The Women of Hollywood Speak Out
Female executives and filmmakers are ready to run studios and direct blockbuster pictures. What will it take to dismantle the pervasive sexism that keeps them from doing it?
By MAUREEN DOWDNOV. 20, 2015
Colin Trevorrow’s Hollywood fairy tale started at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. The bespectacled, bearded director, then 35, came to Park City, Utah, with an endearingly quirky time-travel romantic comedy executive-produced by the endearingly quirky Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, and starring Mark. The $750,000 indie film, ‘‘Safety Not Guaranteed,’’ went on to make $4 million in theaters.
The young director soon found a mentor in Brad Bird, who became famous at Pixar directing ‘‘The Incredibles’’ and ‘‘Ratatouille.’’ Trevorrow started hanging out with Bird on the set of his big-budget George Clooney movie, ‘‘Tomorrowland.’’ Bird called his pal Frank Marshall, a producer of ‘‘Jurassic World,’’ to give him a heads up.
‘‘There is this guy,’’ Bird said, ‘‘that reminds me of me.’’
Marshall was so impressed with Trevorrow that he took him to meet Steven Spielberg. That’s where Trevorrow hit the jackpot: He was tapped to direct and co-write the $150 million ‘‘Jurassic World.’’ The movie went on to make $1.6 billion, and Trevorrow was signed to direct the ninth ‘‘Star Wars.’’
That kind of leap — from indie to blockbuster — is almost exclusively reserved for young guys in baseball caps who remind older guys in baseball caps of themselves. Kathryn Bigelow, a unique figure in Hollywood, got a big budget for ‘‘K-19: The Widowmaker.’’ The director Patty Jenkins’s ‘‘Wonder Woman’’ will arrive in 2017. No other woman in Hollywood has directed a $100 million live-action film.
In August, Trevorrow drew ire by suggesting that the dearth of female directors making films involving ‘‘superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs’’ was because not many women had the desire to direct studio blockbusters. He had already drawn a backlash for portraying Bryce Dallas Howard’s character as a cold career woman running away from dinosaurs in high heels. ‘‘Would I have been chosen to direct ‘Jurassic World’ if I was a female filmmaker who had made one small film?’’ Trevorrow mused in an email to Slashfilm.com. ‘‘I have no idea.’’
Every woman who has ever had a film at Sundance has an idea, because they have watched male peers at the festival vault with ease across the chasm to Hollywood studios, agents, financing and big paychecks. ‘‘If they make a $150 million movie with women directing or starring, and it bombs, they take it a little harder,’’ says the director Adam McKay, who is Will Ferrell’s writing and producing partner. ‘‘You can trace that to the old-school guys in the boardrooms.’’
Leslye Headland is a 34-year-old writer and director who was in the same 2012 Sundance class as Trevorrow, with the movie version of her scorching Off Broadway play, ‘‘Bachelorette.’’ She bristles with ambition to do everything he is doing. Sitting in a red leather banquette at the Monkey Bar in New York, Headland told me she wants to be a Martin Scorsese, and ‘‘not just the female Martin Scorsese.’’ She wants to direct a James Bond movie, ‘‘even if I have to marry someone to get British citizenship.’’ She wants to make films in which women behave badly and are not held to a higher moral standard or seen as ‘‘less than.’’ She wants to look cool in magazine pictures so that ‘‘little girls will put female filmmakers on their Pinterest boards.’’
In her black-and-cream miniskirt and black Balenciaga hightops, Headland was a magnetic presence with a throaty voice and a booming laugh. She had a Nicki Minaj ring tone, ‘‘Truffle Butter,’’ and several movie tattoos: ‘‘redrum’’ from ‘‘The Shining’’ on her lower back; a line from ‘‘War Games’’ — ‘‘The only winning move is to not play’’ — on her left forearm; ‘‘How would Lubitsch do it?’’ in script on her right. Harvey Weinstein, for whom Headland worked as a receptionist and assistant, calls her ‘‘wildly talented.’’
Headland made this fall’s ‘‘Sleeping With Other People,’’ a raunchy rom-com starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, in 25 days for $5 million from a script she drafted in two weeks, chronicling her obsession with a ‘‘lame’’ ex-boyfriend. ‘‘Quentin Tarantino can make ‘Pulp Fiction’ for $8 million and you can slap him on any magazine,’’ Headland said. ‘‘He’s the poster boy. He was for me. I want to be that guy even though he looks like a foot. God bless him, and he can do whatever he wants to my feet. But with a female director, you’re just not celebrated the same way.’’
Female directors are in what ‘‘Girls’’ creator Lena Dunham calls ‘‘a dark loop.’’ If they don’t have experience, they can’t get hired, and if they can’t get hired, they can’t get experience. ‘‘Without the benefit of Google,’’ Headland said, ‘‘ask anybody to name more than five female filmmakers that have made more than three films. It’s shockingly hard.’’
