Women working solo direct 15% of new releases – but many of those films aren’t widely screened. The problem’s not just access, but gatekeeping too
Last weekend at the Cannes film festival, eyes were fixed not on the flickering images of a distant screen but on 82 women paused dramatically on the steps of the Palais.
Filmmakers, actors and lobbyists led by jury head Cate Blanchett and veteran filmmaker Agnes Varda took the red carpet opportunity of Eva Husson’s new film, Girls of the Sun, to give stark statistical visibility to a stubborn industrial deficit.
The number of protestors was not coincidental. In the entire 71 year history of Cannes only 82 women directors have climbed the festival’s stairs – in sharp contrast to 1,645 men. The under-representation of women and directors of colour at Cannes has been a longstanding feature of the festival, and despite repeated objections over many years, the numbers have barely moved. This year there were only three women directors out of 21 in the main competition. Spike Lee was the first black filmmaker in competition in four years.
In response, Cannes representatives led by artistic director Thierry Fremaux signed a diversity commitment, which promises more data transparency around film selection processes and outcomes, and improved representation of women on the festival board. But the charter pointedly rejects minimum statistical targets for films directed by women, in deference to existing “merit-based” decision-making practices. In the hands of adjudicators such as Fremaux and Blanchett, the word “merit” acts as a powerful euphemism for evenhandedness and is intended to thwart alternative calls for a numerically defined idea of balance.
The film industry generally, and Cannes in particular, has become a battleground for a galvanised feminism that includes and extends beyond the politics of visibility that has shaped the #MeToo movement. This is an industrial strength struggle that bridges a traditional division between the specific and the systemic; between data that describes the extent of the problem and data that indicates where and how to intervene. The mathematical, the statistical and the quantitative are all pivotal to understanding the operations of contemporary power. New forms of evidence and innovative analytic techniques are the critical weapons in a revitalised feminist arsenal.
At the Kinomatics Project, we have been working with a team of researchers using newly available datasets to understand the intersecting systems of gatekeeping that operate to constrain the advancement of women filmmakers. We collected data for films screening theatrically around the world from November 2012 to June 2015 – around 130 million observations, which revealed that women working as solo directors helmed 15% of all the new release movies that screened in that period. This is higher than the percentage of women directors in many key filmmaking centres at this time; in Hollywood for example, women only directed 7% of the top 250 grossing films. From a purely numerical perspective then, our findings appear to be comparatively positive.
But it’s not the full picture. If we look beyond the supply side (how many women directors) to the exposure side of the industry (how many of these filmmakers’ movies were seen by audiences in a cinema), the data is telling and terrible. Films directed by women constituted only 3% of all the screenings that occurred around the world.
When we break the data down to look at the screenings of films directed by women at a country level, we can see how filmmaker gender is distributed unevenly across the globe. In South America and Great Britain, only slightly over 2% of screenings were of films directed by a woman, while in North America and Asia the situation is only slightly improved, with just under 3% of screenings by sole women directors.
In Scandinavia the situation is markedly better, but still falls far short of parity with around 7% of screenings devoted to films directed by women. In every jurisdiction the proportion of films directed by women exceeds the percentage of screenings.
What this suggests is that strategies limited to “just add women directors and stir” are doomed to fail without attendance to additional and overlapping forms of gatekeeping, where judgements of aesthetic or business value severely impinge on women’s participation. Anna Serner, the compelling CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, has noted how consciously redefining highly gendered industry precepts such as “merit” and “risk” in the decision-making process, combined with methodical statistical verification, sparked her industry’s recent realisation of increased women’s participation: “We do the counting every month but we do the counting after taking the decisions.”
Festivals such as Cannes play a critically important role in organising and amplifying global distribution opportunities for women filmmakers, and because of this they also offer a unique opportunity for redistributing gender throughout the entire industry.
We’ve had more than 70 years of data to show us Cannes has a problem with women filmmakers. If the various directors of the Cannes film festival were truly committed to meaningful change they wouldn’t just agree to make women more countable, they would make themselves and their festival accountable. That’s a red carpet vision worth the price of a festival ticket.
• Deb Verhoeven and Bronwyn Coate are researchers in the Kinomatics Project, an international effort that collects and explores data about the creative industries.