Independence Day is more than a week away, but the latest SDSU study on the status of women working in independent films has some exciting things to declare. So break out the Roman candles. We’ve got some celebrating to do.
After many years of the employment needle stubbornly stuck in a low place, the percentage of women working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers and editors on independent films is up. We’re not at 50/50 levels yet, but there are signs of improvement.
This good news is courtesy of the 2018-19 “Indie Women: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women in Independent Film” report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. In the movie season that ran from July of 2018 through June of 2019, the percentage of women working on domestically and independently produced feature-length films that played at more than 20 prestigious U.S. film festivals reached record-setting levels.
The study by Martha M. Lauzen, the center’s executive director, found that number of female directors was at 33 percent, up 4 percentage points from last year’s study. The number of female writer’s was up 6 percentage points to 32 percent, producers were at 37 percent (up from 36 percent last year), and executive producers were up 6 percentage points to 32 percent. The number of female editors was up 2 percentage points to 29 percent.
We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, in which the movie-mogul’s reign of harassment and abuse against women aimed a harsh spotlight on gender inequality behind the scenes in Hollywood.
There was a lot of passionate talk from groups like Time’s Up, but when it came time to call “Action,” progress seemed slow in coming. In the center’s 2018 “Celluloid Ceiling” report, Lauzen found that women accounted for just 8 percent of the directors of the year’s top 250 grossing films and 16 percent of the writers.
Fortunately, things are looking up on the indie-film front. Although not necessarily for the reasons you’d think. Or not only for the reasons you’d think.
“People may attribute this increase to the very-recent efforts of groups like Time’s Up, and I think that would be a mistake. Women’s representation in film has been an issue almost as long as film has been an industry. You can trace women’s efforts to get more women in the business back 40 years or more,” Lauzen said. “This is part of a very long effort by many, many people to move the needle. But in terms of the study, it is a welcome change.”
I have been writing about Lauzen’s studies for a few years now, and this is the point at which someone invariably asks, “So what?” If you are not a woman trying to make it in the film industry — or if you are not someone who cares about a woman trying to make it in the film industry — what difference do these numbers make? They make a difference if you are someone who cares about the variety of stories that make their way to your nearest multiplex or streaming service.
Stories like the one told by “On the Basis of Sex,” the empowering Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic directed by Mimi Leder. Or “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” director Marielle Heller’s film about real-life literary forger (and all-around curmudgeon) Lee Israel. Co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was a beautifully detailed and unsparing portrait of loneliness and creativity that also featured the best performance of Melissa McCarthy’s career, for which she received a much-deserved Oscar nomination.
Or how about “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” filmmaker Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance Film Festival award winner about about a teenager whose guardians send her to gay conversion camp? Or “You Were Never Really Here,” Lynne Ramsay’s trippy, Independent Spirit-award nominated thriller about a damaged veteran whose job tracking down missing girls takes him to some scary places?
“Not only are we entertained by the images we see on screen, we also learn about power dynamics in our culture. We learn who is powerful and who is powerless,” Lauzen said. “I’ve heard some very touching stories that women and men tell me about things they have learned from watching their favorite characters on screen. Not only how to act in social situations, but also what they can achieve in life. That strikes me as incredibly profound.”
All of these films tell the stories of people on the fringes. The free-thinkers. The rebels. The outsiders. The kind of people whose stories are deemed too small or too edgy for the big studios. The kind of people who are championed by outsider filmmakers who have also been short-changed by the big studios. And from these filmmakers and these stories we get the kinds of films that give us windows into other worlds.
And if Hollywood isn’t giving us food for thought and grist for dreams, it is sleeping on the job.