Female-Directed Films Get Smaller Distribution Deals Than Male Counterparts, Study Says

David James
Angelina Jolie directing 'Unbroken'

"Gender biases about what women are good and what they want to do are actually affecting transactions," says Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film Los Angeles, which commissioned the study with Sundance Institute.

Female-directed movies are far more likely to receive distribution from small independent companies than from studios or mini-majors, a new study has revealed.

The Female Filmmakers Initiative, a partnership launched three years ago between Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, unveiled the third phase of its multi-year study last week, focusing on the fate of female directors after their movies premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Led by USC Annenberg’s Stacy L. Smith, researchers studied the distribution deals received by all U.S. Dramatic Competition films between 2002 and 2014. They found that although female-directed movies were just as likely to get distribution as their male counterparts, there was significant gender disparity in the nature of those deals. Whereas companies that handed distribution deals to male-directed films were roughly evenly split between studio specialty divisions/mini-majors (43.1 percent) and small indie companies (56.9 percent), the vast majority (70.2 percent) of female-directed films that landed distribution went to the latter, which have fewer financial resources and industry clout to offer.

The study also included qualitative research on why the prevalence of female directors dips precipitously when moving from the indie film world to Hollywood – 26.9 percent of directors at Sundance last year were female, compared with just 1.9 percent of directors who helmed the top 100 films of 2014, a gap wider than what it was in 2002 (20 percent versus 7.3 percent female directors among the top 100 films). The researchers interviewed 59 film buyers and sellers (39 male, 20 female) and identified six commonly perceived barriers facing female directors:

·      Female directors make movies that are less appealing to the general marketplace

·      There are fewer eligible female directors in the talent pool

·      Women are less interested in directing, particularly tentpole-type films

·      Female directors are restricted from the industry by the predominance of male gatekeepers and the “boy’s club” culture

·      Agents and managers are not putting their female clients up for a broad variety of directing opportunities

·      Female directors are less adept at handling certain production demands

“What’s most troubling is that these gender-based biases are actually affecting the process of buying and selling,” Women in Film president Cathy Schulman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “These assumptions about what a woman is capable of and aspires to are shutting doors before there’s even a conversation about the potential of a transaction.”

Researchers also interviewed 41 female directors on their interests and experiences, whose responses challenged several of the above assumptions. For example, 43.9 percent of them said they would be interested in tackling a big-budget blockbuster, belying the assumption held by 35 percent of interviewed sales agents that female directors don’t aspire to that sort of project.

Part of the problem is that female directors tend to be more easily pigeon-holed by their earlier efforts, which by necessity are often smaller-scale affairs that rely more on relationship studies rather than the visual set pieces that typify modern Hollywood fare. (By contrast, former Sundance directors like (500) Days of Summer’s Marc Webb and Better Luck Tomorrow’s Justin Lin have been able to jump to action franchises like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fast and the Furious.)

“There are limitations that are put on female filmmakers, and then there are also subtle ways in which female filmmakers’ choices contribute to those challenges,” Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam tells THR. “But should the burden be on them to break that cycle?”

Putnam notes that female directors have trouble getting studio jobs, even in the genres of “their expertise” – comedy, drama and romance. Of the 378 top Hollywood movies falling into any of those three categories over the last dozen years, only 8.7 percent had a female director attached at any point in development.

Going forward, the researchers have uncovered four paths of further study in their ongoing quest to solve the problem of female underrepresentation in filmmaking:

·      A quantitative and qualitative study of women’s experiences in film school

·      More examination of the independent film world, with continued focus on the biases that influence financing

·      Working with econometricians to uncover how the gender of lead characters and directors actually affect the profitability of films

·      Studying how systemic change is achieved in other industries

“This isn’t about pointing fingers at anybody, and this isn’t about anything that gets fixed overnight,” Putnam says. “It’s about understanding the situation we’re in and that without a purposeful collective engagement, real change isn’t going to happen.”