Movie News & Reviews

Oscars 2012: 'Bigelow effect' in 2010 hasn't continued for female directors

"Well, the time has come," Barbra Streisand said at the 2010 Academy Awards before she handed the Oscar for best director to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman in the ceremony's then 82-year history to claim that honor. The moment felt like a potential game-changer for every woman who has smacked her head into the glass ceiling of male- dominated Hollywood. The orchestra even played Helen Reddy's I Am Woman as the director of The Hurt Locker walked offstage.

Two years later, with another Oscar night ahead in which all the best-director contenders are men, just as they were last year, it's natural to wonder whether that 2010 win created a "Bigelow effect," flinging open new doors for aspiring female filmmakers. Or is it pretty much status quo in the land of blockbusters and action franchises?

An annual report from San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film suggests status quo. According to the latest "Celluloid Ceiling" study, released last month, only 5 percent of the directors who worked on the 250 top-grossing movies of 2011 were women. That's a drop of 2 percentage points from 2010. On the plus side, the number of women working behind the scenes — as writers, producers, editors and crew members — rose from 17 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2011.

"When Bigelow won, a lot of people assumed things must be OK, but the numbers tell a different story," says the center's director, Martha Lauzen.

That story is complicated, and it has glimmers of progress. But it begins with a simple fact: Most of Hollywood's key players are white men.

"When you're talking about 95 percent of the films being directed by largely white males, that's a stunning number to me," Lauzen says. "There are many things happening simultaneously to produce that number. More than ever before, film studios are businesses. And one of the things businesses like to do is avoid perceived risk. Women are still perceived as riskier hires than men."

Part of this, Lauzen says, is human nature. A man is more likely to green-light a story that appeals to men, then enlist a man to tell that story.

There might also be a Mars/Venus aspect. During separate conversations, two notable female filmmakers — Phyllida Lloyd, who steered Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and Debra Granik, who directed Winter's Bone, a best picture Oscar nominee last year — said their sensibilities frequently differ from some of their industry counterparts.

"I feel often that I'm seeing things upside down and back-to-front (versus) how the boys are seeing them," says Lloyd, whose first film was big-budget musical Mamma Mia! "Perhaps just by dint of what we're passionate about, it's harder to franchise our thoughts."

Granik, an independent filmmaker prone to tackling gritty stories about life on the margins, says the subjects that inspire her have been deemed "unmarketable" by some. But gender might have nothing to do with that.

"I have to struggle to find a way to be accessible, and I have to find creative, visionary, smaller-scale financiers who literally, on a cultural level, want to see diversity in storytelling," she says. "I still want to bring actors to the screen that haven't been seen before. Who can bank on that financially?"

And then there's the familiar matter that comes up in any conversation about why women haven't ascended more quickly in their fields: because some ratchet back professional pursuits to make time for family. In an interview last fall to promote her first directorial effort, Higher Ground, actress and mother Vera Farmiga said she wants to direct again, but, "It's going to be a rare occasion for me to do that because I want to direct my children."

Still, some films made by women or focused on female experiences have generated chatter during this awards season: Lloyd's Iron Lady; Bridesmaids, written by Oscar-nominated Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig; The Help, whose largely female cast won the best- ensemble honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards; Albert Nobbs, a film co- written and produced by its star, Glenn Close; and We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay.

What can be done to ensure that women make more noise during future Oscar seasons? Lauzen recommends holding congressional hearings on issues raised by the "Celluloid Ceiling" data or perhaps offering tax incentives to women to help get their projects off the ground.

Granik says it can help when women champion one another. Bigelow hosted a screening last year for Winter's Bone (which earned an Oscar nomination for Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence) that helped attract industry attention. (Bigelow was unavailable to comment; a rep said she's working on her next project, a much- discussed film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.)

Lloyd says the global revolution in the film business — which relies more and more on international box-office receipts — will make it even more crucial for films to appeal to women. She suggests that women must create a new mind-set for the next generation of potential Bigelows.

"One of the things we could really do to help is take away that lack of entitlement from our children, as women, and make sure they don't have that fear. (They should feel) that they own the place," she said. "That will change things."