“Could This Be The Solution to Gender Diversity in Hollywood?” A Guest Post

Note from Cady: I met James at as ISA event (International Screenwriters Association)where I spoke about the documentary and some of the things I’ve learned. He told me about this essay he had written and I thought it would be neat to share it with all of you.

“Could This Be The Solution to Gender Diversity in Hollywood?”

by James “Doc” Mason

screenRIOTer.com

Ava DuVernay has been in the press lately making the case that the iron gates of Old Boys Network in Hollywood are rusting. If so, why hasn’t it helped gender diversity? For several years, the gender mix for behind the scenes jobs has been steady at around 18% women.  It is telling that more women work in documentaries, as Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D., said in a January 11, 2013, story in The New York Times, because “the (financial) barriers to entry are lower than they are in narrative features.” Still, only about a third of documentaries are helmed by women.

In recent years, the financial barriers to making narrative features have been disappearing, too. If this is true, shouldn’t we see a corresponding increase in diversity? The 2013 Sundance Film Festival held the promise that we were. Half of all narrative features that year were directed by women. A shining moment, but not yet a trend. Cut ahead to 2015 and the ratio of female directed features dropped to nearly one-third. The problem, as Sundance director John Cooper points out, is that “Women directors come, and they don’t come back.” If we are indeed at the beginning of a trend, then Cooper’s gloomy observation will be rendered moot in the next few years. Could it be that Sundance has become Hollywood’s new slightly more diverse Iron Gate?

Most independent filmmakers use the “Good/Fast/Cheap – Choose Two” model of filmmaking, where the Good and Cheap are the only options. These films may have necessarily faster production times, preceded by arduously slow journey to funding, followed by painful post production delays. Independent films are long labors of love. The third binary, “Cheap” means the multi-hyphenate filmmaker has to compromise and make sacrifices, both personally and on the screen, as they trudge towards a final product. It’s a miracle when an independent film is good enough to get into Sundance. But this applies to male and female directors alike. It doesn’t address why, overall, fewer female directors have returned to Park City. Or why the story of a male director of an ultra-low budget indie being hired to direct a big budget feature doesn’t surprise, but its shocks when the gender is reversed.

However, there is one element of filmmaking that is rarely discussed in terms of gender diversity, and that may be the key finding a solution to the problem.

When looking at gender diversity behind the scenes, we need to look at the complete picture. The New York Film Academy infographic is telling.  It lists the major behind-the-scenes jobs – Directing, Writing, Executive Producers, Producers, Editors, and Cinematographers. What it doesn’t mention is the one facet of filmmaking that wags the cinematic dog: distribution. Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything that references the percentage of women who work as distribution executives.

The Sundance Instance and WIF put out a comprehensive study in 2014 called “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers” that concentrated on content creation. Danielle Lurie of Filmmaker Magazine summarizes the study, for those that don’t want to wade through the paper. Unfortunately, unbelievably, the study leaves questions of film distribution for future research. Quoting from page 28, the study asks and leaves unanswered: “Do females’ films receive premium exhibition opportunities in equal numbers to films by males? Are films by women sold and distributed on a par with films by men? Do these movies perform at the same level? Do females receive major agency representation at rates equal to their male counterparts? At what rate do emerging female directors complete their second films as compared to male directors?” Answering these questions, and following up with “if no, then why?” would seem paramount if we are to dismiss the current paradigm and move towards gender parity.

It would appear that while the gilded gates of Sundance are indeed letting in more diversity, the rusting pipes of traditional distribution continue their strangle-hold on broad, established, predictable product channels that preclude all but a few diverse voices. If these few diverse voices can’t get into theaters, then the financial barriers remain.

One female director expressed it this way, “We have had first hand experience with the distribution dilemma. We have had packed theaters of audiences of both genders and many ages across the country leave the theater in tears, telling us this is their story, they loved the movie, etc. But distributors see a small indie starring unknowns and featuring a woman in her 40s and they immediately pigeon hole it as a “Lifetime” or “Hallmark” movie, effectively ghetto-izing our movie and misunderstanding the film catalogs of Lifetime and Hallmark at the same time.”

Ava DuVernay and Marc Duplass suggest that filmmakers take control of their distribution strategy. There are viable alternatives to traditional distribution that can allow the filmmaker to express her authentic voice. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZeWOAliA6Y). With recent VOD success stories, the perception in the industry and viewing public of movies that have alternative releases is changing for the better. Big hurdles remain. Even for well-received Sundance films, VOD isn’t perceived as an effective distribution strategy, especially for films seeking higher accolades.

Then again, that may just be the view from the perspective of what was, not what could be. VOD will be considered part of an effective strategy as more amazing independent films successfully carve that path. A turning point may come when an alternatively distributed film is nominated for Best Picture. Of course, that would still require that the film also be released theatrically in a few theaters. This might sound like fantasy now, but there’s no doubt a well-executed digital release has tremendous potential. It should be clear, the path DuVernay and Duplass champion is not, and should not be the only path for diverse voices.

Diversity starts on the page. When sitting in front of a blank screen, writers have a choice to write worlds that better represent the world we live in. They must make that choice. Then it takes imagination on the part of key behind the scenes people to translate that to the screen. Producers and directors, more than just the 18% of women behind the scenes, must also look beyond how things are or have been to ensure that these diverse voices end up on the screen. It can’t be acceptable that only 4.4% of all films in the top 100 box office each year from 2002 to 2012 were directed by women. But without strong diverse voices helping to shepherd these films to an audience, the percentage of women behind the scenes in Hollywood will remain regretfully low. There will come a tipping point when so many female-driven movies are financially successful that they can no longer be called exceptions.

You can chat with James on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/screenrioter 

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