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Aussie Sequel 1: Histories & Economics

I've amended this post slightly since I first wrote it, as a sequel to an earlier post which celebrated the high proportion of women-directed features that were in contention for the Australian Film Institute's annual awards.

We share a name, Aussie and New Zealand women, though I don’t hear it often now: we’re Sheilas. According to my dictionary, ‘our’ Sheila came from shaler, of unknown origin. But I look up shale, defined as soft finely stratified rock that splits easily, consisting of consolidated mud or clay and I think earth mother, split. And I see all those immigrant men engaging with the earth of their new lands. With few women around. And I go AH.

Jan Chapman
producer of Bright Star—one of the films in contention for an AFI award—with  director Jane Campion
But Australian women filmmakers have a very different history than we do. Renowned producer Jan Chapman summarised their early feminist years in her Longford Lyell Lecture in 2002. There was a Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative in 1969. And then, in 1971, “some strongly politically motivated women” created the Sydney Women’s Film Group. The group “aimed to produce and distribute films on subjects which conventional media had ignored, and their initial emphasis was on instructing women in production skills”. It released its first film in 1972 and held a series of discussion screenings. Members also planned conferences, implemented training workshops, and organised film festivals. And there’s more. With women at the Australian Broadcasting Commission they lobbied successfully for a course for women at the Australian Film and Television School and, with others, for a women’s film fund. In the Longford Lyell Lecture Jan Chapman stated:
…I’d received considerable help from men…but without the influence and political lobbying of these women I don’t believe I would have had the subconscious conviction that I liked that collective involvement with an idea, that I could make films, and that what I wanted to say, even if intimate, domestic and personal in scale, was just as interesting as the mythic male legends.
New Zealand’s population’s so much smaller. Thanks to poet Heather McPherson, our women’s art movement generated the Spiral Collective, the feminist publisher ‘of last resort’ that published Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning the bone people. It also generated the Women’s Gallery and its travelling exhibition Mothers, which went to Sydney, as well as to public galleries round New Zealand, and other women artists groups. But over here Gaylene Preston has no filmmaker peers like the women in the Sydney Women’s Film Group. She’s our only filmmaker to have both a 1970s feminist connection—which she made in London—and to work consistently as a writer, director and producer since then.

Gaylene Preston: her Home By Christmas has just received 10 nominations for the NZ film & television awards, including nominations for best feature, best director, best script
When I remembered these histories, after I read that women directed 42% of the contenders for the Australian Film Institute’s annual awards for feature films, I thought, So: it won’t be surprising if Aussie women occupy half their cinematic sky before we do. And good on them. But then I read an article that quoted Martha Coleman, Head of Development at Screen Australia (SA). She said, in her most recent six-monthly report to SA’s Board, that it was “troubling” that “there is a shortage of young women writers and directors putting their hand up to work in the mainstream”. It’s great to hear that SA has noticed this problem, as has the Swedish Film Institute, which is committed to working towards at least 40% of projects having women directors. But I infer from Martha Coleman’s comment that it will be challenging to sustain the AFI awards 42% in future.

Earlier this year, when critiquing the New Zealand Film Commission’s Escalator/Te Whakapiki low-budget initiative, I checked out the figures for SA’s funding of low budget features, through its Low Budget Feature Film Fund (LBFFF), post-production/completion funding, and production funding of features under $2m. These statistics, relating to 32 project applications, and relevant for filmmakers who will be the the AFI contenders in the future, support Martha Coleman’s concern.

There were 20 applications for the LBFFF, and three successful projects. Fifteen projects had men attached as directors, four had women and one had a man and a woman as joint directors. Of the successful three projects two had male directors and the jointly directed project was the third. There was no information available about the gender of writers attached to unsuccessful applications, but of the successful projects, one had a male writer attached, one a woman, and the third had joint, mixed gender, writers. In this context, I felt delighted about the woman writer, but wished that she had a woman director, though she may have been attached to the project with mixed gender directors, may also have been one of those directors herself.

There were six applications for low-budget post-production or completion funding, five of them successful. All had male writers and directors.

But the six applications for projects with budgets under $2m had equal numbers of male and female writers and directors. And women writers and directors were attached to two of the five successful applications, 40%, very similar to the figures for this year's AFI contenders. So there's no real concern there?

My questions are around women's involvement in the LBFFF and low budget projects that manage to find production funding independently of SA. In particular, do women avoid some kinds of low budget projects, and why? And what's the role of producers? The small numbers involved make any rigorous analysis impossible, but I think it's useful to look at them anyway, if only to emphasise that more research is necessary.

As so often in Australasian filmmaking, women featured strongly as producers among these 32 projects, in all three of the groups. Women producers were involved in 19 of the projects, exactly the same number as male producers. But they were more likely to produce men’s projects. Women producers made eight applications with male directors and five with female directors. Mixed gender producers made five applications with male directors and one with mixed gender directors. (Male producers made eleven applications for projects with male directors and two with women directors, both unsuccessful.)

