When Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World roared into theaters in 2015, Hollywood noticed. It wasn’t that Trevorrow, whose only other directorial credit was the tiny festival movie Safety Not Guaranteed, dino-stomped the box office (though he did), or that he had proven to be a wunderkind talented beyond his IMDB page; it was that he was the third indie director in the past year to steer a stale or strange franchise to success. The previous year, low-budget horror director James Gunn had made Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and Gareth Edwards had jumped from the low-budget Monsters to Godzilla. So the following year, when Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot proved to be Victor von Doomed, it didn’t matter. The new terms had been set: If you needed to breathe life into old IP, you looked for a talented (and presumably cheap) indie director.
And now, with tomorrow’s release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the most rapidly rebooted franchise of them all will try to find a spark with an unproven indie director of its own. Jon Watts, a 36-year-old director who got the gig based on his 2015 Sundance thriller Cop Car, is at the helm of the $175 million blockbuster. From all early indications, the film will be a success. But the trend that’s opened the doors of Hollywood’s most valuable properties to up-and-coming directors raises an unfortunate, largely unasked question: Why are all of these young, indie directors men?
Last month’s Wonder Woman was a landmark moment in the modern comic-book movie era—Patty Jenkins’ DC Comics megahit became the highest grossing female-directed live-action film ever. Yet, it’s only the second comic book movie to be directed by a woman (the other being Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone in 2008), and the Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t have a woman in the director’s chair until 2019’s Captain Marvel, which Anna Boden is co-directing alongside Ryan Fleck. For context, Captain Marvel is the MCU’s nineteenth film.
However dire that ratio sounds, the MCU will actually be outperforming the rest of Big-Budget Hollywood. Stacy Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative, published a study that looked at the top-100 grossing films of each year from 2007-2016. Of the 1,114 directors behind the 1,000 films in the study, only 45 were women. Yet, to blame Marvel or other studios for behind-the-camera gender disparity oversimplifies a difficult issue. The problem, it turns out, goes back farther than that.
The Pipeline Problem
In order to find the most likely path to a directing gig, online filmmaking marketplace Slated studied over 300 big-budget ($50 million or more) films released by Hollywood studios between 2010-2015. Of those directors, 41.6 percent had ridden the success of an indie project to their first studio-level release (a budget of $25 million or more). For female directors, that path was even more pronounced: 64.3 percent used a breakout indie as the spark for their big-budget filmmaking career.
Yet, inequity persists—and given the pivotal role the indie world plays in the talent pipeline, that may be the genesis of Hollywood’s talent-pool problem. Martha Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, studied the 23 largest film festivals in the United States in the past year. She found that, on average, a festival admitted 18 narrative films directed by men compared to only six with at least one female director.
A 3-to-1 ratio may not seem insurmountable at first glance—but once the films are screened in competition, the imbalance only grows. In association with the Sundance Film Festival, USC’s Smith looked at every film that played in competition from 2002-2014. Though films made by men and by women were bought at the same rate over that period, male-directed films were six times as likely to be released on 250-plus screens than those by female directors. The fewer screens a film appears on, the lower its chance at gathering momentum and getting larger attention—or follow-up work for its director. “People are putting more money to support these films by male filmmakers,” Smith says. “And these are the directors that are likely to be plucked out and put into these tent-pole, comic book movies.”
So, while the 2014-15 influx of indie directors marked a sea change in how Hollywood staffed its biggest properties, the change was in the pace of ascension rather than the path: James Gunn had directed two features, as did Spider-Man‘s Watts; Edwards and Trevorrow, one each. (All four had TV and/or documentary experience in varying degrees, however.) For female directors, the same just isn’t true. Smith’s study of behind-the-camera inclusivity broke the directors in the survey into age and gender—only seven women under 40-years-old directed a Top-100 grossing film over the decade she studied. Not a single woman under 30 got a chance to helm a major Hollywood motion picture.
But, Wonder Woman!
Retrospectively, Wonder Woman is held up as proof of progress: a female superhero film directed by a woman can make money in 2017! But despite Jenkins’ resume (her 2003 film Monster garnered Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar), questions lingered before the film’s premiere. A month before its release, box office prognosticators projected an opening-weekend domestic gross of $65 million—far short of the $103 million it actually made.
“We know that it’s a misguided distrust in many ways because we know that women-directed movies don’t necessarily make less money than your average movie directed by a man ,” director Amma Asante said on a film panel in 2016. “But for some reason there’s that fear, and that is something that has to be dealt with.”
That trust issue ostensibly affects distribution as well: If financiers believe films by women make less money, why show them in as many theaters as films by men? Studio System, a film industry intelligence and data tracker owned by Nielsen, shared information on every film in its database released by a United States studio or independent filmmaker from 2010-2016. According to their data, films directed by men were distributed on more screens than those by women at every budget level except $25-50 million. Films by men that cost under $5 million were released on nearly two-and-a-half times more screens than those directed by women.
“Right now women are being disproportionately penalized because of perception, not because of reality,” Stephan Paternot, the CEO of Slated, says. “When you’re distributed on a much smaller screen count, you’re automatically handicapping female directors.”
Wonder Woman should never have had to stand as a test case for all female directors; after all, Trank’s Fantastic Four didn’t become cited as proof that 30-year-old white guys can’t make superhero films. But unfortunately, in an industry as risk-averse as Hollywood, there was a need for a loud, inarguable hit like Wonder Woman to finally prove to wary studios that female directors, when given the chance, can deliver.
“The true test is when you can uncouple who the lead character is from the gender or race/ethnicity of the director,” Smith says. “That’ll be when the liberal Hollywood that everyone talks about actually becomes the liberal Hollywood of hiring decisions. I don’t think that day is anytime soon. I don’t see any patterns that have changed. I don’t see any hiring decisions that are different.” Hopefully, trust in Jenkins will trickle down to the smallest films in the industry. But realistically, behind-the-camera gender bias could take years to clear from the directorial pipeline.