The problem is so glaring that in 2005, the actress Geena Davis, who would go on to start her own gender institute, commissioned Stacy Smith, a researcher at the University of Southern California, to study the issue and help push the studios beyond Dude World. From 2007 through 2014, according to Smith’s research, women made up only 30.2 percent of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films.
But the most wildly lopsided numbers have to do with who is behind the lens. In both 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9 percent of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films. Excluding their art-house divisions, the six major studios released only three movies last year with a female director. It’s hard to believe the number could drop to zero, but the statistics suggest female directors are slipping backward. Prof. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University reports that in 2014, 95 percent of cinematographers, 89 percent of screenwriters, 82 percent of editors, 81 percent of executive producers and 77 percent of producers were men.
‘‘It’s kind of like the church,’’ notes the actress Anjelica Huston, whose father, John Huston, helped set the template for macho directors. ‘‘They don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.’’
Hollywood’s toxic brew of fear and sexism has kept women even more confined than those in legendary male bastions like Silicon Valley, where 10.8 percent of executive officers are women; corporate America, where about 16 percent of executive officers at S.&P. 100 companies are women; and Congress, where 20 percent of the House and Senate are women.
But a series of events over the past year finally put the issue in the spotlight and gave a cascade of women the courage to talk about it. First, there was the Sony Pictures hack, which revealed the crazy fact that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received less money than Jeremy Renner for ‘‘American Hustle.’’ Below the level of the studio head Amy Pascal, it turned out that the top executives at Sony were nearly all white and male. After the hack, Manohla Dargis, co-chief film critic for The New York Times, wrote a three-part series on the plight of female directors, calling the imbalance ‘‘immoral, maybe illegal.’’ And in May, the A.C.L.U. in Los Angeles and the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project in New York petitioned state and federal agencies to look into the matter, which spurred the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to open an investigation.
There had long been a strange sort of omertà on talking about the gender disparity. Even though women watched things getting worse, said Helen Hunt, the actress and director, it was hard to speak up: ‘‘Women who say it’s not O.K. are wet blankets or sore losers.’’ When I began reporting this article several months ago and asked some male moguls in the entertainment industry for their perspectives, they shrugged the issue off as ‘‘bogus’’ or ‘‘a tempest in a teapot.’’
‘‘Not that many women have succeeded in the movie business,’’ one top entertainment boss told me, while insisting on anonymity. ‘‘A lot of ’em haven’t tried hard enough. We’re tough about it. It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color, no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys.’’
When I phoned another powerful Hollywood player to ask about the issue, he said dismissively, ‘‘Call some chicks.’’
So I did. I talked to more than 100 women and men at all levels of Hollywood. What I heard was an avalanche of previously pent-up fears, regrets, recriminations and recommendations. Beyond the bad numbers were a lot of raw emotions.
Even though I grew up in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the jutting symbol of a capital under male dominion, I knew long before Sheryl Sandberg that women could lean in. I learned it from film-noir vixens with guns in their purses, who never worried about being called bossy and never hesitated to pursue happiness — in all directions. At their best, movies can be instructions in how to live and how not to live, and can help us invent the verbal and visual vocabulary with which we engage the world.
When my older brother took me to the American Film Institute to see old movies with Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ida Lupino — the first actor to write, produce and direct her own films — my imagination was fired by smart, powerful women. Carole Lombard made me dream of being funny and glamorous.
‘‘I’ve gotten into watching old movies on TCM,’’ Jennifer Lee, co-director of ‘‘Frozen,’’ told me. ‘‘And what kills me is the female characters are fantastic, complicated, messy, and they aren’t oversexualized, and I love them.’’ Actresses were second-class citizens then too, but at least they had juicy parts. The dictatorial and crass Hollywood moguls actually cared about art. They would take all the literary best sellers, throw starlets into them and make prestige movies.
Although the pioneers’ names have been forgotten in modern Hollywood, female filmmakers started out with gusto. Alice Guy Blaché, who worked as a secretary to Léon Gaumont, a Frenchman who sold cameras and film, picked up a camera in 1896 and helped invent narrative filmmaking in France and Hollywood. ‘‘It is true that I passed for a phenomenon,’’ she wrote in her memoir, adding that she knew it was an ‘‘unfeminine’’ career but didn’t care. In 1910, she became the first woman to found and run her own film studio, along with her husband and a partner. Over her career, she would oversee nearly 750 films, including cross-dressing comedies, movies playing with the gender roles in marriage and action films featuring heroines.
