At last month’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, some film financiers met for nachos at the Wasatch Brew Pub to toast their comedy, Ass Backwards—a Dumb and Dumber-esque tale of two women who enter a beauty pageant. Dori Sperko, who’d been dabbling in Hollywood funding since selling her Florida-based payroll services company several years ago, told the table about three films she’d considered investing in that morning. “I automatically passed on the movie with the woman producer team attached,” she said. “I just feel like you can’t trust women you don’t know, but you can trust a man.” Sperko shrugged and sipped her cocktail. “It is what it is.”
Her prejudice seems to contradict the swell of optimistic press generated by a report on female filmmakers published in early January. Titled “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2012,” and conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, it said the percentage of female-directed blockbusters had nearly doubled, from 5 percent in 2011 to 9 percent in 2012. On Jan. 11, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Female Directors Gain Ground, Slowly.” Women are also a large presence on the festival circuit: At Sundance this year, 8 of 16 films entered in the dramatic category were directed by females. But Sperko’s attitude is still the industry standard, says Cathy Schulman, president of Mandalay Pictures and the board president of Women In Film.
That 9 percent figure is misleading, says Schulman, the only woman besides director Kathryn Bigelow to receive a Best Picture Academy Award in the last 10 years. (The producer won in 2006 for Crash.) She points to what the positive coverage missed: The annual report’s results always fall somewhere between 5 percent and 9 percent. Although 2012 was on the high side, it wasn’t a deviation from the norm.
Just as consistent, says Schulman, is the number of times she’s had financiers ask her who was really going to do the job of producing a film, or suggest male partners to accompany her on a production, since a project sounded “really hard to do.” And that’s when they’re considering funding a movie. “Sure, it’s a rare occurrence that someone will actually say they won’t do it because you’re a woman,” Schulman says, “but the numbers speak loudly.”
Over cappuccinos on Main Street in Park City, Naomi Foner, director of festival hit Very Good Girls, discussed the money issue with her producer, Mary Jane Skalski, who first came to Sundance with The Brothers McMullen in 1994. Foner said directing or producing a film is kind of like flying a plane: It’s helming an expensive beast under very high pressure. “People still don’t trust female pilots. We’ve been acculturated to believe that in cases of extreme stress, women will crumble,” Foner said. “When I do well with a directing job, people tell me, ‘You did it just like a man,’ ” she said. Skalski turned the conversation back to the notion that women aren’t to be trusted with high-stakes capital: “Isn’t that the same thing they said during suffrage?”
“It’s a certain kind of man who runs the studios. The kind who says, ‘This is my America, these are my rules, this is my money,’ ” says Rose Troche, who co-executive-produced The L Word before bringing Concussion, about a housewife in a sexless lesbian marriage who dabbles in prostitution, to Sundance this year. Concussion was initially funded by its female director, Stacie Passon, who spent her 30s building capital by directing commercials and flipping real estate. Passon says today’s filmmaking is about using smart technology and marketing and monetizing everything. “You get a dollar for every download, and you’ve got a business plan. So at a certain point we won’t need them anymore,” she says, referring to the men and women with the power to green-light or reject projects.
Deeper into festival week, about 150 people, mostly female producers and directors, gathered at the Park City home of Goldman Sachs’s first female partner, Jacki Zehner, expressly to discuss gender bias in Hollywood. Over brunch, Stacy Smith, a researcher from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, presented data from a decade of films and interviews with a group of industry executives and moviemakers. The study found that, as the female filmmakers suspected, financiers simply don’t want to fund projects led by women. “Despite the strides women have made since the 1950s,” said an unnamed director and producer in the report, “there is still a feeling that women cannot be trusted with money.”
Tom Rothman, until recently the chief executive officer of Fox Entertainment Group, agrees that “we have to get more Kathryn Bigelows.” (Bigelow makes movies about war rather than lesbian housewives. Her absence from this year’s Best Director nominees, for the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, is considered a blow to women, although the Academy may have been shying away from the controversy over the film’s torture scenes.) But Rothman says the image of the “cigar-chomping mogul” dismissing women en masse is a fallacy. Any financier worth his salt, he says, judges a film based on whether it’s going to be a hit, and a producing partner based on character. But doesn’t gender inform character? “Go ask a f---ing social scientist,” he says. “In my experience, it’s a meritocracy.”
Christine Vachon, preeminent indie producer of more than 60 films, including Boys Don’t Cry, Far From Heaven, and I’m Not There, may be an unlikely ally in skepticism, but like Rothman she’s not convinced the barriers to female filmmaking exist. She agrees that “good work rises to the top,” and adds: “Listen, I can’t do what I do with a chip on my shoulder.”
Director Jill Soloway says the system won’t change until complicated “women’s films” are supported by ticket sales, not just festival juries. “Currently, if the [moviegoing] experience doesn’t make a man feel necessary, then there’s the feeling it’s going to be a boner kill at the box office,” says Soloway, who won the director’s prize at Sundance for Afternoon Delight, a film about, yes, another bored housewife looking to spice up her sex life. To help financiers widen the definition of what might be in their self-interest, she says, “we need to show that women actually want to see movies about unlikable women.”
Jack Myers, a partner at the small production house Cinelan—and one of only six men at Zehner’s brunch—says Soloway’s thinking is sound. Women earn 65 percent of college and advanced degrees; they’ll soon gain power on both the consumer and the executive side, he says. Both are crucial for reshaping the notion of what can make money in America’s multiplexes. “In 5 or 10 years, I predict we’ll be looking back and saying, I can’t believe the world was actually like this,” Myers says. Many female filmmakers are less hopeful. “There is one good thing about it,” says producer Skalski. “I used to think I was the problem if someone didn’t want to give me money. Now I know it’s just my gender.”