Was it George Clooney who once said in an acceptance speech, “Hollywood has always been on the right side of history”? Clooney – who recently dismissed the voices of women and minorities in the wake of the Sony hacking as being a distraction from the ‘big picture’. Clooney – who declared that the casual racism of Amy Pascal and her colleagues was just a “mistake”, so the rest of us don’t need to worry about it. Yes, Hollywood has apparently always seen itself as some kind of beacon of social progress.
Well, guess what? It’s not. If it were, audiences would be able to access the work of female filmmakers as easily as the work of their male counterparts – but that is not reality. In reality, the work of people like Ava DuVernay is so far out of the reach of most audiences – in terms of theatrical release – that it actively hinders not only her career, but the perception of women in the industry as a whole, and consequently the careers of other female filmmakers, too. Without equality of opportunity in work and in release schedules, women in film remain almost invisible to the rest of the world.
Ava DuVernay has become a prime example of this, because her latest work – Selma – has been “snubbed” by some award-giving organisations. Despite overwhelming critical acclaim, Golden Globe nominations, and popularity among the audiences that have managed to see it, neither the Directors Guild of America nor BAFTA have even acknowledged its existence. While many have become vocal in protestation at this turn of events, these voices are once again being shouted down with the usual apologist nonsense – a good summary of which can be found in the comments underneath today’s article on the subject from The Hollywood Reporter (‘She’s full of herself’, ‘Maybe it wasn’t as good as other movies’, blah, blah, blah).
These comments highlight the difficulty with perception that exist around this issue. The ‘she seemed arrogant in interviews’ argument is code for ‘she had an opinion and expressed it, while being female’. I cannot recall any occasion when a male director has been labelled arrogant when discussing his work and then had that label used as an excuse not to acknowledge his achievement during awards season. On the other hand, I can think of many male directors who are regarded as ‘arrogant’ (or ‘difficult’, even), and are routinely celebrated at every opportunity.
Then, there’s the comment that maybe Selma just didn’t make the cut because there were so many awesome movies to choose from this year. The DGA also “snubbed” David Fincher (Gone Girl), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), James Marsh (The Theory Of Everything), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice) and Angelina Jolie (Unbroken). Yes, they did, and if we’re talking about equality, we should commiserate those, too – because they are also great cinematic achievements.
But, this list also essentially proves the point that the issue is access. Among all of those films – collectively the most critically acclaimed of the year – only one other than Selma is directed by a woman (Jolie’s Unbroken). While the inclusion of Selma and Unbroken in this conversation is upheld by those in positions of power and influence as a victory (‘Look! We’re letting women make movies now!‘), it is also used by many as an opportunity to halt progress (‘They came close, but the other films were just better’). The fallacy here is that Hollywood, and awards season, is a meritocracy.
Is The Imitation Game a better movie than Selma? One of the biggest criticisms of Ava DuVernay’s movie – which falls under the Paramount banner – is what some characterise as historical inaccuracies (particularly regarding the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson). The filmmaker has addressed these points in interviews and on social media (which, apparently, makes her ‘arrogant’). Arguments of historical inaccuracy can also be – and have been – levelled at The Imitation Game, too (regarding the portrayal of Alan Turing, and the number of women that worked at Bletchley Park), and yet, there is director Morten Tyldum – in receipt of nominations from the DGA and BAFTA. What is the difference? Tyldum has the whole-hearted backing of the infamously tenacious Weinstein Company.
And here’s the point – the issue lies with Hollywood studios, who have always argued that investing in a movie is a gamble, and they place their money with proven projects that guarantee returns on investment. When female filmmakers do manage to get themselves hired for a movie, they are not given a fair run of the field. There’s no room on the field, because the field is littered with the bloated carcasses of tedious tripe, like The Expendables 3, or Taken 3, or Grown Ups 2.
While the same argument of marginalisation is true of most independent movies, at least male independent filmmakers actually have a chance of making it on to the field in the first place. The vast majority of their female counterparts are forced to sit in the bleachers – which is why it is so noticeable when a female filmmaker actually gets onto the field, only to be taken out at the knees just as she’s picking up speed.
But, this is just another blog post, joining countless other blog posts and comments and tweets and columns – all decrying the terrible state of the film industry these days. We’ll read them all, get mildly irritated, maybe post a snarky comment of our own, and then go back to doing what we’ve always done. But, here’s the thing. If you want things to change, you have to actually take action.
What action can we take? The decision-makers in this scenario are not elected officials – they’re business people. Actually, I contend that they are, essentially, elected – they are elected by the audiences that pay for movies. The reason these Hollywood studios are so obscenely wealthy (and therefore more terrified than ever of losing that wealth) is because we, the audience, have made them that way. They churn out sequels and franchises because they know they will recoup their investment. We allow them – studios and distributors – to dictate what we can and can’t watch, and when. Freedom, is it?
You want to take action? Here’s some quick suggestions, from an industry outsider who loves film, and wants to see female filmmakers afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts:
1. If you are a film fan/audience member, vote with your ticket money. Demand better. There are incredible films being made all the time – you don’t have to settle for Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb. If that’s all there is at your local multiplex, challenge it. Why should a bunch of well-connected, wealthy men – who probably haven’t had to pay for a movie ticket in years – get to decide what you spend your hard-earned money on?
2. Lobby the DGA and/or BAFTA – and any of the dozens of other award-giving organisations – about their voting windows, which don’t seem to be particularly helpful to anyone other than established (and usually male) filmmakers.
3. If you are in the privileged position of being a voting member of an organisation that distributes film awards, it goes without saying that it’s your responsibility to see every film you need to in order to make your informed choice. If your organisation’s voting window is December 3rd to January 12th (like the DGA), for example, and you know that there are films being released on, say, December 25th (like Selma), don’t vote until you’ve seen them. If the studio hasn’t released a screener, and the film’s limited release hasn’t reached your local community, make some noise about it – loudly, and immediately. Why? Because awards season automatically increases the visibility of any movie that is mentioned, and one that has been constrained by a limited release would likely have that release increased, so the rest of us can see it and support it, too. Your status as a voting member means you are more influential than the average movie-goer, and you can therefore make a very real, albeit small, difference.
4. If you are a filmmaker that enjoys some success, reach back to those behind you and give them a hand. Filmmaking is often a closed door industry – if you have your foot inside, that door can be shoved open more easily by many, rather than one. Great things can happen when people do that – like the newly launched Bentonville Film Festival, for example, or Mira Nair’s Maisha Film Lab. Is that easier said than done? Sure, but taking the path of least resistance is what got us in this mess in the first place.
5. If you are in a position of power or influence within a Hollywood studio, take steps to stop female filmmakers being held back. Fight for wider releases for them, at sensible times of year, with better promotional work. You know, EXACTLY what you do for male filmmakers.
Before the whining mansplanations start, yes, of course this is an over-simplification. I’m absolutely certain there is an unending selection of political and social issues and grievances within the film industry – just as there is everywhere. Is that a reason not to bother? Absolutely not. As demonstrated by the dividing power of the Sony hack – with the ‘haves’ on one side of the debate, and the ‘have nots’ on the other – it is not only possible to have more than one conversation at the same time, it is actually deeply constructive to do so. Moreover, when the way you run your shop comes to the attention of the customer in a negative way, it’s time to pay attention and read the contents of the suggestion box.
You have a better idea to support female filmmakers in Hollywood? Great – do that. Do something. As with anything, we can sit back and bemoan the status quo, or we can collectively attempt to bring about change. Being vocal online is important, because it raises awareness and opens up dialogue. But, it’s meaningless without offline action – so let’s get to it.