In 1914, Lois Weber, who was mentored by Guy Blaché, became the first American woman to direct a full-length feature, ‘‘The Merchant of Venice,’’ in which she also starred as Portia. Infused with the conviction that film could change culture, she made movies about contraception, capital punishment and poverty. She ran a production company with her husband’s help, but he often deferred to her judgment. She had great taste and said her ideal picture entertainment was ‘‘a well-assorted shelf of books come to life.’’
Dorothy Arzner, a screenwriter and director who worked in Hollywood from 1922 to 1943, had her technicians rig a microphone to a fishing pole, essentially inventing the boom mike. She helped Katharine Hepburn get her start and still has the largest body of work by a woman director. ‘‘No one gave me trouble because I was a woman,’’ she said in 1974. ‘‘Men were more helpful than women.’’ The veteran director Allison Anders tells boom operators on her projects that their jobs were created by a woman.
So given such remarkable trailblazers, how did women in Hollywood start reeling backward?
The more I talked to people, the clearer it became that if the luminous Hollywood of my childhood was obliterated for good, it all started with ‘‘Jaws’’ in the summer of 1975, which would devour half a billion dollars at the box office. America fell in love with the blockbuster, and Hollywood got hooked on the cohort of 15-year-old boys. It has never wavered in this obsession, even though girls and women buy half the movie tickets and watch more TV series, and even though teenage boys are increasingly fixated on gaming.
In the ’80s, the paradigm that ‘‘Jaws’’ helped create shifted yet again. Studios began being swallowed by conglomerates, and as Norma Desmond predicted, the picture business became small. Box-office revenues would eventually go from 70-30 domestic/international to 30-70, which meant foreign markets were calling the shots. Dialogue and women who weren’t in leather cat suits became superfluous. Crunching data, foreign sales companies started providing the presale estimates for the value of a movie and its stars outside the United States, and producers would borrow money against those estimates. They often want the male players attached before the female ones because men tend to have more value in foreign sales. ‘‘The moment you mention it’s a female director to foreign companies, you can see the eyes roll,’’ said one woman leading a studio. ‘‘Buyers want action films, and they don’t see women as action directors.’’
Over a gin martini, asparagus, foie gras and gluten-free bread at dinner in Boston, where he was directing a reboot of ‘‘Ghostbusters’’ with actresses, Paul Feig talked about trying to break through all the macho myths that suck up creative oxygen. Feig, the creator of ‘‘Freaks and Geeks’’ and the director of ‘‘Bridesmaids’’ and ‘‘Spy’’ with Melissa McCarthy, was called an ‘‘honorary woman’’ by Jezebel. He confessed that he had had a terrible time persuading studios to let him make movies with female leads for fear they would flop abroad. ‘‘ ‘Spy’ was my response to it,’’ he said. ‘‘It made 125 million overseas.’’ But there are still barriers. ‘‘We can’t get ‘Spy’ released in Japan,’’ he said. ‘‘Russia has tended to be resistant to female leads.’’
Penny Marshall, the director and actress, told me in that hilarious nasal whine: ‘‘All they like is ‘Superman,’ ‘Batman,’ those kinds of things, because it sells foreign, because it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. Even the comedies are sophomoric. They remake things that are lying there while the people who have done it already are still alive. I’ve read and seen horrible stuff. Sometimes the people who are in charge of things are a little dumb.’’
There is plenty of evidence — from ‘‘Mamma Mia’’ to ‘‘Bridesmaids’’ to ‘‘Frozen’’ to ‘‘Hunger Games’’ to ‘‘Maleficent’’ to ‘‘Fifty Shades of Grey’’ to the summer’s ‘‘Pitch Perfect 2’’ and ‘‘Trainwreck’’ — that movies aimed at women or directed by women can make a ton of profit. And women like the Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, the ABC powerhouse Shonda Rhimes and the Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley are minting money. But Hollywood continues to treat those successes as anomalies.
‘‘The world of movies is fascinating to me because everyone has amnesia all the time,’’ Rhimes told me. ‘‘Every time a female-driven project is made and succeeds, somehow it’s a fluke. Instead of just saying ‘The Hunger Games’ is popular among young women, they say it only made money because Jennifer Lawrence was luminous and amazing. I mean, you go get yours, girl. But seriously, that’s ridiculous. There’s a very hungry audience of young women dying to see some movies. They came out for ‘Titanic’ and ‘Twilight,’ 14-year-old girls going back to see those movies every day. I find it fascinating that this audience is not being respected. In the absence of water, people drink sand. And that is sad. There’s such an interest in things being equal and such a weary acceptance that it’s not.’’
