Women as Filmmakers: Is the revolution yet to come?

“It’s a good time to be a woman, because the pressure is on” – Alicia Slimmer

Female film directors remain a rare breed – despite decades of campaigning for equality in the movie industry.

Studies show that from 2005 to 2014, the amount of women directors of UK films rose by only 0.6 per cent to 11.9%.

A study commissioned by Directors UK, the country’s only body of creative directors, also revealed that women are still being pushed out at every level of film-making and film-funding.

Where most industries are seeing more equality across genders, it seems that the film industry is yet to make this progression.

At Manchester International Film Festival a panel of esteemed female directors including Karen Allen, Alicia Slimmer and Bronwen Hughes opened up about issues they have faced in the industry and what they feel needs to change in order to see more female filmmakers entering the industry.

Slimmer declared:

“It’s a good time to be a woman, because the pressure is on.”

Their pleas resonated particularly with young female film makers.

At a further education level, the split of male and females at university studying film is about 50/50. However, by the time they start creating short films, the entry level to the business, this has dropped to only 25.4 percent of directors being women.

“I’ve always had a love for the film industry, whenever I bought a DVD of a film or television show I would always watch the extra bits like the behind the scenes/interviews/commentaries to see how it was all done.” – Tara Bunker

Tara (right) has had to fight harder for roles her male counterparts have got. Credit: Pete Roo

Tara, who is currently graduating from a BA in Digital Film Production and Screenwriting at the University of Chichester, has had to challenge many stereotypes while battling to find her feet in the film world.

“I have found it harder to get my desired role and when applying for a role I have found a majority of the time it did go to a male colleague.

“I found that the roles I was mostly given were roles that involved paperwork or organising, whereas I wanted to direct so I felt I had to fight more to be given the chance to be considered.”

Unfortunately, the more expensive the film, the less likely it is to have a female director. By the time films reach a ‘Hollywood’ level budget of more than £30 million, this has dropped dramatically again to 3.3 percent of films having women directors.

“I don’t necessarily think it is due to just gender with funding,” continues the final year student. “I think that more factors do apply; the concept of the film, experience of the key creatives, if it’s a profitable investment etc.”

If society is narrowing the gender pay gap, why hasn’t it closed the gap on representation? Three major factors are causing women to drop out at every level – confidence, attitude and a lack of simple equality on the part of employers and commissioners.

However, as much as Tara wants there to be more equality on a film set, she understands that it isn’t always as simple as picking and choosing due to gender.

Trying to overcompensate with women could seem worse. Sometimes, men are just more experienced in the roles needed for technical crews.

“I’ve never worked on a film with a female director so I can’t say if I’ve noticed that, but when I was a director for two films I found I actually had a more male crew.

“Due to the films I was directing the crew I needed had to be hands on and more technical with equipment, and the people who had the experience and knowledge were men.”

“Women are initiating a lot more films than waiting for it. They’re getting out there and finding the projects they want to do.” – Karen Allen

Women are typically presumed to like and create a certain range of genres. These include documentary, drama and romance.

Although this is broadly true of audiences,less than 30 percent of the films in these genres are directed by women.

With the genres of sci-fi, action and horror, which women surveyed did enjoy, and Tara wanted to direct, none of the female director percentrages was over 10 percent.

Tara, 20, said: “If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be horror as the level people work at is just so much more intense.

“Plus it’s a challenge as horror films get shrugged off now and it’s hard to create one that the audience will enjoy and won’t find the acting/story almost comical.”

Of course, women are making waves across these genres, and there is nothing comical about some of them.

Allen pointed out:

“Women are initiating a lot more films than waiting for it. They are getting out there and finding the projects they want to do.”

This is born out with the recent release of XX showcasing the talented women producing horror shorts, to the more controversial and graphic release of Raw about a cannibalistic high school.

Raw has been given both green band (less graphic) and red band (explicit, graphic) trailers, suggesting the depth this film goes to in the horror genre.

In sci-fi and fantasy genres the much-anticipated Wonder Woman is directed by Patty Jenkins, while director Kathryn Bigelow is still producing amazing action films even after Point Break and more recently Zero Dark Thirty.

With only 25.7 percent of UK producers, one can see why it is hard to break into certain genres that are not typically perceived, just yet, as being feminine.

Upon hearing this statistic, Tara claimed: “It does shock me, I actually thought it would be a lower percentage than that especially as the UK film industry is starting to boom.”

“Right away I got a sense of sexism – the huge vein flowing through the film world that wasn’t there in the  theatre world. I was empowered in the theatre. In film, the only power I had was the power of no.” – Karen Allen

Film itself is a fairly new concept. But like many industries, women have been creating films since the beginning. They’ve been leading some of the big movements in cinema since the early 1900s and yet they are still facing inequalities.

From pioneering fantasy films to producing hundreds of films of varying lengths over a number of decades, women have been competing with men to get noticed in a male dominated world.

In fact, women as filmmakers and screenwriters almost disappeared completely in the 30s and 40s but made a good comeback as the New Cinema era emerged.

Many women found more equality in the theatre industry, Karen Allen started out directing there before moving into film as an actor, most notably in The Raiders of The Lost Ark, and finally venturing into film directing.

“Right away I got a sense of sexism – the huge vein flowing through the film world wasn’t there in the theater world. I was empowered in the theatre. In film, the only power I had was the power of no.” She said.

The past decade has given the world a number of notable females in the film industry who are celebrated here.

Wayne’s World became a huge cult film of the 90s and had a female director in Penelope Spheeris.

“Two things need to happen; filmmakers must film and do what they do, and there needs to be public shaming and policy makers must bring to light these issues and do something about it.” – Bronwen Hughes

While moviegoers may not be staging protest marches for women’s equality in film, there is clear evidence in statistics and stories of women directors that more needs to be done to create a level playing field.

Tara is determined to get “that one job that sets me up for life”. Credit: Reino Kuber

“It’s meant to be changing but how often do you see a female as a director for the next big upcoming film? I can honestly name over 10 male directors but off the top of my head I wouldn’t be able to name one female director.” Tara confirms.

Without a balanced mix of both genders getting a spotlight for their jobs as directors, there will be a continuation of mostly male filmmakers in the future.

Bronwen Hughes, whose last film was a biopic looking at the life and death of a photojournalist in Somalia feels strongly that changes need to be made to create a better balance in film.

“Two things need to happen; filmmakers must film and do what they do, and there needs to be public shaming and policy makers must bring to light these issues and do something about it.”

The Directors UK study suggests that there are in fact some changes we can do to start creating more equality in this industry.

It suggests three things:

  • A target of a 50/50 split between the genders of the available public funding for films by 2020
  • A coordinated, data-lead campaign for gender equality across the UK
  • An amendment to the Film Tax Relief fund to include all UK films and improve the diversity.

Tara has her own list of changes to improve film students’ experiences before they even enter the industry.

“Confidence needs to be taught, to men and women,” she said.

“But to also make sure women don’t just learn all the paperwork roles and actually believe that yes they can go for director or producer or write a screenplay because they are at the same level as anyone else, if not better!”

She concludes, “It’s hard and yes we may get knocked down over and over again. But the one thing that keeps me going and trying again is that I tell myself to imagine the looks on all their faces when I get that one job that sets me up for life.”

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