More Women Direct Documentaries Than Narrative Movies & The Reason Why Is Infuriating
At the 2018 Golden Globes, Natalie Portman announced the contenders for Best Director by saying, "Here are all the male nominees." Later, at the 2018 Oscars, Emma Stone took to the stage to label that show's Directing honorees as, "These four men and Greta Gerwig." The actors were, of course, emphasizing that the nominees of this category are always predominantly male, and that Gerwig's nod, while hugely exciting, is still exasperating; only five women in 90 years of Oscars have been nominated for Best Director, and only one — Kathryn Bigelow — has won. It's an infuriating pattern, but if you're looking for solace, you can find that in the Best Documentary category, for which female-directed films are far more frequently nominated than those in narrative races.
Over the past 10 years, women have directed or co-directed seven of all 86 nominated Best Picture films, equaling out to just 8 percent. In documentary, however, women have directed 12 of the 50 nominated films, which makes 24 percent. That doesn't even count the many female directors who make the nominee shortlist each year. While female nominees are still subjected to gender inequality in almost every category, it's clear that women directors have found more success in documentary filmmaking than fictional filmmaking.
Part of this is due to the fact that women simply direct more documentary films than narratives. A report by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states that women directed 30 percent of all docs in the top 500 films of 2017, compared to just 18 percent of the year's top films across all genres. An important factor in this is that documentary filmmaking has a more DIY model than Hollywood's scripted film industry, meaning that there aren't as many hoops for directors to jump through to get their films made.
"The beauty of documentary is that you don't have to ask anyone's permission," explains Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the documentary Blackfish and the narrative film Megan Leavey, in an email interview with Bustle. "If you can scrounge up a crew to pretty much work for food, give them some creative say and a decent credit, production costs aren't so prohibitive."
But "with narratives," she continues, "you're not only asking people to believe in you, you're asking for their money. And as we all know, the industry has been more willing to take these risks with men."
Rather than use (male-dominated) production companies to fund their films, documentary filmmakers tends to use crowdfunding more frequently than those in other genres. According to a film-data blog called Stephen Follows, 28.4 percent of all film projects using Kickstarter between January 2015 and October 2015 were for docs. By crowdfunding, many doc directors can escape the highly politicized process of Hollywood's studio selections which often prioritize male filmmakers and feature male executives.
Of Hollywood's nine biggest studios, only Twentieth Century Fox has a female CEO — Stacey Snider — though Donna Langley notably has great influence at Universal, and Kathleen Kennedy serves as the Lucasfilm president within Disney. As such, there's a disproportionally large number of men who control what movies get made. Perhaps if more women worked in the most important decision-making positions, more female filmmakers would get a chance to create fictional works in Hollywood.
The lack of opportunities for female directors is so pronounced that in 2015, the ACLU launched an investigation of Hollywood's gender bias against female directors. Although the ACLU 's investigation reportedly caused the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017 to charge undisclosed studios for their systematic discriminatory hiring customs that hurt female directors, no new developments in any legal action has materialized.
Melissa Goodman, the director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, published a comment in 2016 on the investigation that said, "In the year since our report was released, there has been much lip-service paid to furthering opportunities for women, but few definitive steps and no serious movement in the number of women directors hired." Goodman added that the EEOC's involvement gave her hope for more substantial results but unfortunately that hasn't actually happened in the year since the EEOC's involvement in the matter.
Gender inequality in film directing remains a large issue, and so some female filmmakers are turning to TV to get their stories told. "Many of the commissioning editors in TV are women and relate strongly to women’s stories as well as to men’s," Kim A. Snyder, the director of the documentary Newtown, told IndieWire. "It pertains to barriers of entry. A sad reality is that those financing feature films are willing to take risks on untried male directors, but not so on female."
TV is certainly a more equal field for female executives than movies, both in narratives and non-fiction content. The BBC's documentary commissioners, for instance, are mostly women, and the same can be said for PBS's programming executives. And up until this year, Sheila Nevins worked as the President of HBO Documentary and Family Programming; soon she will be replaced by two women, Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller as HBO's documentary Programming Vice Presidents. Similarly, Lisa Nishimura is Netflix's Vice President of Original Documentaries and Comedy, and Diane Weyermann is the President of Documentary Film & Television at Participant Media.
Another important woman in documentary programming is Amy Entelis, CNN Worldwide's Executive Vice President for Talent and Content Development who created CNN Films. According to a CNN press release, Entelis oversees CNN Films' strategy, while Courtney Sexton, who is CNN Films' vice president, oversees filmmakers' projects day-to-day. CNN Films, is responsible for distributing female-directed documentaries which include The Coming Storms (directed by Kimberly Arp-Babbit), Blackfish (directed by Cowperthwaite), Our Nixon (directed by Penny Lane), Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story (directed by Sandrine Orabona), and more. Additionally, CNN Films has financed four female-directed docs in the past five years. Among those films was the Sundance Film Festival breakout RBG, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
It's impossible to understate just how essential financing is to getting female-directed movies made. A study conducted by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that women's success in documentary is due in part to the philanthropists who sometimes help fund nonfiction films. Part of the study's recommended solution for fixing the greater gender imbalance is that philanthropists become involved in financially supporting female-directed narratives, too. "Investing in these movies can give directors important early‐career opportunities to build a resume and step into larger directing roles," says the study. "The documentary model offers a strong example of this."
It's a shame that talented female filmmakers might have to rely on private investors, when Hollywood's most profitable studios earn hundreds of millions in profits each year. Yet as the USC study suggests, these philanthropic donations can simply help female directors get their starts. Take Blackfish; the investors for the hugely successful female-directed doc about SeaWorld's treatment of orca whales were two women, Judy Bart and Erica Kahn, who didn't know much about the film industry at all. The women had originally intended to fund a scripted film, but decided to fund a documentary as it would be less expensive. Had those two women not invested in Blackfish, Cowperthwaite would not have been able to make the film that Business Insider reported changed 28 percent of Americans's opinions of SeaWorld.
After Blackfish's success, Cowperthwaite went on to direct the Hollywood-made military movie, Megan Leavey. But even though her doc led her to find her place in scripted films, Cowperthwaite tells Bustle that she still enjoys the freedom that comes with the non-fiction genre. "Some of the best films ever made are documentaries and they can electrify us just as much as a narrative," the director says via email. "It's empowering to know you don't have to wait around for someone to grant you the license to create."
That may be true, but it's still frustrating that directors of fictional films don't enjoy the same success as frequently. Hollywood's lack of female decision-makers is the root of the problem, but if more studios appointed women in power, like TV networks have done in documentary programming, perhaps more female directors in all genres would finally get a chance to create the films they envision.