From Nora Ephron to Dee Rees, women who write their own material may have a better chance to direct it. But even in the writing phase, women must contend with Hollywood conventions that women on-screen must be likable or cleave to Madonna-whore-catfight stereotypes. ‘‘I’ve had male executives say that my lead character was unlikable because she slept with a lot of guys,’’ says the director Julie Taymor. Liz Meriwether, the 34-year-old creator of Fox’s ‘‘New Girl,’’ says that before this show, she received notes from executives saying, ‘‘I don’t understand how this character can be smart and sexy.’’
Female writers in Hollywood told me they are used to hearing things like ‘‘Can you insert a rape scene here?’’ or ‘‘Can they go to a strip club here?’’ or ‘‘Can you rewrite the fat friend for Eva Mendes? She has high marks for foreign distribution.’’ They trade stories about how a schlubby male studio head mutters that he doesn’t want to look at ‘‘ugly actresses,’’ and how schlubby male directors, caught up in their fantasy world, choose one beautiful actress over another simply because she has a hair color that fits their customized sexual daydream. ‘‘I still see storytelling for men by men that is always reinforcing the male gaze,’’ says Jill Soloway, the Emmy-winning creator of Amazon’s ‘‘Transparent,’’ which is based on her own parent, a trans woman played by Jeffrey Tambor. Karyn Kusama, who directed ‘‘Girlfight’’ and ‘‘Jennifer’s Body,’’ told me that ‘‘the No. 1 script motif I read is a woman chained to a wall. It’s almost de rigueur now. I look back nostalgically at slasher films. At least then, the girls were main characters in speaking roles.’’
Lena Dunham laments that, instead of creating space for women to tell stories they are naturally good at telling, the studios just keep trying to wedge them into narrow, clichéd concepts. After her debut feature, ‘‘Tiny Furniture,’’ studio executives pitched her film ideas about a tooth fairy with an evil agenda and kids on a crazy holiday adventure. ‘‘If you watch my movie,’’ she says, ‘‘you understand I am perverse and weird and angry and not looking to direct a film that ends with a bunch of teenagers exploding into glitter.’’
On Oscar night, Meryl Streep leapt to applaud Patricia Arquette when she pleaded for equal pay for women. She followed up by funding a writing lab for Hollywood’s untouchable caste, women screenwriters over 40. ‘‘It’s harder for men to imagine themselves as the girl in the movies than it is for me to imagine myself as Daniel Craig bringing down the building,’’ the ‘‘Suffragette’’ star said, curled up on a couch in the Greenwich Hotel’s restaurant in TriBeCa. ‘‘Boys are never encouraged to imagine what it is like to be female. The reason I know this is because when I made ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ it was the very first time men came to me after the film and said, ‘I know how you felt.’ ’’
Streep isn’t the only player investing in women’s voices from the start of the filmmaking process. Amy Poehler, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Feig, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner; J. C. Chandor and Anna Gerb; and Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have all started production companies aimed at showcasing women. ‘‘I don’t think it’s a moral issue,’’ McKay said. ‘‘It’s just a stupid artistic and business decision. If everyone’s gonna pass on all the strong, ass-kicking lady directors and writers out there, we’ll take them.’’ (As Jenji Kohan, creator of “Orange Is the New Black,” told me, “Talent with all sorts of genitalia’’ can make money.)
I visited the West Hollywood offices of McKay and Ferrell’s Gloria Sanchez Productions. In the middle is a life-size wooden horse, a thank-you gift from Melissa McCarthy for her comedy ‘‘Tammy.’’ I sat down with Jessica Elbaum, who started as Ferrell’s assistant and is now the head of production, and Shira Piven, a director who is the wife of McKay and the sister of Jeremy. Elbaum produced Piven’s dark comedy, ‘‘Welcome to Me,’’ with Kristen Wiig.
‘‘I think there’s a fear that females can only tell female stories, like if they’re given free rein, they’ll just write stories where everyone’s braiding each other’s hair and crying,’’ said Elbaum, 38. The soft-spoken Piven said: ‘‘I feel that there is something going on underneath all of this which is the idea that women aren’t quite as interesting as men. That men have heroic lives, do heroic things, are these kind of warriors in the world, and that women have a certain set of rooms that they have to operate in.’’
As Dana Calvo, the creator of the new Amazon drama ‘‘Good Girls Revolt,’’ about the 1970 class-action lawsuit by women at Newsweek against the magazine, puts it: ‘‘I may be wrong, but I get the sense that the worst fear of men in Hollywood is that there’s going to be crying, that women will turn everything into ‘Beaches’ and ‘Terms of Endearment.’ And even if there is sex, what if there’s crying after sex?’’
Unlike writing, ‘‘directing is an invisible art,’’ says Leslye Headland. But it has a very visible impact. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State noted in a recent study that films with female directors employ ‘‘substantially higher percentages of women in other key behind-the-scenes roles.’’
