In What Year Will Female Directors Make Up Half the Workforce?

I suspect there has been more digital ink devoted to women in filmmaking -- be it acting, writing, directing -- in the past year than in any other time in history. Part of this is due to the rise of blogs, where nothing gets more traffic than a good old-fashioned gender debate. Can women do this? Can women do that? Are women being discriminated against here, there, or everywhere?

Sex and the CityIt's also due to the intense marketing focus of films. In the 1950s, women saw films, and it didn't attract much notice. Now it's the focus of marketing meetings and Sex in the City franchises.

Despite all this conversation, women lag behind in Hollywood. Again, there's been a lot of discussion about this from actors and audiences. There aren't good roles for actresses of any age, and there aren't good stories told about women, or made for women. (The idea that both genders enjoy similar stories remains anathema.) Most embarrassing of all, women still aren't trusted to write or direct those stories for women or general audiences.

Kathryn BigelowTo refresh your memory as to how silly this stereotype gets, simply look at the press that surrounded Oscar-wining director Kathryn Bigelow last year. Many were astonished that a woman could direct a compelling war movie. The Hurt Locker was torn to bits looking for traces of femininity. Her resume (which included such lean and unladylike works as Point Break and Near Dark) was intensely scrutinized. How much of it was genuinely Bigelow? How much of it was her ex-husband, James Cameron? Did he influence her? If she hadn't been married to Cameron, would she have directed romantic comedies? In the months that followed her Oscar win, the debate surrounding women directors has flared up, simmered, and died out, depending on any given release. With Toy Story 3 came fresh criticism of Pixar, which has since answered it by hiring its first female director, Brenda Chapman. Angelina Jolie made headlines by announcing she was writing, producing, and directing her first film. Time will tell if their films can be judged on their own merits. Will Brave be eyed that much closer because it's a girl-oriented movie directed by a woman? Will Jolie be asked more about her kids than the auteur theory?

Yikes. While I'm rooting for them, I don't envy them at all. It's tough being in a minority. It's exciting to be a pioneer, and it earns you a lot of press, but they will be under intense scrutiny. Female directors aren't just directors. If you're Julie Taymor, Sofia Coppola, or Nicole Holofcener, you must be prepared to represent for an entire gender. Your film will also be expected to speak for all women instead of simply being a film. It's a problem Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder never have to trouble themselves with. Alfred Hitchcock simply had to be Hitchcock. John Huston just worked. Jane Campion must make A Statement of Power.

What will change that obsessive focus is simply numbers. When women directors go from being a minority to being half the moviemaking workforce, no one will ask Sarah Polley or Andrea Arnold embarrassing questions. (OK, someone will. But they won't be expected to answer for all of us!) But when will this happen? To answer that, we're going to have to do math and time travel.

If you've taken any history or social studies, you know that women have had a long and hard fight to become an equal part of the workforce. We were expected to take over factories during wartime but go home when the men returned, and such expectations caused a lot of political and social strife. It was a debate in American politics that raged from the 1920s onward, but only managed to earn solid legislation by the 1960s. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 denounced sex discrimination when it came to wages, and the Civil Rights Act added Title VII in 1964 to protect women from sexual discrimination in employment. These measures, and a shift in public attitudes, saw a steady rise of women in the workforce.

Now, I'm not going to get into salaries and glass ceilings. What's important here is general figures and discrimination. Going by a 2010 Catalyst survey, 59.2 percent of women older than 16 were in the labor force, compared to 72 percent of men. Compare that to 1960, when they made up only 36 percent. Now, we still aren't at a clean 50 percent, but it's getting close, and it's certainly better than the ratio of male to female directors in Hollywood. According to The Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television, only 9 percent of directors in Hollywood are women, a number that's held strong for the last decade.

Now, I'm no math whiz, but I know what 9 percent of female directors looks like currently. Ideally, it seems to me that if women directors made up half of Hollywood, you'd have at least one major release from a prominent female director each week. By major release, I mean a movie that's opening in more than 2,000 theaters -- a Secretariat or a Red. Going by October's release schedule alone, the number of such films is a whopping fat zero. If women made up 50 percent of the directorial force, I'd also estimate at least five movies on the weekly Top 10 would ostensibly be helmed by women. Again, the current number is zero.

