How the European Film Industry Can Lead Hollywood Toward Gender Equality

Happy As Lazzaro-Publicity Still-H 2018
Simona Pampallona/NETFLIX

Europe's state-subsidized film industry can push for faster, more comprehensive change to close the gender gap, argued an expert panel at this year's European Film Awards.

The European film industry should have an easier time pursuing gender equality than Hollywood, panelists suggested at a roundtable on the subject as part of the 31st annual European Film Awards weekend in Seville, Spain.

“It’s much easier when you have a public funder because you can really demand equality since there are as many women paying taxes as men,” said Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, a pioneer in seeking gender parity in film.

Serner was joined on the panel, "Gender Equality is THE Way Forward," by Sixteen Films producer Rebecca O’Brien, Girl director Lukas Dhont and Spain-based producer Valerie Delpierre.

The U.K.’s O’Brien, a member of the EFA board, pointed to the British Film Institute’s diversity standards for on- and offscreen representation, creative leadership, industry access and training opportunities, and distribution and exhibition strategies. The standards are now a requirement for the majority of public funding for film in the U.K., have been adopted by Film4 and BBC Films, and also are an eligibility requirement for several top BAFTA categories.

Many studio films wouldn’t meet the BFI standards, O’Brien suggested. Yet, according to Serner, if a company like Warner Bros. simply said, "Listen folks, we want to have 50 percent female directors or you can’t do your ideas," it "would find 50 very competent women, I’m totally sure. So, it’s just up to top management to make a decision: Do we want to change or not?"

Serner explained in her keynote talk before the roundtable how Sweden’s success stemmed from just such a top-down decision at the SFI to support equality and diversity by setting criteria for relevance, originality and craft. “Instead of doing quotas we’re talking about a clear target. We really want to find the women who have the same potential as men,” she said. “What we as funders can do is to make the structures equal.”

The SFI’s newly published second annual Gender Equality Report, "The Money Issue," shows that the initial 50/50 by 2020 initiative launched by the SFI in 2012 was achieved just four years later. Between 2013 and 2016, a total of 49 percent of projects that received production funding were by female directors, 44 percent by female scriptwriters and 54 percent by female producers. During some years in the same period those numbers reached as high as 65 to 69 percent in certain roles.

The focus now is on "financial gender equality," Serner wrote in a preface to the report. "We find fewer women both behind and in front of the camera the higher a film’s budget is, even though there is no statistics to suggest that films made by women would be of lower quality."

Underscoring the essential role funding bodies can play, as well as the need to address larger cultural and industrial biases, the SFI report concluded that films with a male director receive a larger share of their funding from private equity, distributors and commercial TV, and films with a male director, producer or lead actor get wider distribution, while cinema admissions are strongly linked to overall production budget.

The panelists in Seville touched on a range of areas where women are at a disadvantage due to, in Serner’s words, "unconscious bias" — from convincing financiers that female-directed films can reach a broad audience, to empowering women to feel prepared to take on any kind of project, to being selected for top festivals. "To get over that, we need knowledge, we need awareness and we need goals," Serner said.

As Delpierre, producer of Spanish director Carla Simon’s award-winning 2017 debut feature Summer 1993, noted, finding female technicians is getting easier, something that’s helpful when you need to ensure a crew will be open to taking direction from a young female filmmaker like Simon. "I think women can make any kind of film," she said. "And my job is to make them possible."

The panelists hinted at a vicious cycle at play. "When 80 percent of films are made by men…the audience gets a male perspective," Serner said, and producers want to repeat what audiences are assumed to be expecting. O’Brien agreed: "The stories that we want to tell have been culturally set because men have been in the driver’s seat of the stories that have been told."

"Money follows men because men are believed to have bigger potential to earn money," Serner said. Yet, she added: "There is no evidence that female-directed films fail more often or earn less money."

Reflecting on reports out last week that Argentine director Lucrecia Martel was told by Marvel that she wouldn’t be asked to handle action scenes if she took on the role of director on Black Widow, Belgian director Dhont said, "I don’t know how to film action scenes! That has nothing to do with being a man or being a woman."

Gender is a topic swirling around Dhont’s film Girl, about a transgender teen girl training to dance ballet. Despite top reviews and festival awards, including the Discovery/FIPRESCI Prize Saturday night at the EFA, Girl has been critiqued within the transgender community for its portrayal of the character, as well as specific nude scenes of the young actor who plays the lead.

Some critiques have also focused on the fact that cisgender males directed and starred in Girl, a focus Dhont called "offensive" and compared to focusing only on a woman’s gender when she directs a film. Admitting transgender filmmakers "haven’t been given the visibility they wanted," he warned against the "dangerous" tendency “to fight for inclusion by using exclusion.”

Dhont elicited applause from the audience when he said, "Yes, we need stories about women told by women…and yes, we need trans stories told by trans people. But I see cinema as a bridge, I don’t see it as a wall. I think if we are going to limit...ourselves to only talk about parts of our own identity, I think we are headed in the wrong direction."

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, president of the EFA, also energized the industry crowd when she took the microphone from her seat in the roundtable audience and said: "I think the real change will come from the roots."