Half Of Film School Grads Are Women -- So Why Are Only 1.9% Directing Big Budget Films?

"Talent needs an even playing field," says NYU's Susan Sandler.

Yesterday (May 12), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made a monumental decision on behalf of women in Hollywood when they announced that they'd be asking state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of major movie studios and talent agencies, and that they'd send these agencies a round of letters with evidence of “overt sex stereotyping and implicit bias," specifically against female directors. The letters included some staggering statistics, including a University of Southern California study which found that only 1.9 percent of the top-grossing 100 films from 2013 and 2014 were directed by women, and a Directors Guild of America study which found that only 14 percent of 220 TV shows — 3,500 episodes in total — had women at their helm.

For someone who keeps tabs on the film industry or at the very least watched this year's Oscars -- which featured exactly zero women in the directing category -- this might not come as a huge surprise. After all, Hollywood has been known as an old boys' club for years, with major studios tending to go with male directors for their big-budget projects.

However, for someone who studied at a school like USC or my own alma mater NYU, the numbers might come as a surprise -- because at film school, women are on a much more even playing field with their male classmates.

"We now have almost 50 percent women enrolled in the [film and television] program, and that was not the case when the festival started," Susan Sandler, a faculty advisor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and liaison for its student-run Fusion Film Festival, told MTV News over the phone. "I took over running the festival with a student guide that completely embraces women behind the camera, so all the films that we celebrate are directed and shot by women. All the competitions are female directors, all the icons who come to the festival to meet with students are all women directors, so it is all about that initiative."

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If women make up literally half of the student body at USC and NYU -- two of the best film schools in the United States -- where are they going after college? Why are only a very small few of them being paid actual money to make Hollywood films, while their male colleagues hop from Sundance to Marvel and back again?

"Finally, this [ACLU] headline gives us an actual legal and political action," Sandler explained. "All of this is provoked by studies that came out of Sundance [Institute]... [that] look at what happens when a woman comes out of school, brings her film to the festival circuit, and debuts and tracks what happens after that debut. The statistics we see -- the fall out is shocking. The talent is equal, and the opportunities just drop off for women completely. Studios are not trusting women with big budgets; they are not trusting women all across the board in terms of films that are studio-generated... I think finally people are saying 'yeah, we need political action for change,' and I think it’s tremendous."

So there you have it -- women aren't not directing big movies because they don't have the training or eduction, they're not making big movies because the studio system has not shown much of an interest in hiring them. Which is depressing, when you think of the masses of smart, talented girls who are ready to begin their college careers, dreaming of being the next Ava DuVernay, Kathryn Bigelow, or even Quentin Tarantino.

"Women enter the program as men enter the program --- with great curiosity about where they’re going to find their career path," Sandler continued. "As we see in Fusion, we have a gorgeous number of films directed by women that we screen and that are in competition every year... it’s really not about what’s happening at the NYU level, the educational level, it’s what’s happening when these talented people hit the festival circuits with the films that they’ve worked so hard to develop and ideas that they’ve brought along for future projects, and they hit that wall which is this fierce boys' club."


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This studio boys' club, Sandler explained, lives by a "mantra" that says that women only make movies for and about women -- which is "really tired," since women can direct stories about men just as men have about women since the dawn of Hollywood. But also, would a few more movies about women shot from the viewpoint of a woman really be such a bad thing?

"I think more and more stories that are driven by interesting female characters and complex characters and original characters -- I think that’s going to be changing," Sandler said. "There’s a real tired formula at work in some of the bigger action films that is going to wear itself out. Of course those are not films that women are listed for, typically. Those lists are very, very short."

What happens to the women who are currently trying to get their movies made is now in the hands of the studios and agencies who had previously largely ignored them, and of course, the ACLU. But what of the female storytellers of the future? What could educators possibly even say to them to make them feel better about the world they'll stumble into when they graduate? According to Sandler, it's actually pretty simple.

"It’s always about authenticity," she said. "Telling stories that matter to you. Telling stories that come from you; that are authentic to your experience. That’s how you win -- that’s how you win personally, that’s how you win professionally. And with that, having enormous belief in yourself. When you believe in yourself and you’re doing work that is powerful and is not measured by what the industry wants or what you think the market wants and has that absolute power of originality... nothing can trump that.

"When the doors are finally open through this initiative -- which is kind of inevitable because the numbers are there in terms of what the studios are seeing that the market wants -- there are women who go to films in large numbers and want their stories on the screen, and want female characters that are authentic and not constructed by stereotypes. It’s a very exciting moment for women behind the camera, it’s a very exciting moment for my students to be entering their professional lives."

... And if and when those students encounter the wall that is the old boys' club, at least now they know that people in power -- like badass female directors who have already made it, and the ACLU -- are behind them.

"I think the mantra has been just stick to it and talent will win out," Sandler concluded. "But talent needs a little help. Talent needs an even playing field."

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