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The Creation & Deferment of Hope

David Mamet’s statement that drama is about the creation and deferment of hope really helped me when I started writing scripts. Still helps me. A simple, obvious, idea, I know, but I like the simplicity. A drama ends when a hope is realised, or lost for ever. Or, in a bittersweet ending, there’s a possibility that a hope may be realised in future, or has been transformed in to hope(s) for something entirely different. Thanks to David Mamet, I use the same idea when I analyse news about women who want to write and direct feature films. Does it restore hope that many more of us will see our stories realised onscreen? Does it fuel hope that before too long women will write and direct 50% of all features? Or does it defer hope?

The annual United States awards season, now in full swing, tends to highlight hope’s deferment. This morning, I’m thinking about Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, whose Hævnen (In a Better World, or, translated literally, Revenge), won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film last night. That win may foreshadow similar success in the Academy Awards and enhance her opportunities to make more movies. I've enjoyed Susanne Bier’s films (especially After The Wedding), and feel hopeful that she’ll be on to the next one soon.

Here’s the Hævnen trailer.

But, when I looked at the list of films nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award, for which Hævnen is the Danish nominee, I immediately thought: Hope Deferred—the figures showed me that gendered problems for women filmmakers are global. Sixty-five countries have nominated films for this award. On Thursday, the Academy will announce the nine-film shortlist and next Tuesday, it will announce the five nominees. Women have written and directed four of the sixty-five: just over 6%. Women writers and directors collaborated with men on five more: 7.5%, for a grand total of 13.5% (list at end of post). Are women still more likely to make their films, and achieve critical and/or commercial success if they collaborate with writers and directors who are men? I noticed too that Hævnen, like After The Wedding and like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (which a man wrote) is about a man, and Susanne Bier co-wrote the script with a man. Are women more likely to win major awards if their films are about men? This is what Susanne Bier says about her choice

I think I just like real human beings, and their life problems are what make them interesting. In the film, Mikael Persbrandt [shortly to appear in New Zealand to play in The Hobbit] is romantic, idealistic, but he is far from perfect. He is a true human being in all his frailty, with doubts and uncertainties. As a female director, I am driven by these male personalities. Actors often have a strong feminine side, and I like to try to find that in them, like a hollowness, a hidden treasure to bring to the open.

I wonder too, what other political issues underlie countries’ selection of their nominees, and affect the Academy’s selection from the films nominated.

Looking at the major American awards from outside the States, women writers’ and directors’ low representation in award nominations reflects that there, as various researchers have found, and as in other parts of the world, women make a low proportion of feature films. But this year I felt hope when Kathryn Bigelow came out in support of Debra Granik's Winter’s Bone. If one successful woman director champions the work of another, this may make a difference, not just for the project being championed, here Winter's Bone, but because it encourages all the industry's powerful women to advocate for talented women's projects. Will that now happen more often?

Winter's Bone has been nominated for, and has won, lots of awards. But not the ‘majors’. Debra Granik wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe for direction, nor for the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, so her chances for an Academy Award nomination are reduced. And in the five Writers Guild of America nominations for original screenplay there’s only one for a screenplay that a woman, Nicole Holofcener, wrote (and directed), Please Give. Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg (always love it that the ampersand indicates an equal partnership) were also nominated, for The Kids Are All Right. I hope for a win, especially for Nicole Holofcener, whose work fascinates me. No woman writer appears in the adapted screenplay list. More Hope Deferred.

And I was thrilled that Susan Miller and Tina Cesa Ward were there among the five nominees for the Writers Guild of America Outstanding Achievement in Writing Original New Media for their Anyone But Me. But of course I wanted more. This award is for writing for a new media platform, for the Internet—via a major video sharing site or unique URL, for mobile devices like cell phones or PDAs, or for other established new media platforms (not sure if they—yet—include ‘vooks’ and their relatives), and I’d imagined that women would be strongly represented among the nominees. Why? Because new media platforms offer more accessible storytelling opportunities than the film industry, and talented women writers and directors have taken advantage of this; they are highly visible as webseries creators. (If you don't already watch webseries, take a look through the webseries listed here in the sidebar under My Favorite Filmmaker Sites. Or even better, check out DigitalChickTV, which links to many webseries that women write and direct.)

I also hoped, hoped fervently, that there’d be more than one project written and directed by women nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Original New Media because many women who create webseries are telling stories about women and that’s a truly glorious thing as far as I’m concerned, knowing how hard it is for women who write stories about women to get their feature film projects off the ground. I want stories by and about women to receive the attention and appreciation they deserve. (And I believe that women who write and direct webseries are likely to reach that magic 50% of all projects before women who make features.)

As these disappointments gathered, a week ago the Sunday Star Times published a story about New Zealand incentives for film-makers. Like many other countries, and individual states within the United States, the New Zealand government funds (courtesy of the taxpayer) several incentives: the Large Budget Screen Production Grant Scheme (LBSP) and the Post/Digital/Visual Effects (PDV), for anyone from anywhere, and the Screen Production Incentive Fund (SPIF) for smaller budget film and television productions that have to pass a cultural test, showing that they contain significant New Zealand content. Both incentives are paid to qualifying productions as a grant and are therefore not tax based. The Sunday Star Times article focused on the LBSP.

