Maria Bello on Lack of Female Representation in Film: "Why Aren't We Telling Those Stories?"

The 4%: Film's Gender Problem Screening - Publicity - H 2016
Angela Weiss/SAG-AFTRA

The 4%: Film's Gender Problem Screening - Publicity - H 2016

Bello joined filmmakers Paul Feig, Caroline Suh and Tina Mabry for a screening of the docuseries 'The 4%: Film's Gender Problem' and panel discussion at the SAG-AFTRA headquarters.

The sobering statistic filled the three screens in a darkened room: Only 4 percent of top-grossing films are directed by women.

The wide participation gap between women and men in the movie business is the subject of The 4%: Film's Gender Problem, a series of documentary shorts that screened at the SAG-AFTRA headquarters last Wednesday. The screening was accompanied by an expert panel featuring Paul Feig, Maria Bello, USC Annenberg's Stacy L. Smith, The 4% director Caroline Suh and filmmaker Tina Mabry.

“Fifty percent of our audience [is] women," Bello said at the panel, which was moderated by Los Angeles Times staff writer Rebecca Keegan. "Why aren’t we telling those stories, and why aren’t we using those fabulous directors?”

Film's gender problem has been well-documented by now, particularly by Smith, whose nine-year study of gender and race both onscreen and behind the camera informed the series. Her research finds chronically low numbers of woman directors that further diminish as the projects grow more high-profile, from indie film to studio blockbusters. “If we ask about women of color, that [number] falls almost to the floor,” Smith said during the panel. According to her research, out of 700 films from 2007 to 2014, only three were directed by black females.

Mabry elaborated on the difficulties of not only being a woman, but a woman of color in the industry: “Every time I went to the distributors, the word was, 'Well, there are two black dramas coming out this year.' I guess apparently we cannot take two dramas.”

Smith said that a breakthrough has to happen, and the way to achieve that breakthrough is through episodic television. “If you have 22 episodes, six episodes  you should be giving lots of people opportunities to fill that career sustainability so that they can make the jump to a larger film and work in the top-grossing sphere,” she said. "What we often see happening in television is, the same people getting the opportunities are the same people who work over and over."

That's the strategy Mabry, who received critical acclaim for her 2009 feature directorial debut, Mississippi Damned, is taking. The filmmaker, now staffed on Ava DuVernay's upcoming OWN drama, Queen Sugar, says that female indie filmmakers should be given the same opportunities to make the leap to big-budget projects that men receive: "Look what I can do with half a million. What do you think I can do with 100 [million]?"

And what about women in front of the camera who want to step away from the stereotypical role of always supporting a man or talking about relationships and love?

Take the “top 100 films and simply [add] five female speaking characters to all of the scripts, reset the norm,” said Smith, adding that, in four years, “we’d be at gender parity across top films distributed worldwide.”

Bello suggested considering women for even the smaller, one-liner roles. "When it says 'plumber,' you automatically go to a guy," she said. "Let’s take all those roles  the plumber, the lawyer, the electrician  and open it up to male and female."

The 4% previously aired on Epix last month, and last week's special screening and panel was hosted by the premium cable network, the SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Local's Women’s Committee and USC Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. Epix executive vp original programming Jocelyn Diaz told The Hollywood Reporter that a yearlong conversation on gender and diversity and a two-year partnership and backing of Smith’s research are the reasons Epix took on the documentary.

"Hollywood reflects the world," she said. "If 51/49 is the [gender ratio] in the population, how can it be that only 4 percent of [women] are being represented [in the industry]? That’s going to show a very skewed vision of what things look like."

Fortunately, the ongoing discussions and research concerning women in entertainment, which have been conducted with the support of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Meryl Streep, have sparked a small change already.

“I really feel something is about to happen,” L. Scott Caldwell, chair of SAG-AFTRA's Los Angeles Local's Women’s Committee and co-chair of the guild's National Women’s Committee, told the audience before the screening. “I am grateful.”