The 2018 documentary This Changes Everything (Tom Donahue) describes the way in which women in Hollywood continue to be shut out of opportunities for directing. A look at some of the data around this issue confirms the charge. A 2018 study at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that out of 1,100 box office hits over the past 11 years, only 4.3% were directed by women–and the percentage has fallen since 20081 . By contrast, women’s representation among writers and producers looks better: 10.1% and 21.7% respectively–and increasing steadily. The record of prestigious awards for American women directors offers an even bleaker view. Since the Oscars were first given out in 1927, only one female director has won: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009; and only three others have ever been nominated: Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2003, and Greta Gerwig for Ladybird in 2017. Compare this record with the Film Academy’s growing recognition of directors of color, with ten nominees and winners from such groups just in the past ten years, including Ang Lee (Life of Pi, 2012), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, 2013), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, 2016), Jordan Peele (Get Out, 2017), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman, 2018), and the so-called Three Amigos (Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013; Roma, 2018), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, 2014;The Revenant, 2015), and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, 2017).
Why do women in Hollywood trail men of color when it comes to critical accolades? And why do they continue to fare better as writers and producers than as directors? One answer to both these questions looks to the image of the solitary genius that has come to be identified with a director’s job. Women do not fit comfortably into this role. Whether spurred by nature or nurture, women—much more than men of any race or ethnicity–have gravitated toward teamwork. In contrast to the solitary director honorees, over 60% of the writers given Oscar nominations from 2007-17 worked in teams, and 100% of the producers did so. In cinema’s infancy, important female directors like Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber and Nel Shipman partnered with their husbands; and American women directors have continued to work with others to the present day:. Consider teams like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks, 2012; Battle of the Sexes, 2017), Allison Anders and Kurt Voss (Strutters, 2017), Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell (Brave, 2012), Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck (Frozen, 2013), Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini (The Extra Man, 2011; The Girl Most Likely, 2012; 10,000 Saints, 2013), and Anna Boden and Ryan Flick (It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2010; Mississippi Grind, 2015; Captain Marvel, 2019)—not to mention the Wachowski siblings (Cloud Atlas, 2012; Jupiter Ascending, 2015).
No Oscar has ever been awarded to a directorial team—for good reason. Artistry by groups runs counter to what could be termed the great man theory of creative endeavor in which the distinctive voice of a single individual is understood as the crucial factor responsible for whatever aesthetic merit a work may have. It is undoubtedly no accident that the auteur theory gained currency among film scholars during a period in which cinema studies was increasingly gaining recognition as a legitimate art form, for the auteur approach opened a way to conceptualise directors of mainstream films as solitary geniuses analogous to poets or painters. As Godard famously wrote, “The cinema is not a craft. It is an art. It does not mean teamwork. One is always alone; on the set as before a blank page.”2 The mission of the Directors Guild of America has bought into this model of the creative power of the lone individual. Guided by Frank Capra’s mantra “one man, one film,” the Guild has pursued numerous programs aimed at presenting directors as singular artists, including mandates calculated to marginalize the contributions of other Hollywood artisans and other policies designed to ensure that, whenever feasible, only a single director would be officially credited on a film even when two or more have worked on it.
A model of authorship that situates groups at the center of the creative process would be better able to properly credit the contributions women have made as film directors—and such a model would also make a space to acknowledge the work of other under-sung talents. Perhaps 2019 is a propitious moment to explore this possibility in view of the rapid pace of technological change now taking place that is swelling the ranks and types of creative contributors. Media content is increasingly migrating to an array of screens, from movie theaters to TV sets to cell phones, each platform ruled by its own cadre of authors. And the internet and social networks have newly empowered users, who can now easily function as textual poachers, co-authoring their own derivative works.
Moreover, in the digital age Hollywood cinema itself is becoming increasingly group-oriented. A 2018 program on movie sound sponsored by the Academy highlighted the work of the many artisans who produce contemporary Hollywood soundscapes. Using the 2010 film Unstoppable as an example, a panel of eight sound artists documented the way in which levels of sound were layered onto the movie’s track, including ambient noise, music, effects, stock sound footage, Foley-ed sound, and looping. Each of these sound elements was produced by a separate team operating in scattered locations, often far from the eyes and ears of Tony Scott, the putative director-auteur. The visual landscapes devised for the Hollywood films of today are, if anything, even more complicated and collaborative. If legitimate works of art can be fashioned by such means, and if we are able to devise group-centered models of authorship to account for them, perhaps female team players—along with legions of other below-the radar creators–will move into the spotlight to be justly honored for their contributions to film art in the years to come.