Being a woman director means working overtime to navigate a system where the goalposts are constantly moving. This is an industry of immense gender unbalance that may never fully recover from the revelations of systemic harassment and abuse that came to light following the fall of Harvey Weinstein. Of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and the total of 1,518 individuals working above the line as directors, writers, and producers, only 22.3% of them were women, and that number falls even more drastically for women of color. If a major film directed by a woman underperforms at the box office, we face an endless barrage of think-pieces wondering if this will put an end to the “trend” of women behind the camera. To hire a woman director is to take a “risk.”
They don’t get recognized as Best Director quality filmmakers either, and they’re often overlooked in favor of white men with a sliver of the acclaim. We see this time and time again with incredible creatives like Lynne Ramsay, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Debra Granik, Dee Rees, Marielle Heller, Lorene Scafaria, Lulu Wang, and Ava DuVernay, to name but a handful. Over the course of 90+ years and hundreds of Best Director nominees, only five of them have been women and, to this day, only one of them took home the gold. They do everything right – make Oscar-friendly movies with box office appeal, promote them extensively, campaign rigorously – but it’s never enough, and it’s hard to overlook the implication that gender impacted the way that the Academy (whose membership is still mostly made up of old white men) viewed their talents.
That’s what makes 2020 something of a minor miracle for female directors. They were forced to traverse through a business that devalues women’s work at the best of times, only now there was a literal pandemic unfolding that was irrevocably changing the film industry in record time. It’s kind of astounding that so many women behind the camera succeeded like they did this year. Even as Hollywood as we know it stands on the precipice of an unknown future, there’s a glimmer of light to be found in how women’s stories still manage to fight their way to the top.
2020 wasn’t short of film firsts for women. The Sundance Film Festival awarded four of its six directing prizes to women, including Radha Blank for The 40-Year-Old Version and Maïmouna Doucouré for Cuties. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third feature film of Eliza Hittman won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Chloé Zhao made history by becoming the first director to win both the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival for Nomadland. Cathy Yan brought a slew of critical acclaim to the DCEU with Birds of Prey. Indie legend Kelly Reichardt received a new boost to the mainstream thanks to the success of First Cow. Oscar-winning actress Regina King made a startling directorial debut with One Night in Miami and became the first African American woman director to premiere a movie at the Venice Film Festival.
Truthfully, we could be here all day listing the women directors of 2020 and their achievements, from Autumn de Wilde’s stylish reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma to Emerald Fennell’s endlessly surprising revenge drama Promising Young Woman to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s shot of life to the increasingly oversaturated superhero genre, The Old Guard. It’s genuinely exciting to be able to name so many women and know that there are plenty more to discover.
While some journalists ponder over whether the 2021 Oscars will actually take place, women directors are dominating the awards conversation like never before. The five films nominated for Best Feature at the Gotham Awards are all directed by women, and the current frontrunners for the top prizes are Chloé Zhao and Regina King. Either one of them gaining a nomination would be history in the making. It’s a much-needed change of pace from years prior, where even the most lavishly celebrated films by women were seen as outsiders for such recognition.
2020 was a year where theaters shut their doors for months on end and the distribution model seemingly changed overnight, as shown by the recent decision by Warner Bros. to give all their major 2021 releases simultaneous premieres in cinemas and on the streaming service HBO Max. The rise of the streaming market has greatly benefited women directors, who often found themselves shunted to the margins by distributors. Directors like Alice Wu (The Half of It), Liz Garbus (Lost Girls), and Julia Hart (Stargirl and I’m Your Woman) found increased audience attention thanks to platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+. This phenomenon spread internationally, with women like Indian director Terrie Samundra (Kaali Khuhi), Indonesia’s Lasja Fauzia (Love Like the Falling Rain), and Marla Ancheta of the Phillippines (Finding Agnes) reaching worldwide audiences via Netflix in a way that would have seemed impossible even five years ago. It has never been easier to see films directed by women, and in a year where we were all stuck at home and couldn’t go to the cinema, that mattered.
As always, however, while these changes are crucial and much welcomed, they remain maddeningly incremental. In the US, women comprised just 8% of directors working on the top 250 US domestic grossing films in 2018. That’s 1% below what that number was a decade prior, and 3% down from the previous year. Opportunities are increasing, both in indie titles and blockbuster tentpoles, but women directors are still seen as a riskier investment than the last bearded white dude with a baseball cap who had a minor hit at Sundance with his debut before immediately being hired to direct a nine-figure franchise title. Even in this blessed new age of streaming, women’s stories are at risk of being marginalized thanks to a crowded market and lack of marketing. It’s depressingly common to see a woman director launch a hot new franchise, only for the follow-up installments to be given to male directors (see Twilight, Mamma Mia, Fifty Shades of Grey, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before).
You’re still more likely to see women directors attached to smaller, independent films rather than the big-budget spectacles that form the foundations of Hollywood, although that is changing slowly with women like Patty Jenkins and Niki Caro leading the way. In below-the-line jobs like editing and cinematography, women remain wildly outnumbered by men (only one woman has ever been nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar, a statistic that continues to boggle the mind).
And it remains to be seen if the Academy will prick up its ears and pay attention to this seismic change. They didn’t do it last year when Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, and Lorene Scafaria called, nor did they seem to care when Lynne Ramsay, Marielle Heller, and Tamara Jenkins did so the year before that. As far back as the ‘80s, critics were wondering if the Oscar voters thought that films like Yentl and Awakenings directed themselves when Barbra Streisand and Penny Marshall were snubbed for Best Director.
It seems that we’re doomed to have these conversations every year, but we don’t have to. The opportunities have shown themselves time and time again, from critical darlings to record-breaking commercial successes, with women behind the cameras. They’ve withstood casual misogyny, industry-wide abuses, complete shutouts from the biz, and a literal plague that’s wholly changed the way that films are made, distributed, and consumed. All that and they even won a few awards along the way. 2020 will stand tall as the year that Hollywood faced irrevocable change and the ways it chooses to react to that will pave the way for the future. It matters that women directors get to be at the forefront of that new path, and thanks to their trailblazing work during this torrid year, we may finally get that. The big question remains as to whether or not the industry will choose to take the right path. Perhaps one day, we won’t have to keep repeating this conversation.