Superman ReturnsThose are rather boring statistics, though. Think of it in terms of exciting news items. If 50 percent of directors were female, the alleged shortlist for new Superman directors (a six name list that contains the likes of Darren Aronofsky, Tony Scott, and Zack Snyder) would have two or three women among them. Can you imagine a world where a woman was deemed as capable to direct a DC or Marvel movie as Darren Aronofsky? No woman director has yet been given a $100 million budget event picture, but they trust neophyte men such as Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) every day.

When might this glorious day happen? Well, the only numbers I have are the rise of women in the actual workforce from 1960 to 2010. There isn't really a comparable model for Hollywood alone. If I pretend 2010 Hollywood is 1960s discriminatory America, make as though Kathryn Bigelow is the Equal Pay Act, and apply that same growing workforce curve to Hollywood ... well, it's bleak. I estimate that you'll see women directors achieve 50 percent in the year 2060. If it seems laughable that Hollywood would move that slowly, consider the fact that the Los Angeles Times reported that only two major studios (Walt Disney and Universal) hired a female director last year, and even then, it was only one director apiece. Warner Bros and Paramount Pictures hired none. If the current model holds with little to no growth, it could actually be longer than 50 years. It could be never.

If you still doubt that kind of massive disparity, just consider the post-Bigelow win landscape. So far, her Oscar win hasn't proved to be the equivalent of the Equal Pay Act. No studio eagerly dredged its ranks to find and fund potential female Oscar winners. Bigelow's buzz and action cred didn't earn her a spot on the Superman list, whereas a post-Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle was immediately rumored to be the next James Bond helmer. Oscars can at least put you in the buzz surrounding big franchises, unless you're female, in which case no one really cares what you do.

Catherine HardwickeEven if you're thinking that it's ultimately all about money over Oscar gold, even that's not a guarantee for a female director. After all, Catherine Hardwicke made $170 million with Twilight, and she hasn't worked since. Blockbuster directors like Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, and Zack Snyder have their pick of the big scripts and can get their passion projects funded. More women need to crack that $100 million box office barrier for gender to be a non-issue, but it's hard to say exactly how a Hardwicke or a Bigelow can land herself a Cowboys & Aliens or make their Sucker Punch or Inception.

However, Hollywood is just wacky enough to provide a lot of hope. It's a weird and fluid industry, currently dependent on trends, tracking, box office hauls, and massive publicity. If Angelina Jolie can popularize adoption and tattoos, and be a spokeswoman for the United Nations, perhaps she can do the same for female directors. Studios will want their own director with the glamor of Jolie. Say, Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, how would you like to direct this script? What about you, Scarlett Johansson? After all, once it was considered laughable for actors to direct. Now it's rather commonplace. As an actress/director, Jolie be a major ground-breaker purely because of her star power. If that seems to belittle her and women in general, consider that Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Mel Gibson used a similar leverage for their fledgling directorial careers. Hollywood is about flash, and the movers and shakers know it.

There could also be some additional Oscar wins by women like Sofia Coppola or Julie Taymor that will cause studios to look a little harder at the talent they champion. Say, if you give a female director lots of money and a wide release pattern, you can actually have a film people talk about and pay good money to see!

Arguably, the greatest hope lies in revolution. Critics and journalists have been whispering darkly about another studio collapse on par with that of the 1960s. We're clearly speeding into another era of bloated budgets and poor box office returns. If the studio system collapsed, and created a gritty 1970s style renaissance, it could allow the female equivalent of a Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg to rise up. I truly believe general audiences just want movies, and if the studios collapse, they won't care who makes them. Male, female, it doesn't matter. A good movie is a good movie.

Let's hope for all of that, and more. 2050 is a ridiculous date. It's quite possible you and I won't even live to see that year. But more depressingly, we won't get to see the movies all those hungry female directors are eager and willing to make.

A big thank you to Moses Roberts, Laya Maheshwari, and Dee who helped me crunch numbers in the wee small hours of the morning!