But if only 1.9 percent of the top 100 films are helmed by women, there is virtually no trickle-down effect. ‘‘What struck me the most was how blatant and out in the open some of the discrimination was,’’ says Ariela Migdal, who initially helped oversee the A.C.L.U. gender-discrimination case. ‘‘Agents openly say, ‘I’m not putting you up for that because this guy won’t hire a woman director.’ The list for directing big films is five plausible dudes and Kathryn Bigelow. And Bigelow is not going to direct ‘Jurassic World.’ You can’t have a list with no women.’’ Executives have been known to say, ‘‘Oh, we hired a woman once, but it didn’t really work out that well.’’
Dee Rees was in the Sundance class the year before Headland and Trevorrow. At 38, she has a ruefulness in her voice when she talks about what she calls her ‘‘struggle’’ to get where she is. The screenwriter and director premiered her first movie, ‘‘Pariah,’’ a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about an African-American lesbian in Brooklyn, at Sundance. She also wrote and directed last summer’s ‘‘Bessie,’’ a stylish HBO biopic about the blues singer Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah, that garnered some great reviews. She is currently working to develop a limited series on the Great Migration with FX and Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes’s production company.
The Nashville native started out in marketing, selling panty liners, bunion pads and wart removers, before going to film school at New York University and finding a mentor in Spike Lee. It took her 12 years to get two features in the can. ‘‘I look at Woody Allen’s prolific career of 30 or 40 films, and I’m watching the clock,’’ she says. ‘‘I’d love to work at a clip of a film a year. We don’t get the benefit of the doubt, particularly black women. We’re presumed incompetent, whereas a white male is assumed competent until proven otherwise. They just think the guy in the ball hat and the T-shirt over the thermal has got it, whether he’s got it or not. For buzzy first films by a white male, the trajectory is a 90-degree angle. For us, it’s a 30-degree angle.’’
She wonders if the problem extends beyond the studios. ‘‘Is it also a problem with critics, that there are not enough female or African-American critics to sound the bell that this is great work?’’ (On her ‘‘Suffragette’’ tour, Meryl Streep counted the number of male critics versus female critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and found a ratio of 760 to 168 on the Tomatometer.)
Matt Damon proved Rees right on the first episode of HBO’s reality show ‘‘Project Greenlight’’ this season when he interrupted another producer, a black woman named Effie Brown, after she urged hiring a female director who might bring more sensitivity to the tale of a prostitute. ‘‘When we are talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film,’’ he told her. ‘‘Not in the casting of the show.’’
Rees cites the upside of Fox’s ‘‘Fantastic Four’’ tanking domestically last summer. It was directed by Josh Trank, yet another young guy in a Bubba Gump baseball hat who made the instant leap from debut feature to big franchise. ‘‘It proves that risk is risk,’’ Rees says, ‘‘so you might as well take a risk on people with a different perspective.’’ Instead, Hollywood continues to push the archetype that feels familiar: white, male, ball cap. ‘‘The people that run studios get to anoint people and make them kings,’’ says the writer and director Nancy Meyers.
The actor Alec Baldwin, who has worked with Meyers, notes that the ‘‘clichéd paramilitary nature’’ of directing runs deep. ‘‘They call it shooting,’’ he says. ‘‘Its groupings are called units. They communicate on walkie-talkies. The director is the general. There is still the presumption that men are better designed for the ferocity and meanness that the job often requires. I’ve worked with so many [expletive] male directors. They should open a window and let more women in.’’ (Jill Soloway prefers not to yell ‘‘Action!’’ because it sounds too much like ‘‘Attack!’’)
The image of a director as swaggering general is deeply embedded in the Hollywood brain even though it has nothing to do with ability. I watched the director Lesli Linka Glatter on the ‘‘Homeland’’ set in Berlin, charging up and down the street getting ready to blow stuff up while she reapplied her Cranberry Cream lipstick. And on the Paramount lot, I watched Marielle Heller direct an episode of ‘‘Transparent,’’ talking to Jeffrey Tambor with her arm around his shoulders. ‘‘You have to be really nurturing to everyone who works for you and see everything that’s happening around you,’’ Heller says. ‘‘In some ways, I think women are perfectly primed to be directors.’’
But while Soloway has been publicly urging women to cry on a set if they want to, studio heads and many female directors cringe at that thought. ‘‘Part of being a director is burying your emotions in some ways,’’ says Sarah Gavron, the British director of ‘‘Suffragette.’’ ‘‘You also have to be the adult in the room at all times, always appearing to be in control, knowing your own mind. If I change my mind, I do it decisively so you carry the crew with you.’’
