Skip to main content

Yes, We CANNES Do It!

I long for the day when women write and direct 50% of all feature films. And this week, I had a moment or two of optimism and celebration, with many others working towards the same goal, especially all of us who were in some way involved in last year’s You CANNES Not Be Serious campaign.  Why? Because when Thierry Fremaux announced the Cannes Film Festival line-up the other night, we learned that, for the first time, four films with women directors are in competition.

The directors are Julia Leigh with Sleeping Beauty, an Australian, and already a successful novelist, Naomi Kawase (Japan, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2007 for Mogari no Mori) with Hanezu No Tsuki, Maiwenn (France) with Polisse, and Lynne Ramsay (England) with We Need To Talk About Kevin. 21%. Warm congratulations to them all, and to the people who work with them. And to Ruth Torjussen (FilmDirecting4Women) who initiated You CANNES Not Be Serious, Melissa Silverstein (Women & Hollywood) who adopted it, and to the generous women and men outside the public eye who worked, and continue to work, for change.  When I saw  'Jane Campion presents' in this Sleeping Beauty trailer, I imagined that she is one of these people.

Sleeping Beauty from Pollen Digital on Vimeo.

This week an interview with Geena Davis about research at the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media also fuelled my optimism. Geena Davis talked about the institute’s research, the largest ever done, on G-rated movies and television shows made for children aged 11 and under. The research found that for every one female character, there were three male characters, and that if it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female. She said:
Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can't exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?

Geena Davis reported that the institute took these facts
...back to the people who are creating the media… to the studios and the producers, the Writers Guild, the Animators Guild, the Casting Directors Guild... The fascinating thing that we found from the beginning was that they were absolutely shocked. The fact that, in general, all of their movies are so lacking in a female presence is stunning to them. That makes it, obviously, not a conspiracy, not a conscious choice, and leaves them very open to rethinking it and saying, 'Now that we know, we're going to make some changes'. And we feel certain that when we update [our research] in 2015 that we will have seen the needle move.
I so hope that ‘the needle will move’, but have lingering concerns that temper my optimism. Every two years, the Writers Guild of America West produces an excellent report on diversity in the industry. The statistics in these reports consistently show precisely whose stories are being told, and the reports include discussion about the gnarly facts that work against programmes that seek to make change. Was the Geena Davis Institute’s research really such a surprise to the guild (or the others involved in creating media)? It would be wonderful to see the Writers Guild and the institute put their research and experience together and come up with some joint suggestions for working further with studios, producers, the Animators Guild and the Casting Directors Guild.

Against this background, I’m back with the latest New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) statistics. And it’s wonderful that the NZFC now keep some applicant statistics, though they're not yet as comprehensive as I’d like.

First, the NZFC’s development investments since their December 2010 announcements. The good news: two out of five Writers Development Loans went to women: to Kathryn Burnett for Mike and Virginia,
and to Frances Edmond for Emerald Curse.

The bad news: the rest of the NZFC’s feature film development investment, from early to advanced development. This continues the trend from 1 July 2008: less and less investment in development of feature films that women write and direct. In the year ending 30 June 2009, projects with women writers attached received 32.4% of the development funding. From 1 July 2009-December 2010, the percentage dropped to 27.8%. And this time, it’s 16% for projects with women writers ($31,500 of $195,240), and 11% for the projects with women directors ($20,000 of $179,000—only nine of the eleven funded projects had directors attached). What are the factors that contribute to this decrease? What will reverse the trend?

The results for recent short film funding are also mixed, although taken overall they show a record investment in projects directed by women. Across all the shorts programmes, projects with women directors attached have been allocated $430,000 of the $790,000 total funding: 54%. Terrific. Short films are the classical pathway to feature filmmaking, so it matters that women are well represented in the NZFC short film programmes.

The good and exciting news: women wrote and will direct half the six Premiere Shorts, the shorts programme with the largest budgets, $90,000. Loren Taylor is writer/director of Bee, Zia Mandviwalla writer/director of Night Shift. Sarah Boddy wrote Tiger Country and Pietra Brett-Kelly will direct it. And, because Maria-Elena Doyle will direct Inorganic, written by Nick Ward, the NZFC will invest $360,000 of the $540,000 total allocated for Premiere Shorts in projects that women direct.

