By Hadley Catalano
In 2013, according to Celluloid Ceiling, women accounted for only 16 percent of behind-the-scenes employees on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films. Similar to financial services and technology, women in Hollywood lack the exposure and access to capital needed to finance their films.
Like other industries, organizations and individual content creators are working to combat and change the mindset of the traditional jobs assigned to filmmakers through pragmatic initiatives, mentor programs, and networking partnerships to promote, educate and empower women in film.
One of these organizations is Women In Film Los Angeles (WIF), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women in media achieve their highest potential, who partnered with Sundance Institute to investigate the root of the film industry’s gender gap.
“For so long the parity for women in film has been flat-lined. Since 1998 there has been no growth,” WIF President, Cathy Schulman, explained. “So two and a half years ago we partnered with Sundance Institute to launch a Women Filmmakers Initiative to foster gender parity for women in all aspects of the global media profession.”
This partnership resulted in a study called Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers that examined gender differences for U.S. independent films at the Sundance Film Festival (SFF) from 2002-2012.
Schulman, who won an Academy Award as a co-producer for the 2005 film “Crash,” explained that while the study revealed a higher representation of female filmmakers in independent film as compared to studio films, further data points and qualitative interviews were needed to understand the fundamental cause behind Hollywood’s traditional economic model and power structure, leading to women’s low employment statistics.
The second step involved analyzing the progress of Sundance Institute women filmmakers as they advanced in their careers. The organizations established programming to address what challenges women faced, provide a Mentorship Program for selected writers, directors and producers, and form an Allied Organizations network to help support sustained careers in film and promote gender inclusivity.
The second part of the project referred to as Phase II continued to update and explore the barriers and opportunities facing women filmmakers. In 2013, a snapshot of the 1,163 content creators working behind the camera of 82 American films at SFF revealed that only 28.9 percent of filmmakers were female, with women most likely to hold the job of producer versus director, writer, cinematographer, or editor. Additionally, targeted interviews with female directors and producers, industry executives, and leaders in the film field suggested that the five biggest blockades that hindered women’s career development were: “gendered financial barriers, male-dominated industry networks, stereotyping on set, work and family balance, and exclusionary hiring decisions.”
Facing Filmmaking Obstacles
Gendered-financial barriers were identified as the leading obstruction (43 percent) facing independent women filmmakers. Schulman extrapolated, explaining that there was a commonality among the interviewed financial backers – a stereotyped uncertainty to allow female filmmakers fiscal control. The reasoning, she said, was based on “mythological factors” such as a woman’s emotional behavior and inability to handle the financial responsibility.
Schulman took this information directly to the source, addressing independent financiers, networks and studios with empirical evidence that women are economically capable, and to bust the “cultural dependency on mythological ideas.” However, Schulman stressed that this effort would be futile if women could not invest in their own rescue. In turn, WIF began intensive financing workshops for hand-selected groups of women to help drill down on financial issues to help women overcome these obstacles.
“Women are not used to being demanding. Young girls are taught to be philanthropic with money,” she said, noting that there is a correlation between the amount of women working in gate keeping positions and the transactional value of the film. “In these workshops, we teach women the business of transactions so that they can gain access to the limited resources, and to know how to ask for and be chosen for the allocation of funds.”
Research behind stereotyping on set revealed that a majority of internal job referrals and socialization was being typically confined within well-established male networks, and skills, jobs, and careers on set were based on society-formed gender roles.
“This is why you’ll see more women producers,” Schulman said. “Statistically it is about gender association, and women are associated with qualities that fit the description of the job, ‘problem-solvers, multi-taskers, nurturing,’ where men are associated with roles that match the director ideal, with words such as ‘strong, fierce, and boss’.”
Creating a dialogue around women’s films, leadership on sets, and creative contributions is a rare conversation, and pursuing traditional forms of networking has been a struggle for women in the industry. Schulman suggested that the stigma of competitiveness is hindering women from establishing the networking channels needed to retain employment numbers for fellow filmmakers.
“We have to be more supportive of each other,” said the Mandalay producer, who through WIF has established networking programs and breakfast series events. “The more women that are in gate keeping positions, the more women will get jobs on sets.”
An Independent Woman
Documentary film director, Cynthia Wade, has first-hand experience with both the struggles and empowerment of working in independent film. She has faced monetary blockades and gender stereotyping, but she has also contributed and networked to gain the employment of majority woman crews, and has encouraged and supported female moviemakers.
Wade currently represents a thriving statistic in the growth of women storytellers, as she is one of an increasing number of female documentary filmmakers. In her short film, “Selfie,” for Dove’s #BeautyIs campaign, Wade redefines the image of beauty, one of the many motion picture examples of the way she’s changing the content and nature of independent films.
“As a female documentary filmmaker, I present women’s issues, and because of the sensitive nature of the films I pursue, it caters to working with female dominated crews,” said Wade, whose “Selfie” film employed about 75 percent women behind the camera, and quickly went viral. “But, all the guys on my crew are ‘honorary women,’ they are sensitive, communicative, and attentive to women’s stories and perspectives.”
Wade, who won the 2008 Academy Award for her short film “Freeheld,” explained gender bias is still a controlling factor for women crewmembers.
“I was trained at Stanford in cinematography and became a strong handheld documentary cameraperson. I worked for all the broadcast outlets. When I was being considered for a job that required travel, I was almost always asked who was taking care of my children at home. When my husband traveled, a prospective employer never asked him who was taking care of the children,” said Wade, who feels compelled to support her fellow female co-workers.
She continued, “I’m more likely to hire women, accept female interns, and share war stories. I feel an obligation, an investment in our young generation. I say things to these women that I wish someone had told me at 23.”
Access and Funding
However, Wade is constantly working to overcome the two biggest statistical obstacles in show business: access to the right people and access to funding. She is continuously networking. As a result of a screening of her Oscar-nominated film, “Mondays at Racine,” at a Financial Women’s Association event, Wade was introduced to well-networked women and through them pursued new contacts.
Wade’s experience is a prime example of how networking with the right people can be a useful career advancement tool regardless of your industry. Furthermore, it supports a model of cross-industry networking in order to bring women with different backgrounds together to share ideas, experiences, advice and support for each other’s endeavors.
“It was a detective game. I’d always ask people who they knew whom I might like to know, and who might like to know me,” Wade said, explaining that these efforts, through several generations of networking, allowed her to connect with Michael Crook, a leading female photographer. She subsequently hired Crook to appear in “Selfie” and now considers the photographer a valuable asset to her growing women’s network.
While “Selfie” was corporately sponsored, the majority of Wade’s additional free time is spent fundraising, applying for grants, and pushing for advancement.
“I’m fighting to move my career forward. I’m pushing commercial work, fiction work. I’m teaching master’s classes at universities. I am a keynote speaker at corporate events, where I speak about women’s stories and perspectives. We’re still not at a place in our society where people don’t stop and look twice at a woman director,” said the wife and mother of two. “I wish that every decision I made about a film wasn’t entirely based on whether or not I can find funding, or if my backers will find this topic important enough to fund.”
While stagnant employment numbers and stereotypical disparities are still preventing women from finding equality in the film industry, small initiative-based interventions and cultural shifts are starting to break through gender barriers. Inspirational documentary filmmakers like Wade, dedicated organizers like Schulman, and outspoken women filmmaking initiatives are creating awareness around Hollywood’s skewed representation in front of and behind the camera.
There is equal value in women’s contributions, leadership, and vision to the film industry and women are succeeding in shaping the way movies are written, filmed, directed, and produced.