Catherine Hardwicke made $400 million for Summit Entertainment when she cast Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson and conjured the misty universe of the first ‘‘Twilight’’ movie. She did it so well partly because she emanates a passionate adolescent spirit in a 60-year-old’s body. But her sensitive nature has affected her reputation. (Several male studio executives who have worked with Hardwicke told me that she could be overly emotional.) She says that while filming ‘‘Twilight’’ she went behind a tree and cried one day when several things went wrong, and that she has been penalized for that.
‘‘I worked for 20 directors as a production designer, most male,’’ said Hardwicke, whose latest movie is ‘‘Miss You Already,’’ with Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette. ‘‘I was on the set to witness firsthand a range of sometimes atrocious emotions — well-documented firings, yellings, fights between directors and actors, hookers, abusive things, budget overages, lack of preparation. A man gets a standing ovation for crying because he’s so sensitive, but a woman is shamed.’’
Even if she doesn’t cry, studio heads ask, what if the woman in charge turns out to be some dizzy dame who is indecisive? Men in Hollywood still joke that Barbra Streisand conferred over each frame of ‘‘Yentl’’ with everyone from Spielberg to her gardener, and female directors obsess over how much advice they can seek from the crew about lenses and cranes before they are seen as vacillating flakes.
The Orson Welles model still stands. Male directors who act out are seen as moody, eccentric geniuses. Women are dragons. ‘‘There’s an assumption that directors, showrunners, creators can be, and somehow benefit from being, tyrants,’’ Karyn Kusama says. ‘‘The assumption is that a man is a much better monster.’’
Although women have found ‘‘a little bit of an oasis’’ in TV, as Sarah Treem, the showrunner for Showtime’s ‘‘Affair,’’ puts it, the numbers there are dispiriting, too. With thousands of new episodes premiering each year, a recent Directors Guild of America analysis of 277 television series found that women directed only 16 percent of episodes. Women are hoping the web may disrupt the good old boys’ club, but — except for Soloway’s 100 percent record of female directors on ‘‘Transparent’’ during its first season — the streaming numbers are not great, either.
Many of the female film directors I interviewed got off to a fast start but then stumbled and had a long hiatus before they were able to get a great project again. They don’t think it is a coincidence that this turbulent trajectory is more common for women. Mimi Leder started her film career with a literal bang with the 1997 George Clooney action film ‘‘The Peacemaker,’’ followed a year later by a Spielberg-produced comet-hurtling-toward-Earth movie called ‘‘Deep Impact.’’ Then she had a flop with ‘‘Pay It Forward’’ and, as she recalls, ‘‘went to movie jail and stayed there for a long time, which hurt like hell.’’
Headland says she is wary of falling into a similar purgatory. ‘‘These dudes, man,’’ she told me. ‘‘Spielberg and Cassavetes and Woody Allen have all made some unwatchable movies. But it’s Elaine May and ‘Ishtar’ you remember. It’s not Elaine May’s fault. Poor Elaine.’’
The women I interviewed often brought up a question: Why didn’t things change when women began helping to run studios? There have been a sprinkling of women at the top — always with a male overlord — ever since Sherry Lansing became the first woman to head a major studio when she became president of 20th Century Fox in 1980. Women now head two of the Big Six Hollywood studios, though one is co-chairwoman.
Often, as women explained it to me, these are women who care about the problem, but self-preservation comes first, so they feel they can do little except to ‘‘keep chipping away,’’ as one of Hollywood’s top female executives put it, hoping that ‘‘our children and grandchildren will have an easier time of it.’’
Some female executives lay some of the fault on women. ‘‘Many women come in unprepared and with a chip on their shoulder,’’ said one. ‘‘They’ll say presumptuous stuff like, ‘If this is the movie you choose to make, let me tell you how to make it good.’ ’’ Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, told me: ‘‘Until I waved the flag at the Fortune women’s conference recently, I had not had one single phone call from a woman telling me that she really, really wants to direct a ‘Star Wars’ movie. They need to be the ones picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, let me tell you what ‘Star Wars’ means to me and how much I could do with it.’ ’’
Teachers in film schools I spoke to said that many women self-select out of directing by the end of school and that they are not as interested in the business part of show business as they should be. But as Dunham argues: ‘‘I feel like we do too much telling women: ‘You aren’t aggressive enough. You haven’t made yourself known enough.’ And it’s like, women shouldn’t be having to hustle twice as fast to get what men achieve just by showing up.’’
Dunham offered the perfect distillation of the anthropology of women running studios: ‘‘I believe a lot of these women were like, ‘I’m here, I worked my ass off to get this job and I’m not gonna make hiring women directors my mission because then I’m going to get [expletive] fired. And I need to make a difference. This is how I can make a difference, by being the woman who has this job.’ It’s the metaphor of: You are on a raft, you got away from the sinking ship, are you gonna pull everyone onto the raft with you? What if that sinks your raft and you all die? That’s the sympathetic read. The nonsympathetic read is they want to impress their upper bosses and make money.’’
