In 2015, women comprised just 19 percent of the filmmakers working behind the screen on the top 250 domestic-grossing movies as directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers. That number — from a study sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University and released today — was up slightly from 17 percent in 2014. But it hardly represented progress, as it simply matched the 19 percent achieved in 2001, which represents the highest employment level for women filmmakers since the annual study began in 1998.
Despite that minor fluctuation, “This year it’s status quo,” says Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the center, who oversees the annual report, known as The Celluloid Ceiling. Although the disparity in both pay and opportunities afforded women filmmakers has become a hot topic, Lauzen notes, “Now, the issue is getting a push from a cultural consciousness that supports diversity. But the numbers have yet to change. The film industry is a large industry, and it takes a long time for change to occur.”
The 2015 numbers bear that out. Within the 250 top films, some jobs were more open to women than others. During 2015, women fared best as producers (26 percent), editors (22 percent) and executive producers (20 percent) and found less acceptance as writers (11 percent), directors (9 percent) and cinematographers (6 percent). Improvements were often marginal. Directors, for example, were up 2 percent from a 7 percent figure in 2014, but that 9 percent was still below the high point of 11 percent they reached in 2000. “It’s very easy to be misled by a few high-profile cases,” Lauzen cautions. “Easy to name a few high-profile women directors. And then the assumption is everything is OK and things have changed, which is why I think counting the numbers of women’s employment is so important. I would hope it grounds the conversation in reality.”
Between 1998 and 2015, the study found, while percentages of executive producers, producers, editors and cinematographers increased, the percentage of directors remained the same (at 9 percent), and the percentage of women writers actually declined (from 13 percent to 11 percent).
Viewed from another perspective, of the top 250 films of 2015, 91 percent had no women directors; 82 percent had no women writers; 52 percent had no women executive producers; 32 percent had no women producers; 74 percent had no women editors; and 94 percent had no women cinematographers. Thirty-three percent of all the films had either just one woman or none at all in the key roles under study.
While foreign films were not included in the analysis, the 2015 study was expanded for the first time to include a look a both the 100 top-grossing films and the larger universe of 500 top-grossing movies, and there a pattern emerged. Among the 100 biggest box-office movies, which tended to include bigger-budget and studio projects, women accounted for 16 percent of the key behind-the-scenes roles, but among the larger group of 500 movies, which included smaller-budget indie movies and documentaries, women were better represented, accounting for 21 percent of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers. The simple explanation: Women are more likely to be given opportunities when budgets are low and less money is at risk.
One further aspect of the study did suggest how change could come about. Looking at all 500 films, the study found that when there was a female director on a film, that led to greater percentages of women working in the other roles on that production. For example, on films with female directors, 53 percent of the writers were women, 32 percent were editors and 12 percent were cinematographers. On male-directed movies, those numbers dropped to 10 percent, 19 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Says Lauzen, “There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about ‘unconscious bias,’ but I don’t like that term. I think it should be ‘subconscious bias.’ People tend to prefer to work with others who look like they do. I suspect some of that is at work here. The choices may be conscious, or they may be subconscious. It’s kind of that unconscious bias in reverse.”