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AD Cooper breaks down the debate surrounding opportunities for women in the film industry.


All the talk about the inequality of women in film – is it all just talk, an issue that’s merely trending and providing lip service? With a plethora of articles, comments and initiatives flooding the industry, will it make a blind bit of difference in real terms? 

Women are 50% of the audience

Apparently the biggest demographic of cinema-goers are women over 35, not the 16-25 men who spend the most on popcorn; those guys are watching online, on their phones, in their darkened bedrooms – anywhere but the cinema. Women are the main decision-makers about what film will be seen, for example, on a date. Women want to see films made for the female psyche, they want to laugh and cry. And women storytellers know better than anyone what stories will push their emoting buttons. Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) is one such film maker. 

Gavron’s feminist-focused Suffragette will have its European premiere at the London Film Festival, who are promoting their programme with the headline “the year of the strong woman”.

Directed by Gavron and scripted by Abi Morgan, it’s the story of the women’s movement struggling to get the vote in the early years of the 20th Century.  But some women think that the project is a scapegoat, that it’s ticked all the female gender boxes so that the industry doesn’t have to make any more feminist films for a while. 

Women’s right to equality – are we much further on 100 years later?

Women’s right to equality – are we much further on 100 years later?

The film’s star, Carey Mulligan (pictured above right), has been attacking sexism in the film industry ahead of the European premiere. “I think we have a sexist film industry, and stories about women are largely untold.” She is one of many successful stars who dare to speak out – many actresses can’t for fear of ruining their careers. 

During the festival, the Geena Davis Institute will be hosting the 3rd Global Symposium on Gender in Media. The actress has been very vociferous about the imbalance of roles, pay and opportunities.  Clearly it’s an issue that isn’t going to go away. 

A trailblazer for women’s representation in films on both sides of the camera

A trailblazer for women’s representation in films on both sides of the camera

Elsewhere in the press, there’s been much discussion about the paucity of good female roles, and the positive drought of good roles for women over 40. Leading men are allowed to age and their love interests can be 20 years their junior, but in conservative Hollywood, there are few toy boys for the more mature actress.  Too many female roles are 2D or stereotypes, and one can only be entertained by the new Tumblr page that introduces the Sexy Lamp Test – is the female role so under-written that it could be replaced by a sexy lamp?

The film set environment 

Writing from a female perspective, I’ve worked in very masculine environments both in advertising (female copywriters represent around 15%) and filmmaking (stats below).  Neither is for the faint-hearted. Discussions as part of the Directors UK organisation’s Women’s Campaign revealed positively quaint misogynistic views with many tales of discrimination against women directors who might deprive a man of the role. Extreme sexism apparently is alive and well in many production companies.

Other sources suggest that women can’t be trusted with budgets, they don’t get jobs “because they are too nervous”, and can’t handle the multitasking that directing takes. Many women beg to differ, and they are often juggling making films with the school run and sleep deprivation. Female crews function like any other – it’s all a matter of who’s good. 

But what are the statistics?

This depends which report you read. Only 1.9% of 700 of the most popular films made in the last seven years were directed by women. 

Viola Davies wins at the Emmys 2015. Women represented 22% of nominees.

Viola Davies wins at the Emmys 2015. Women represented 22% of nominees.

Besides actively promoting women in all roles, Women in Film & Television (WFTV) are an invaluable resource for statistics.  Here’s one from Boxed In, who track female representation:

“In 2014-15, female characters comprised 42% of all speaking characters on broadcast television programs and 40% of all characters on broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs. Behind the scenes, women accounted for 27% of creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast programs and 25% of those working in these key roles on broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs.”

In 2014, Directors UK Women’s Campaign, spearheaded by Beryl Richards, launched a well-researched report to demonstrate the under-representation of women directors. This organisation collected residuals from TV programmes and they had clear evidence that women were getting a dwindling number of directing gigs: down to 8% for entertainment and comedy and 13% for drama.


Doctor Who, for example, had not been directed by a woman in 50 years– something that’s now been rectified. Directors UK took their findings to the broadcasters and production companies and simply let the facts speak for themselves. No whining, no hand wringing, just a professional and insightful presentation that left many amazed and some rather embarrassed. A major result has been that UK broadcaster Channel 4 has re-written its Diversity Charter

So are quotas the answer?

Will requiring diversity, then, help solve the problem? Following a notable lack of female directors selected for Cannes, Venice and New York, recent discussion at Toronto and Reykjavik’s film festivals looked at the possibility of quotas.  But the general view is that the work has to be strong on its own merits, irrespective of the director’s gender. A female curator, e.g. Janet Pierson at SXSW or Helen de Toit at Palm Springs, may make a difference in taste, but not in terms of quality. Sundance selected 25% women. The famous Bechdel Test has expanded to be its own film festival

So why are women not producing the goods? Is it because they aren’t getting the chance to develop their skills in a male-dominated world? Are the female producers not giving the female directors a helping hand by preferring to work with men?

Underwire is one of the UK’s few remaining female-focused film festivals after the sad demise of Bird’s Eye View. They tell tales of women making successful short films but getting no support in creating a sustainable career, with the second feature a particular issue. WFTV offers one of the very few mentoring schemes for women across all disciplines, and the competition for places is fierce. 

Creative practitioners with sustainable careers

Because of this competition, women end up doing anything they can to support their filmmaking, even taking second jobs in completely different industries to make up their income. But they need to make the films that women want to watch. They must tell different kinds of stories or tell them in a different way. They need to be informed about the past, stick together as a minority and not wait around for opportunities and funding. 

Women create “Films made on less than Hollywood spends on lipstick” said 40s filmmaker Maya Deren

Women create “Films made on less than Hollywood spends on lipstick” said 40s filmmaker Maya Deren

Professional attitudes in the industry undoubtedly need updating, but you have to remember it’s a business that needs to make bucks. Investors and distributors are very often men. 

But women don’t need to go to Hollywood to tell their stories. Gender isn’t a barrier. And why not retreat behind your initials like J K Rowling? People then presume you’re a man and take you more seriously.  Maybe the hoopla and trending will open more doors for women in all disciplines. Let’s hope so. The film and TV world – and ergo the audiences – can only be the richer for it. 


A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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