When considering women in powerful positions, it’s also important to remember the male-dominated terrain they have to navigate. ‘‘When male Hollywood executives make decisions, they are in touch with their 15-year-old self — that’s who they’re making movies for,’’ said one top Hollywood woman. ‘‘They don’t really want to hear women’s voices because that reminds them of their mothers bugging them to clean up their rooms, or their wives whining at them to come home when they want to be with their young girlfriends.’’ One top actress was even more explicit: ‘‘I think it has to do with dominance, with sex, with getting and maintaining an erection. It’s sort of aligned to the ‘manspreading’ phenomenon on the subway. Men want to walk into the boardroom and take credit for a muscular movie because it reflects on their own muscularity.’’
Linda Woolverton, who wrote the screenplays for ‘‘The Lion King,’’ ‘‘Beauty and the Beast,’’ ‘‘Maleficent’’ and ‘‘Alice in Wonderland’’ believes that it ‘‘comes down to this mythic fear that we can’t handle ourselves. Or maybe the fear is that we can handle ourselves, that we are powerful, that we could run the world better.’’
I think Miranda July, the director, writer and artist, best captured the maddening, nebulous nature of the sexism in the boardroom when I talked to her at the funky house she uses as an office in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. ‘‘There’s this ickiness associated with women that I think is the real misogyny always at the edge of things,’’ she said, looking off into space. ‘‘It’s certainly tied to how women can’t get older. There’s a very short time span when a woman can get into the world of power and be a delightful treat. There’s a fear, when women make things, not just that it’s going to be a flop but that it’s going to be annoying and embarrassing and somehow incriminating. You picture Spike Jonze, the Duplass brothers, Wes Anderson — can I call them my peers? They might have a flop, but they will never have that ickiness.’’
Perhaps this explains why many successful women do not want to talk on the record about the issue or push the cause. Some journalists who cover Hollywood note that female executives there are more girlish and geisha-ish than their counterparts in New York. As one woman, a veteran Sony producer, puts it: ‘‘It never hurts to have a great pair of legs in Hollywood.’’
Rebecca Miller, the writer and director of the Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke comedy ‘‘Maggie’s Plan,’’ opening this spring, says that for too long, many top women in Hollywood have prized the ‘‘specialness’’ of being tokens. ‘‘We all have to embrace the idea not to be worried about there being other women in the room,’’ she says. ‘‘Gay men work with such solidarity.’’
I had coffee with the former Sony chief Amy Pascal in her trailer last summer when she was in Boston producing the ‘‘Ghostbusters’’ reboot. Pascal was the only person fired after the Sony hacking scandal that gripped Hollywood last summer. (Pascal’s husband, Bernard Weinraub, worked with me in The Times’s Washington bureau and remains a friend.)
The Jane Austen fan started her job as a Sony executive wanting to do women’s movies and had success with Penny Marshall’s ‘‘A League of Their Own’’; Gillian Armstrong’s ‘‘Little Women’’; ‘‘Girl Interrupted,’’ which won Angelina Jolie an Oscar; ‘‘Sense and Sensibility’’; and ‘‘Charlie’s Angels.’’ But it is a measure of the town’s values that she was vilified for it. ‘‘I loved those movies, but all anyone said was that I made chick flicks,’’ she recalled. ‘‘And then I got co-opted because everyone made me feel ashamed. I felt like, unfortunately, I was being categorized, that I could only make this one kind of movie, and it wasn’t going to make the kind of money that people wanted. I had to prove I could do anything.’’
So she turned her attention to Spider-Man and James Bond, casting Tobey Maguire and Daniel Craig and making billions for the studio, while still fighting to make movies like Nora Ephron’s movable feast about Julia Child, ‘‘Julie & Julia.’’
After her firing, she is back to what she calls her ‘‘real love.’’ ‘‘My goal has always been to make movies with female protagonists who change the world, movies where women have consequences to their actions, whether they are the villain or protagonist,’’ she said. ‘‘I want to change the way girls feel about themselves.’’
In Hollywood, they now talk about ‘‘the Lena Dunham effect’’ and ‘‘the Jill Soloway effect’’: Studios are starting to search for female-driven shows and recruit women to create them. In their ‘‘Odd Couple’’ trailers — one O.C.D. neat, one tousled — on different coasts, Dunham and Soloway have been plotting insurrection and nurturing female directors.