The NZFC devolves Premiere Shorts to three Executive Producer teams, who are not required to keep applicant statistics, so there’s no way to know how many applications were made for projects with women writers and directors. This year Tom Thumb, the executive producer for two Premiere Shorts, advertised that they would read submissions ‘blind’. I thought this was the first time this had happened, but Tom Thumb’s Polly Fryer put me right:
I don't think that blind reading is that unusual, I think we were just the only group to advertise it. I think Tui's group [Tauihu Media] did it too and several Exec Producers that I spoke to from past years also mentioned that they did it. The logic is simple: it's a very small industry here and the three of us [in Tom Thumb] are very actively involved in many areas of it so we know a lot of people who are potential applicants. We wanted to be able to read the stories that were written and have them speak to us without any element of personality clouding that perspective. Once we had our shortlist of stories we then discovered who the applicants were and read the supporting material that they had sent, met them to discuss the stories and the selection process went from there.
It would be great if the Executive Producer teams were required to read blind, and to keep applicant statistics. It would be even better if the NZFC started to read blind, too.

The other two NZFC shorts programmes are Fresh Shorts 30 ($30,000 budgets) and Fresh Shorts 10 ($10,000 budgets). The NZFC administers these programmes and kept statistics only for directors.

There were 113 applications for Fresh Shorts 30 and eight projects were funded.
Women directors were attached to 23% of the applications, and 25% of the funded projects.

There were 115 applications for Fresh Shorts 10. Women directors were attached to 28.7% of the applications and to 12.5% of the funded projects.

Why are so few women applying for these programmes, and why the proportional mismatch in Fresh Shorts 10, between projects with women directors who applied, and the funding allocated to Fresh Shorts 10 projects? Across the two Fresh Shorts programmes, state investment of $250,000 in directors who are men and $70,000 in directors who are women seems inadequate.

Then there’s Escalator. Last year, women writers and directors were attached to only 16% of the short-listed projects and to half of the green-lit projects. This year, in the 133 teams that applied, there were 373 team members, and 97 of those were women (26%). Twenty-seven of the teams (20%) have members who identify as Maori, but it’s impossible to tell whether there are any all-Maori teams. There’s no way to know how many women in the teams are the story-tellers, the writers and directors, and the figures from the NZFC do not include details about the gender of principal applicants in the 133 teams. Historically, in film projects, women are more likely to be producers than storytellers, but anecdotally there seems to be an increase in individuals who are writers and/or directors and producers, so it would be useful to have more details. But the bottom line is, not enough women are involved. I stand by my conclusion last year that Escalator is very male-oriented in its approach, including the "Boot Camp' language.

This year, women are the principal applicants in three of the twelve short-listed teams, and in two of the four teams with applicants who identify as Maori. There are 26 men in the twelve teams, and 7 women (21%). Again it's necessary to know who the storytellers are.

So, what’s my take on all this? My view hasn’t changed. Equity and market reasons together provide compelling arguments for the NZFC to develop a gender policy. As a state organisation, the NZFC has a gender equity obligation, which at the moment is not being met. And as an investor of public funds, it makes sense for the NZFC to consider market issues around women as audiences. Others are doing this. For example, commercially oriented MOFILM wants to improve women’s participation in its programmes and is developing strategies to attract women applicants.

At a minimum, I think that the NZFC must
  • Be more consistent and rigorous with its gathering of statistics
  • Take note of the global concern about the numbers of women who write and direct features and about female characters in feature films, and research ways to improve their investment in stories by and about women, across ALL programmes
  • Brainstorm about how they can attract women applicants, and come up with some imaginative experiments
But as well, and most of all, I’d love the NZFC to develop a formal policy about their investment in women writers and directors. That way, we’ll all know what’s happening. And who knows, if the NZFC gets it right, before long New Zealand may have women in competition at Cannes, too. And, of course, be the first place in the world where women write and direct 50% of all features.

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media research

Writers Guild of America West Hollywood Writers Report 2009

Earlier Escalator posts
Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity, Progress For All

Big Picture: could i do that?