At last, women are directing tentpole features, an arena in which they’ve historically been sidelined. The big comic book franchises are on board too, finally hiring from the plethora of talented women in the industry. Cathy Yan and Ava DuVernay are helming two of DC Films’ upcoming blockbusters for Warner Bros., Birds of Prey and New Gods respectively. Meanwhile, Marvel has Cate Shortland directing Black Widow and Chloé Zhao helming The Eternals, as Gina Prince-Bythewood develops Silver & Black for Sony. And Disney has Niki Caro directing the live-action remake of Mulan.
But despite that encouraging list, true gender parity remains elusive, and the women in those big-name jobs aren’t going to be satisfied with just their own successes—they want the odds to be even for all women in the field, disrupting the status quo and blazing a trail for future female storytellers.
“I am seeing a definite shift, but it doesn’t mean that the numbers are not still absolutely abysmal,” Prince-Bythewood says. Since writing and directing the now cult classic Love & Basketball in 2000, Prince-Bythewood has fought for representation on both the big and small screens. “The hope is that we can have success when we get the opportunity, and that just opens doors for others to help us change the narrative. We have to change the narrative that women are unable to succeed at the big-budget level.”
The issue of gender disparity behind the camera has, of course, been in every female director’s consciousness long before the Weinstein era came to a crashing end. But then came the formation of Time’s Up, in which Prince-Bythwood had early involvement. “The strides they’ve made have been tremendous,” she says, “both in pushing issues to the forefront in such a wide spectrum, whether it be the lack of representation in the media, pay equity, equal representation on boards and in agencies, or of course, the bigger thing: women’s harassment.”
Courtney Hoffman started her career as a costume designer, working on films such as Baby Driver, The Hateful Eight and Captain Fantastic, before crossing over to the director role herself. “The biggest thing that I feel in a post-Harvey Weinstein industry is a little bit safer,” she says. Commissioned to direct the action film Ruthless for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, Hoffman is also adapting her short film, a feminist Western titled The Good Time Girls, into a feature.
Like Prince-Bythwood, Hoffman notes there’s been a shift in the industry since the Weinstein scandal and subsequent formation of Time’s Up. There truly is now an environment in which those discussions can be heard.
“As someone who came up as crew and had to have the awareness every day of what I wore and who would say what to me,” Hoffman says, “there is more space for those conversations now.”
Nisha Ganatra agrees. “I know everybody’s been talking about diversity for so many years,” she says. “But now it feels like everybody is actually trying to tell their stories and have more inclusive representation on screen.”
As a first-generation filmmaker of Indian descent, Ganatra has championed women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community through her work, with her latest film, the Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson-led comedy Late Night, making a big financial splash at Sundance. She was recently tapped to helm Covers, a romance set in the Los Angeles music scene, for Universal Pictures and Working Title.
Real effort is being made on all levels to change the dynamics for women in the industry, Ganatra notes. So while we’re not there yet, this move is heartening. “The workplace has definitely changed,” she says. “I’m not the only person saying, ‘Hey, can we hire women?’ It’s coming from the line producer, it’s coming from the executives; it’s coming from the top down.”
Now, of course, there are some checks and balances in place to support the drive for equality. They include Time’s Up and its initiative the 4% Challenge, named for the 4% of women who helmed the top films from 2007-2018. First announced at Sundance this year, the Challenge calls for producers and actors to commit to a woman-helmed project within the next 18 months.
Roxann Dawson points out that this sort of scrutiny is necessary. “At this point, it’s going to be checking boxes for a while until they realize that there are a lot of really talented women out there,” she says. “And I think those women will hopefully rise to the top and be treated as equals.”
Dawson has been a go-to director for television shows like Crossing Jordan, The Americans, Star Trek: Voyager, Cold Case, and This Is Us. She transitioned to features with Fox’s Breakthrough. Until the Disney-Fox merger took effect, Dawson was the only woman to direct a film on Fox’s release slate this year.
But the flipside of checking boxes is that it can result in an uncomfortable experience for women on set. “It’s something that does disturb me currently. Only because I feel that it’s a bit demeaning to walk onto a set and have people look at you like, ‘Oh, you’re checking the box and that’s why you’re here. It’s not because you’re actually good.’”
Hoffman agrees. “Isn’t that kind of insulting?” she says. But she also insists any shaming over how she got there won’t hold her back. “Because now you have the guilt that women haven’t been there. I’m going to show you what I’m capable of and it won’t be about gender.”
She adds, “If right now we have to be in the shaming phase, it’s unfortunate, but if that’s what brings the hires—if that’s what changes the landscape at this point—I just want to do whatever it takes to make sure that stories are being told by everyone who has a different perspective. I mean, we have literally a hundred years of cinema to make up for.”
So how to reconcile that hundred years of underrepresentation? Prince-Bythewood says it needs to be a collective effort.
“It’s absolutely on the studios to continue to step out of the comfort zone; it’s up to actors to use their power; it’s up to directors who are through the door to keep that door open, and pull others up. What you need is people in the fight, people to help you fight, and people to show you what the fight is. I really think it’s the only way it’s going to change.”
And it’s not enough just to hire women for production roles; it’s also necessary to have their perspective represented in the executive arena. As Ganatra says, “Even though they’re hiring female directors, sometimes there isn’t a woman in charge in the room, so then you’re still navigating a room full of men who all have power over you. When we put others in the room and other voices and other perspectives, different types of movies will start to get made.”
As the fight rages on, a common thread among this crop of female directors trying to make a difference is that no one is looking for a handout. It’s about being seen, and getting hired when you’re capable and talented.
Hoffman hopes there will come a time when initiatives and quotas are no longer necessary; when no one needs a reminder to be inclusive. “I look forward to the day when we don’t have to have a conversation, and we don’t have to have statistics or pledges to get female storytellers behind the camera,” she says. “I look forward to the day when that’s not all we’re talking about. When we’re talking about the work. I think a lot of women feel that way. But for right now, let’s talk about the statistics. I think that’s the only way anything is going to change.”