(In the LBFFF, women producers made eight of the twenty applications and made joint applications in four more; one woman as sole producer and two more in joint teams were successful. Women were sole producers in two of the six low-budget post-production or completion funding applications, and their projects were among the five successful ones. One male and three female producers and two mixed gender production teams applied for projects under $2m, and the three female and two mixed gender teams were successful.)

Why do women producers support more men’s projects than women’s? This is an important issue. As I thought about the SA figures, suddenly I was back at the NZFC when I was researching my thesis. Sometimes I’d have a little chat with Ruth Harley, then CEO there, and now CEO at SA. And sometimes she’d ask me something. One day, as I sat with Jeremy Macey, looking at some data on his computer screen, Ruth’s voice broke in. “Does it make a difference that women producers do not prioritise working with women writers and directors?” she asked. I blinked, slightly startled, and from somewhere deep inside came a response that shocked me. “Well,” I said, “if I were a producer I’d choose a man’s project, because it would be more likely to succeed.” Horrors, I’d internalised the ‘golden boy’ syndrome, the default choice of men as the artists.

Why oh why do so many of us do this? Why don’t we prioritise women storytellers? And is it possible that producers—male and female—are not putting their hands up to work with young women writers and directors, and that’s why young women writers and directors are not appearing at SA? If so, those producers—like me—are missing the boat when they look for talent. Because there’s lots of evidence that it makes economic sense to find and support talented women filmmakers, the golden girls.

Firstly, there’s the film industry evidence. As I showed the other day, the women over-25 quadrant was the largest United States audience in 2009. Women are a big market for films that meet their entertainment needs. And among this audience, I believe, there’s a significant segment that wants more films that pass the Bechdel Test, where two of the main characters are women who talk to each other about something other than men. And a couple of years back, the United Kingdom Women Screenwriter Study found a good economic argument for including women’s representation in the screenwriting role. In what appears to be a world first, the study found that United Kingdom films written by women were dollar for pound slightly more effective than those written by men. The box office return for films with a woman screenwriter was $1.25 per £1 budget, compared with $1.16 for films with all-male writers.

But more important, in my view, is the wider evidence about what happens when women participate fully in economies. The other day, New Zealand’s very own Helen Clark—our former Prime Minister who now heads the United Nations Development Programme—launched a report called Power, voice and rights: a turning point for gender equality in Asia and the Pacific. “Development of a country is far more than GDP per capita. Shaping the human resource is far more important for growth”, she said. And added that when the reason for slow growth was analysed, it showed that women’s slow progress was one of the factors, so for economic growth, women’s empowerment is essential.

Last year, Ernst & Young released a report called Groundbreakers, which claimed that having more women in leadership roles—and storytellers and their producers fall into this category—could be the best way out of the current global financial crisis. "Investing in women to drive economic growth is not simply about morality or fairness. It is about honing a competitive edge," said Ernst & Young chairman and chief executive officer Lou Pagnutti about the findings in the report. “…Many corporations and governments have for years been making efforts to tap into the hidden potential of is the time to accelerate these efforts," said the report. He explained that Groundbreakers was about adopting new ways of thinking and not necessarily about race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, which people traditionally associate with diversity. Groundbreakers referred to the data from a 2007 Catalyst report stating that on average, Fortune 500 companies with more females on their boards of directors ended up with better financial performances, compared to companies with fewer women as board directors.

Groundbreakers referred to an Economist report, too, perhaps the same one that Meryl Streep referenced in her wonderful Barnard commencement address a couple of months ago. She said:
According to Economist magazine, for the last two decades, the increase of female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants India or China.
Another piece of interesting information comes from the producer details in the AFI feature film contenders. There are thirty-nine producers attached to the nineteen films. Twenty-three are men. Sixteen are women: 41%, almost the same gender proportion as the directors. But 75% of those women producers are attached to projects directed by women. When I worked this out, I felt delighted. I celebrated. Those women producers have chosen to work with women directors, and it has paid off. That really enhances my optimism; Australia may well be the first country in the world where women write and direct half of all features. (NB I don't know the proportion of all Australian feature films eligible for the AFI awards that women wrote, directed and produced.)

In association with the facts about audience numbers and the UK research about the return from features that women write, the Australian women's achievements, the economic arguments support the idea that investing in women film writers and directors is likely to pay off. Decision-makers and producers who support talented male directors and writers through their first features, banking on their investment paying off with their second or third, might make as good an investment if they support talented women.

And the decision-makers include those who run specialist film-making funds. Satyen Bordoloi—an Indian journalist—and I have been emailing, and he sent me a list of international funders of projects from ‘developing’ countries. Not one of them prioritises women. In view of the economic and human rights arguments that support women’s participation in filmmaking, perhaps some of them could consider prioritising women’s film projects, and even acknowledging women filmmakers as denizens of a separate developing country that covers the globe. I can’t resist referring to Virginia Woolf’s statement again: “For,” the outsider will say, “in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (Some specialist women’s film funders are listed in the sidebar.)

