Guest post by Noni Ford.
Recently, many people have been looking at the box office receipts for this year’s films and scratching their heads at why so many female-led and female-directed films are performing so well. As though it’s an absolute mystery, or if all women are just going to theaters to support these rare female-centric films more this year in particular than in the past. A common thread about this supposed “phenomenon” is that these films need to have a link in their success, rather than just being seen as independent successes enjoyed by all audiences without people being influenced by the women involved in front and behind the screen. While it does seem slightly unfair to discount the fans that are going to the movies to look for more female empowerment, what’s not being taken into account are the legions of people that are going to the theater simply because of the love of a particular franchise or the quality of a film.
And it seems that so many popular franchises are suddenly including heroines at their center (Star Wars, The Hunger Games), however many of these franchises still lack women as directors, but not all of them. One of the biggest summer blockbusters this year was Wonder Woman which distinguishes itself from other superhero films by being the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman. The immediate response in the aftermath of the film’s financial success was multiple think pieces on how the studio was able to make such a well-received film, and too many of those pieces placed the emphasis on the women in the equation and not the overall artistic quality of the film.
As more people call for a wider range in diversity in the entertainment industry people are slowly hearing them. Though it’s taken certain studios a bit longer to enact we’re slowly seeing a change. With more fan input into franchises and films than ever before through social media, studios have a more direct link into the minds of their possible consumers and they’re using it to attempt to awaken a box office that’s been dormant or at the very least quiet for too long. Campaigns like “Ask Her Now” on the red carpet and the growth of more supportive voices as well as role models for women in all forms of film, such as Amy Poehler’s YouTube series Smart Girls and the creator of HBO’s Insecure Issa Rae, strive for the equality that’s been lacking in the industry. And looking at the success and popularity of these campaigns and individuals it’s clear that people are listening and giving their support.
In Cannes this spring Sofia Coppola, one of my personal favorite directors, won the top prize for directing The Beguiled, shocking many who seemed to consider her a dark horse for the prize. What was more shocking though was the fact that only one other woman has ever won it, and that was over four decades ago. It is unfortunate that when women make such strides in film we must all acknowledge the rarity of these situations or look at the decades of progress it took to get to that point. While it’s exciting to see Coppola become established as a filmmaker with consistently strong films, we need more filmmakers like her.
Every couple of years the film industry attempts to say that it’s the year of women, but the fact that it’s so noteworthy that it deserves a title shows that it’s an exceptional occurrence and that the growth of more women in the industry isn’t necessarily a reality. So many see the main issue with this being that we need more female directors, but that comes from the viewpoint that there aren’t that many out there now which is simply not true. The problem isn’t just getting a seat at the table anymore, it’s increasing the visibility of women’s work and not shelving it into a niche category but allowing it to go into major categories. So many of the female filmmakers that even today are popular seem to be mostly European, which is due to our growing globalization. That being said though there is so much talent here in America and plenty of women with cameras who are more than ready to take on the same projects as any other young filmmaker given the opportunity.
Despite setbacks I think the film industry is slowly having a progression into a wider array of visibility for all genders and ethnicities, behind and in front of the screen because studios are seeing that audiences will come to see any film as long as it is a quality film. Also the fact that audiences want to see more people that look like them and actually reflect the diversity of America and the world is another contributing factor. With so many big flops in the last five years that try to play off regressive movie audience research that results in repetitive reboots and heavy action, essentially light plot films, studios are learning quickly that this new younger audience isn’t like the old one. If Hollywood wants to keep with the times it must evolve.
Another key element to this issue is the increase in women as producers as well as studio executives. Some women are already attempting to climb the ranks to deal with this issue and ensure more work as well as support of women in the industry. While all women in executive positions probably won’t only produce or greenlight films with women at the helm, more of them will likely consider producing more female-directed or written films on the whole. We can see this upward ascension in the career of Ava DuVernay, whose recent HBO series Queen Sugar makes a point to feature female directors for each episode, or in Laura Dern’s and Rory Kennedy’s bid for president of the Academy Awards. It will always be easier to get steady progression when women aren’t just behind the camera or in front of the screen, but are represented in every single facet of the film industry.
This semester’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series brings female filmmakers Megan Griffiths, Eliza Hittman, and Dee Rees to campus. Past participants have included Ava DuVernay, Meryl Streep, Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt, and many others.
Noni Ford is a senior in the Media School with a concentration in Cinema and Media Arts and a specialization in Art, Aesthetics, and Experimental Film. She’s been a volunteer since 2014 and an audience member since the cinema first opened it’s doors. She just came back from spending a semester abroad in England and is looking forward to directing and writing more shorts in the upcoming year.