Over the five-year period the article analysed, the writer calculated that NZ$164.693 million was paid out under the LBSP, to over twenty projects, some of them for television. They include Avatar, District 9, Tintin, Underworld 3, Prince Caspian, and The Lovely Bones. Of these projects, as far as I can establish, only one was (co)-written by women, The Lovely Bones. The same project is the only one about a female protagonist. According to the article, The Lovely Bones received NZ$6.917, or 4% of the total.

This low figure not surprising, given the global context that women filmmakers work within, and my guess is that the figures will be similar throughout the world’s incentive programmes, with the possible exception of France.

Until now, my research has focused on New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) funding, because there are human rights arguments for the NZFC to invest as much in women as in men. Now I have some new questions. Are there ways that women can work together across borders to take advantage of film incentives? Can we work together on lower budget co-productions that meet our respective cultural tests for lower budget programmes like the SPIF (which I have yet to research)? Can we support each other with information about and access to the larger programmes like the LBSP and PDV, for bigger budget projects? Would this enhance our collective hopes for more features that women write and direct, and more features that are about a diversity of women and girls?

In the United States, individual state incentive programmes have been under threat for some time, for example in New Mexico, and according to recent stories in Film Closings and in the LA Times, many state film incentive programmes have been cut or are gone. The New Zealand programmes have also been questioned, especially in light of the extra benefits offered Warners, for The Hobbit.

I’ve been unable to find any analysis of women’s access to the capital the programmes represent. The focus is on other issues, wherever in the world the discussion is. In New Zealand, according to a Treasury spokesperson in the Sunday Star Times, the LBSP has brought in more than NZ$1.7 billion in qualifying expenditure and “…created jobs, accelerated the talent and skill of our local industry, and improved New Zealand’s film infrastructure” and also benefits tourism. I know that the infrastructure Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor have developed out at Miramar has benefitted many New Zealand filmmakers. I’m delighted that the LBSP and the other schemes exist, and are so well-used here in Wellywood. But when I read what the Treasury spokesperson said, in the Sunday Star Times article, a few questions nagged at me. The spokesperson appears to imply that the LBSP benefits the local industry. But is there any evidence that our national cinema (and television) have blossomed over the last few years thanks to the LBSP? Are we telling and distributing our own stories any better than we were before the LBSP? How has the LBSP benefitted the storytellers in our local industry, especially the women? What have been the hidden costs, beyond those that Lorraine Rowlands has identified? But beyond these local questions, I hope that in future many projects by and about women will benefit from the incentives on offer, wherever they are now being offered. Any ideas about how to make this happen are reaaaally welcome.

Foreign Language Academy Award nominees

Women writers/directors (trailers and links on Development FB page)

Germany, Die Fremde (When We Leave), Feo Aladag
India, Peepli Live Anusha Rizvi
Norway, Engelen (The Angel), Margreth Olin
Switzerland, La Petite Chambre (The Little Room), Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond

Women writers and directors in collaboration with men

Austria, La Pivellina, Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, directors/ Tizza Covi, writer
Denmark, Hævnen (In a Better World/Revenge), Susanne Bier, director/ Susanne Bier & Anders Thomas, writers
Nicaragua, La Yuma, Florence Jaugey, director, story/ Florence Jauguey, Juan Sobalvarro & Edgar Soberon, writers
Spain, Tambien la Lluvia (Even the Rain), Iciar Bollain, director/ Paul Laverty, writer
Afghanistan The Black Tulip Sonia Nassery Cole director/ Sonia Nassery Cole & David Michael O'Neill writers


  1. Amazing post, Marian. Transnational, cross-cultural networking of women filmmakers is something I think about, too, as you know. It's difficult to predict how that might come about, and what can be done, as a small first step, to do that, hoping and working toward making it snowball into a significant global movement or cooperative effort. Film is so linked with profit, not just the artistic effort, that even the largest of productions with the biggest of budgets are awarded tax incentives or grants. But I would guess, obviously, this helps to alienate those with smaller budgets who need the help more. And as you know, in the U.S., it's much more about independent financing through investors or donors than it is about depending on government funds. Interesting, today I just saw Mike Leigh's new film, "Another Year," in part funded by the now-defunct UK Film Council... As big a director as he is, he still relies on government funds. Not sure what I'm trying to say here, except to respond to your post. I'll be thinking about this a lot during this year's awards season. Looking forward to what comes out of Sundance, too, if anything different than what we're predicting at the Oscars...

    Here's an interesting Canadian/Quebecois take on the film industry's gender imbalance:

  2. Thanks Kyna. I'm often not sure what I'm trying to say, either, but I think here I'm just feeling gobsmacked by the SCALE of the problem. And aware of the scale of the audiences for women's films, too, and wondering what strategies may be useful to create global change, so we see lots of stories written and directed by women on every kind of screen, and diversity among those stories.

    Am thrilled to have this link to Realisatrices Equitables and will make a big effort to upgrade my French reading skills to follow their site (see sidebar). It's great to know that there are people doing similar calculations re state funding, in another Commonwealth country. Identifying and quantifying a problem always seems like a very useful first step. But where next?


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