Wonder women: Female directors are making breakthroughs

By the end of this weekend, odds are that six of the top 20 movies at the North American box office will have been directed by women.

That’s woefully short of half.

But, by historical standards, it is an amazingly high number. Last year at this time, there were two in the top 20, and even that was a banner week.

Just six percent of the studio movies scheduled for 2017 release are directed by women, according to the Wrap, which also found that of the 149 movies due to be released in the next three years, a dozen are being directed by women.

So what’s happening now is worth noting — Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins,  Rough Night by Lucia Aniello, Everything, Everything by Stella Meghie, Megan Leavey by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Band Aid by Zoe Lister-Jones, and Paris Can Wait by Eleanor Coppola.

Is it also a sign of progress, of better things to come? Those who study the industry say no. Progress in movies and television remains agonizingly slow. And yet, there are encouraging signs and important milestones at the box office right now.

Wonder Woman has just set the record for the highest-grossing live-action movie directed by a woman (surpassing Twilight and its $192 million),  proving what Hollywood should already have known — that its most valuable properties are safe in the hands of female directors.

The movie has earned more than $200 million in North America and has received solid reviews — scoring a 93 percent on rottentomatoes.com. It has pleased audiences and critics and performed a deep-space rescue of the moribund D.C. comics universe.

History is also being made by the independent comedy Band Aid, produced, directed, and written by Lister-Jones (she also stars), who made it her mission to put a woman in every job possible, from the creative team right through to the technical crew.

“The underrepresentation of women on film and TV crews is something that I’ve been faced with on every project I’ve been involved in,” she said. “I was thinking of ways we could change that, and when I found myself in a position to push for hiring choices, I thought, ‘If I’m not going to do this, who is?’ ”

She filled most of the creative jobs (including cinematographer and editor) with women, but also nearly all of the technical jobs, which was a much bigger challenge, as it’s even tougher to place women in those positions. Where possible, she had male technicians mentor women on the set, experiences she cited as among the most rewarding aspects of the production. Matching women who wanted to learn and men who wanted to teach led to really special moments, she said.

I asked Lister-Jones why this doesn’t happen more often. Fear is a big factor, she said.

“I think the reason it’s so hard to fix this broken system is there’s this overwhelming sense of risk involved in making films, and when it comes to hiring, people want to hire from what is perceived to be a pool of proven talent. People with a perceived lack of experience get shut out. You have to work pretty hard to change those attitudes,” said the director, who also sees gender bias in the idea that — in her experience — people in the business are more comfortable taking risks on men.

Lister-Jones’ comedy —  about a couple who ease their marital tensions by turning their arguments into songs — has also earned solid reviews, as did this spring’s Their Finest, also made by a largely female creative team (directed by Lone Scherfig, written by Gaby Chiappe, music by Rachel Portman, and with women in charge of editing, casting. and production design). Its story – of a female screenwriter trying to make a space for herself in a production office full of men during WWII London — had a lived-in (or lived-through) feel to it.

That kind of verisimilitude is something women bring to the table, particularly in stories about women, said Cowperthwaite.

“We know how women behave,” she said. “It’s important to me that we start seeing ourselves in these kinds of stories. I think we just need access to them.”

Hollywood seems to be willing to go that far — we’re seeing more stories about women directed by women. Examples this year: Niki Caro directed Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Ry Russo-Young adapted Lauren Oliver’s YA novel Before I Fall. Gillian Robespierre directs Jenny Slate and Edie Falco in Landline (Aug. 4). Aisling Walsh directs Sally Hawkins in Maudie (June 30), which arrives the same day as Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Beguiled, for which she won best director at the Cannes Film Festival (the second woman to do so in the festival’s 70-year history).

“It’s cool that a movie like Wonder Woman did so well. I think that’s what changes minds,” Coppola said. “The more movies we do, the more these movies do well, the more the audience responds to them, the more opportunities will be created.”

All of this may feel like progress, but the hard data say otherwise, according to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center of the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. She notes that over the last two decades, the percentage of women working in the top-grossing films has fluctuated between six percent and nine percent. The recent historical high was achieved in 2000, when women accounted for 11 percent of directors working on top-grossing films. So far, she noted, there’s nothing in the data to indicate substantial change.

“High-profile cases, such as Patty Jenkins, can dramatically skew our perceptions of how women are actually faring as film directors,” she wrote in an email. “While their successes are encouraging, it is important to consider the larger picture and to continue counting the numbers of women working on screen and behind the scenes so we can have a conversation about women’s representation and employment that is grounded in a verifiable reality.”

One of the more encouraging verifiable realities has been on television at the FX network, where CEO John Landgraf learned in 2015 that men directed nearly 90 percent of his network’s program episodes. He sent out a call to producers to hire more women. In 2016, women directed 51 percent of 149 episodes running on FX.

Motivated individuals like Landgraf and Lister-Jones are making change happen. For Lister-Jones, the rewards have been immeasurable.

“For me, I think something sort of ineffably special happens when women come together. And as you kind of go further and further into your 30s, it happens less and less, because everybody is paired up and having kids, And you think back to those times when you were hanging out, and there was a magic to it. We wanted to see if we could bring that feeling to a movie set. And we did.”