Studio heads may have no choice but to listen. As Kathleen Kennedy told me: ‘‘I had an agent pitching directors to me recently, and when he got done, I waited, and then I said, ‘So, do you represent any women?’ He said, ‘Oh, mmmmm.’ I had to bring it up. I think you’ve got to put pressure on them.’’ Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures, recently told The Hollywood Reporter: ‘‘There’s a myth in the business that young males drive the box office. Maybe a decade ago or so that was true. I don’t find that true now at all. I actually think women drive the box office.’’ For the moment, it seems the bandwagon is rolling. ‘‘All of a sudden, we’re in this era of, ‘Oh, my God, girls,’ ’’ Pascal told me. ‘‘It’ll last about as long as it always does: about five more minutes.’’
Soloway has become a gleeful militant with a ‘‘messianic, feminist, patriarchy-toppling dream.’’ The mother of two sons, one a 7-year-old, she wants to put a nursery on her set and has been lobbying the D.G.A. to allow two directors per episode for more flex time.
The kids question is a significant one. Several top executives talk about the problem of female directors dropping out to have families. And there is still such an atmosphere of fear that many female directors told me they hide their pregnancies until the last possible minute. One director confessed that she actually hides her child, refusing to put a photo of her son on Facebook, fearing ‘‘it could end my career.’’
‘‘I’ve even had women executives say to me, not realizing I was a mom, ‘We always want to work with women filmmakers, but then they have kids,’ ’’ says Marielle Heller, who also directed last summer’s critically acclaimed ‘‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl.’’ ‘‘It’s a real stigma, which I think is not fair. It’s crazy to me that that’s the excuse because nobody ever asks men who have kids whether they’ll be able to do it.’’
Over lemonade at Le Pain Quotidien on Melrose Avenue, Gina Prince-Bythewood, in gilt Wonder Woman kicks, said that when she was shooting ‘‘The Secret Life of Bees’’ in North Carolina, her husband back in L.A. told her that her younger son, now 11, was walking around the house with a toy phone having a pretend conversation with her. ‘‘I had a lot of guilt; it wrecked me,’’ said the 46-year-old, who also has a 14-year-old son. ‘‘But I’m a director, and I need to feed that part of me.’’
For nearly six months now, I’ve had the voices of Prince-Bythewood and many other talented women echoing in my head. I hear them puzzling about the disparity problem and dissecting it, trying to find a way around it or plotting to go head-on against it. Dunham talks about quotas. Others pin their hopes on web disruption with new studios at Netflix and Amazon.
But, as Prince-Bythewood says, the studios should open the door for women who are in love with film and with storytelling. ‘‘Just get us in the room,’’ she says.
Leigh Janiak is a 35-year-old with a laid-back manner, but you sense immediately that she knows where she’s going. Janiak pragmatically plotted her rise while she was a producer’s assistant for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. She refused an offer to direct an episode of a network TV show on the condition that she shadow a veteran director first. She was afraid it would stigmatize her.
‘‘Why would anyone give me $40 million to get a movie off the ground if just last week I was doing this little training program?’’ she asked, over lunch at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz. She knew that guys who made horror and science-fiction movies could make the jump to blockbusters more easily than women who wrote rom-coms could. With her writing partner, she did a $1 million horror movie, ‘‘Honeymoon,’’ a goosebumps-inducing something-bad-happens-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods story (my favorite genre) starring the alluring redhead Rose Leslie, best known as Ygritte, the Wildling love interest of Kit Harington in ‘‘Game of Thrones.’’
That attracted the attention of the married producing team Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, who tapped Janiak, raised Catholic and a former Ph.D. candidate in modern Jewish studies at the University of Chicago, to co-write and direct a remake of the cult horror movie ‘‘The Craft,’’ about witchcraft at a Catholic prep school.
She said she has no patience when she hears about female directors who melt into a puddle of tears after tangling with a grouchy cinematographer, saying: ‘‘I hear stories like that and think, If you are going to let people walk all over you, why do you even want to direct?’’
Fixing the gender problem in Hollywood is important for women like Janiak. But it’s also important for women and girls everywhere. ‘‘We are influencing culture, which is why it’s so dangerous, I think, not to have more women making movies,’’ she said. ‘‘Why can’t I direct ‘Superman’?’’
Maureen Dowd is a staff writer for the magazine and an Op-Ed columnist for The Times. She has also written for GQ, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, Time and Harper’s Bazaar.
Art Streiber is a photographer based in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to the magazine. He last photographed Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale for the magazine.
Behind the portraits: Amy Kellner, associate photo editor: “Over six days in New York and L.A., we photographed as many women who make films and TV as we could. Art Streiber shot 63 directors, screenwriters, producers, cinematographers and executives. This is not every woman working in Hollywood today. But these women, along with the rest of their peers, are making change in an industry that needs changing.”