Last year was good for girls: Bridesmaids, The Help, Soul Surfer, Hanna, Sucker Punch, The Iron Lady, Jane Eyre, Friends With Kids and Young Adult all performed well at the box office, and were all about women.
It is encouraging that studios and ticket-buyers are increasingly comfortable greenlighting and going to see movies where women are the story, not just the girlfriend. At the same time, it's discouraging that fewer women are being hired to direct them: In January a story about female directors in the Hollywood Reporter revealed that women helmed only five per cent of the year's 250 highest-grossing films.
In 1998, the number of big movies directed by women was twice as high.
Directing isn't everything, but, a director's point-of-view – and their big-picture "orchestration," according to Toronto-based commercial director Kathi Prosser – informs the film's overall effect. Directors champion the scripts and actors they want to work with, and they also take responsibility, and credit for the finished product. When five per cent are female, that means that the humour, pathos, ideas, values, experiences and faces being projected to the world are almost exclusively male (or, intentionally and specifically guy-friendly).
There might be more opportunity for women to assert themselves in shorter, but not lesser, forms, such as music videos, commercials and more recently, big-budget, high-end films for brands like Chanel which run on their websites.
Last week, TIFF's Packaged Goods series presented "Girls of Film," a showcase of short works by 20 female directors of short films, music videos and commercials, including Canadian directors Prosser, Claire Edmondson, Yael Staav and Aleysa Young. "The advertising industry is more progressed than filmmaking, largely due to the fact that the [perceived financial] risk is a lot less," says showcase curator Rae Ann Fera. Studios don't take many chances with enormous budgets, and the idea that women just aren't up for it remains pervasive.
Which is not to say that women don't make successful movies: Amy Heckerling directed two teen classics a generation apart, Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, and Clueless in 1995, Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman director to win a best-picture Oscar in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, she also directed Point Break in 1991. Director Yael Staav says that directing is actually a very female-oriented job. "You're anticipating people's needs, you're working towards people's emotions, you're waving your hands and making everyone feel included, and at the same time you're fulfilling your vision."
The number of movies in 2011 that feature polyphonic stories about women (and actresses outside of the young, thin, blonde continuum) suggests that Hollywood filmmaking, notoriously both conservative and bombastic, is almost feminist. However, movie sets often operate like temporary nations with hostile climates, run by directors who do battle with the crew and studio and their own artistic desires. Women aren't socialized to be as aggressive at work and are still considered "difficult" when they are.
Commercial director Aleysa Young echoes the other directors in saying "There were times when I've thought [a job] went to 'the best man for the job.' But I've made a career out of not acknowledging any of that."
Emphasizing the industry's inherent sexism is a "self-fulfilling prophesy," says Staav.
Female directors do tend to get the same kinds of work. Young says many female directors work on image-oriented spots, with less emphasis on dialogue, "and there's an assumption that women do pretty, visual stuff with kids."
"The struggle for me," says Kathi Prosser, "has always been to not be perceived as the hair girl, the yogurt girl." Kathryn Bigelow, whose next feature film is about Osama bin Laden, may be the only female director getting work that is aimed at men.
Fera says that, while traditionally feminine,the fashion brand films afford a chance to tell a better story and offer better opportunities for female directors. Fashion's broad pop-cultural permeation, has deeply influenced that middle-American mainstream, and brought with it the interests and talents of women and gay men, who run the fashion business.
That said, whatever might be called a female aesthetic is rarely just "feminine"; Fera says some of the material she chose for "Girls of Film" is "dark" and "savage," in particular Claire Edmondson's video for Broken Social Scene's song The Sweetest Kill. "People got really, really upset about that video in a way I didn't expect them to," says Edmondson. "After that video a lot of videos came out with dudes killing people. But because [the The Sweetest Kill video] was a feminine take on killing, it really disturbed people."
With more female points-of-view in commercials, brand films and music videos comes a capitalistic opportunity: even though women make the majority of buying decisions, advertising rarely addresses women outside of a Cosmo fox or soccer-mom binary; gender-neutral products and services – alcohol; telecom – tend to advertise toward men. Kathi Prosser says "I love sexy, most women love sexy, but [gender-neutral product advertising] is never sexy.… I think that's the one thing that women can contribute to our market that hasn't really been tapped into, is sexy from a woman's perspective."
That's what's going to do it, to make five per cent, 10, and then 50, when the contributions of a wider spectrum of people – women, but also less straight, less white – helm creative projects in the way that directors do. Which is why commercials and brand films, especially, are a great position from which to keep going.
Special to The Globe and Mail