvel Studios of being disingenuous, but Jolie and DuVernay would have been literally the first two names a panicking executive in 2014 would have found if they googled “female director” on their phone. (DuVernay expressed interest in Black Panther but left the project in the early development phase due to the usual creative differences which arise under such circumstances.)

The zeitgeist has been for some time that female directors need now to be auteurs, creators of art and not commerce. This is moronic for several reasons. For one, it implies that women in Hollywood haven’t really been very artistic up until this point and, secondly, it perpetuates this misconception that a female director would need to be sufficiently “proven” in order to be trusted, or compatible, with a Marvel Studios-esque property.

Jenkins’ replacement on Thor: The Dark World was a man making his action film debut. Peyton Reed, the director who replaced Edgar Wright on Ant-Man, only had experience in romantic comedies. Jon Favreau had only directed comedies and family films before Iron Man. Most of Kenneth Branagh’s directing experience was on classic literary adaptations and the Russo Brothers, now entrusted with Marvel’s flagship Avengers series, came from comedy TV and the occasional comedy feature.

There are rafts of female directors who’ve come from the exact same background and often made even more profitable films. If the scourge of “men’s humour” is what shut female directors out of mainstream comedy features then Marvel Studios could be their way back in.

Marvel Studios and Disney have been enjoying their domination of the top end of the scoreboard for some time and now they must also take on the responsibilities of leadership. Chiefly, by leading by example but also by rectifying a statistical decline that their products helped create. Women in Hollywood have been denied many things but one of the most egregious has been the lack of opportunity for female directors to establish themselves as successful brands. In directing terms, there is still no female equivalent to James Cameron or George Lucas. There was recently a furore over all-male writers for Paramount’s expanded Transformers series, I would be far more concerned over who will be directing these gargantuan cash cows.

2016 couldn’t muster enough female directed films to break 1996’s score of 7 female directors in the top one-hundred and, while it’s possible that 2017 will beat 1997’s unusually low figure of three, it is very unlikely that things will have changed substantially enough for 2018 to beat 1998’s score of eight. (As no other year I’ve found has.) That’s a pretty low hurdle that mainstream cinema is failing, spectacularly, to clear.


Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a freelance copywriter and lifelong cinephile. For writing enquiries, you can email him at mark@cinemajam.com and you can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

Posted on Jun 12, 2017

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