Now, back to Darnell Hunt’s reports for the Writers Guild of America West, referred to in an earlier post. One year, he wrote: "diversity in hiring requires a firm commitment on the part of decisionmakers…to actively seek out and read the work of writers who are women and people of color”. Very recently he expanded on this idea:
The Guild encourages the broader industry to rethink business-as-usual practices on the diversity front. The Guild encourages key industry players to join with it to establish clear goals, reasonable timetables, and effective mechanisms for progressive change...It’s extreme folly to continue to do the same thing and to expect a different outcome. Breaking out of the stagnation in writer diversity documented in the last few WGAW reports will require bold, new approaches. Only then will we begin to make appreciable progress toward catching up with a changing America. Only then will we move closer to making sure that all of our stories are told.
It would be truly marvelous if Screen Australia, the New Zealand Film Commission, investors and funders and all our producers took Dr Hunt’s advice to heart, and acted on it. Reached out to women filmmakers. Asked them what would help them put their hands up.

Such a big change would be challenging. Decisionmakers would have to engage with some women’s different ways of telling stories, and with some women’s careers being interrupted for child bearing and rearing. There would be mistakes. But in the end everyone would benefit: talented women filmmakers, audiences, investors.

The next post—Aussie Sequel 2—comes from Luci Temple, an Australian filmmaker, who shares her views about  some of the problems. She writes about her experience in Australia, adding another dimension to this post. And much of what she writes echoes stories I've heard from women around the world.


  1. " In what appears to be a world first, the study found that United Kingdom films written by women were dollar for pound slightly more effective than those written by men. The box office return for films with a woman screenwriter was $1.25 per £1 budget, compared with $1.16 for films with all-male writers."

    The UK study is here:

    Let's look at their comparison.

    The Box office for films in their study:

    Without a female screenwriter: $19.4 mil.
    With a female screenwriter: $6.2 mil.

    It would obviously be a stupid argument if someone claimed that the study proved 'if you get a female screenwriter involved, you can kiss goodbye to 68% of your box office.'

    That's because there's also a huge budget discrepancy by gender - and we know that budget makes a big difference to film box office.

    With female screen writer: £4.2 mil budget
    Without: £6.5 mil budget

    So to eliminate that factor you need to compare the data with groups - compare films with similarly sized budgets, but with different genders for the writers. So you would compare low budget films by gender, then high budget films by gender.

    Easy - right ?

    Yet how did this 'study' do it?

    The *absolutely worst* thing you could do is just try to 'eliminate' the budget by dividing it. Yet that is what they did !!

    For a start, if 'low budget' films happened to have a lower BO($)/Budget(£) than 'high budget' films (regardless of gender) then the comparison would show that women have a worse BO($)/Budget(£) than men.

    So they haven't 'eliminated' the budget factor at all. The incompetence of the basic stats in that 'study' is mind boggling.

    It would be interesting to see the comparison with a real study.

    (And we wonder why the UK film council was abolished!)

  2. Hello Mac. Thanks a million for this analysis. There goes that reference point!!! ALAS.

    I really welcome any statistical info because I'm in some ways dysnumeric. And I'm very interested to learn that the budgets for the women's films were lower. Did those women—through their producers—ask for less, or were they offered less, I wonder.

    So much work still to be done. Thanks again.

  3. I suspect it was the style of film. Since it was a UK study I grabbed a list of films fthat involved UK production in 2008.

    Here's a random sample of 2 films with male directors:

    Wild Target "A hitman tries to retire but a beautiful thief may change his plans"

    GI Joe "An elite military unit takes on an evil organization led by a notorious arms dealer."

    Here's a random sample of 2 films with female directors:

    Skellig "Michael's life is changed forever as an angel saves his sisters life who has been diagnosed with a heart problem at birth."

    The unloved "A film that gives a child's eye view of the U.K.'s government-run care system for orphans and children in danger"

    Clearly the first two are going to be more likely to be mass-market / big-budget !

    Whether the style of film is a deliberate choice (perhaps women directors prefer to make the style of film like 'The Unloved' instead of GI Joe) or perhaps they aren't being offered the opportunity. If they aren't given the opportunity - why not? Perhaps they preferred not to do mindless pulp action films earlier in their careers and so they don't have the experience now for expensive action films ?

    I don't know the answer.


  4. Thanks again Mac, really appreciate your careful responses.

    Great to have more questions, though I know that the questions round these issues are so often complex or lead to complexity, & have no single answer.

    But I hope that change will come, through rigour in identifying & defining the questions and working on solutions, accompanied by tenderness towards women who write and direct, & better understanding of audiences for the diverse films that women make.

  5. And here's a wee extra about women in the workforce, from Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi:
    I like his reasons why women succeed in the workforce generally—in the Participation Economy. They make me feel optimistic about us succeeding in film, in transmedia.

  6. This just in shows that Aussie women artists earn more in comparison with men artists than New Zealand women do; their income’s about half that of Australian men artists: The latest Creative New Zealand research (2003) shows that NZ women artists—including writers and filmmakers—have a median income from our principal artistic occupation that is less than a third of the income earned by men from their principal artistic occupation. From all arts work, our median income is just over a third. What do Aussie women have that we don’t? What do the men in each country have that the women don’t (apart from more money)?

    A big thank you to Deborah Jones for the link.


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