The numbers don't lie: Of the 1,223 directors helming 1,100 top grossing films from 2007 to 2017, only 4% were women.
That's 43 women, or a ratio of 22:1. If you account for diversity, the numbers only get smaller. Of those women, 36 were white, 4 were Black, 2 were Asian-American, and only one was Hispanic/Latina.
But the problem with numbers is that they're impersonal. It's highly likely your eyes glazed over reading them. That's why Half The Picture, a documentary that premiered at Sundance last week, is so refreshing. Directed by Amy Adrion, the film, which tackles the question of why there are still so few working female directors in Hollywood, puts a human face to the problem.
Through interviews with directors like Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, Ava DuVernay, Miranda July, Gina Prince-Blythewood, and dozens more, Adrion explores the many reasons, from systemic power imbalances in key industry positions, to the challenges of balancing childcare and motherhood with a demanding shoot schedule. It's a rare opportunity to see so many iconic, powerful women share their most vulnerable moments — Ava DuVernay recalls having to publicly call out a male crew member who was disrespectful on set, while others, like Wayne's World director Penelope Spheeris, eventually left the business.
Still, the film's underlying message is one of empowerment: They have done it, and so can you.
Adrion started filming in 2o15, long before the Hollywood reckoning prompted by #MeToo or Time's Up. But threaded throughout the movie is a quiet, contained anger at an imbalance that has been allowed to go on, unchecked, for far too long. It's fitting then, that Adrion's first feature-length film made its debut at Sundance in a lineup where 37% of films were female-directed projects.
We asked Adrion about the challenges she's faced in her own career, the importance of seeing women making movies, and what what she found most surprising in the process.
Refinery29: Did you face any roadblocks making this movie as a female director?
Amy Adrion: "Of course. I feel like any independent filmmaker — especially when it's your first feature film — you're going to have a lot of challenges, mainly financial. We just kind of started making it ourselves, and eventually we were able to get an investor on board that helped us about halfway through the film. But we just kind of had to dive in, just DIY. It was interesting, interviewing all the women in the film who would talk about their challenge in making their first films or getting their work funded promoted, distributed, [and] we've encountered a lot of those same challenges with this particular film. So, in a way it was at least encouraging — I was very aware that I wasn't alone, and if the great filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay can weather those challenges, I can get through to the end of this film."
Was there anything that surprised you in making the film?
"I found it very surprising and also encouraging that so many of the women that I kind of look at on a pedestal — they're my creative heroes — that so many of them encountered the same kinds of challenges that I've encountered. All of the women we spoke to talked about having trouble financing their films, about applying to top-tier film festivals and getting rejected, or applying to different labs and grants and being rejected for those things, and these are women who are at the top of their game. If Jill Solloway can get rejected, and Miranda July can get rejected, and Ava Duvernay can have her first films not get into Sundance — that's surprising because they're creative geniuses. But it also makes you realize the level of commitment and perseverance that is required to make it at all in this industry, and the level of self-confidence and belief in your work that's necessary. So that was surprising, but also made me feel better about my road and about the road of a lot of women filmmakers I know."
One thing that struck me in this film is that you sometimes let the audience peek behind the scenes, and show the crew at work. I feel like I've seen that before, but never with an all-female crew. Was that a conscious choice?
"It was very important that the making of the film mirror the mission of the film. It's a film about women making movies, so we thought it was really important to just show images of us making this movie: here are women running the camera, and here are women setting up lights, and here I am sitting on an apple box asking these questions. So, showing a largely female crew making a movie was important, and also just a way to demystify the filmmaking process. I think people are often intimidated by what it means to be a director, and make a movie and maybe can think 'Well, I don't have the technical knowledge I need, or I don't have the key to this mysterious world that allows me to be a film director.' Just look at the images: it's a small crew and we're in someone's living room, and here's a bunch of water bottles and apple boxes. This is what it looks like to make a movie. It's not rocket science. It's commitment and it's craft, but you know it's something that's within all of our reach."
How did it feel to be presenting this particular film at Sundance this year?
"I've been to the festival many times in different film jobs I've had, but it was really special this year. It does feel like there's a movement afoot, and women are speaking up, and taking center stage and demanding that their voices be heard, and it was an honor to be a part of this larger movement. But we'll see what comes out of it. [Buzzfeed's] Alison Willmore [pointed out] that the year where women filmmakers and women stories dominated Sundance also was a year where a lot of major buyers sat out of the festival. [We're]seen as not as commercial. [It's an] interesting argument that those two things may not be unrelated — that the larger forces in the industry are still kind of struggling with what to do with women's voices and women's stories."
One thing your film points out is that we've had these kinds of moments before, where everyone kind of got outraged at the lack of women in key Hollywood positions, and nothing changed. Do you think it's different this time?
"You want to think that it's just awareness — once people know there's a problem, then they'll start to take steps to solve it. But people are very aware of the lack of representation behind the camera for women, for people of color, for other minority groups. I don't know that there's a will in Hollywood to actually change that, because that means handing over the prestige, the budgets, and the larger cultural narrative to people who up until now have largely been disenfranchised. A big part of it is getting the gatekeepers in Hollywood to better reflect what America looks like: the people who green-light films, the people who fund films, the people who distribute and buy films, the people who promote films and write about films. Once that group better reflects what our country looks like I think you'll start seeing different voices in the culture. But largely those gatekeeper positions are still white men, and you're asking them to connect to and support stories that they may not naturally connect to.
"So many of the biggest success stories of the past couple of years are films like Get Out, or Wonder Woman or Lady Bird. Hopefully that economic argument will help move the conversation forward, and help to actually change the outdated mindset that people in the industry are working with."
There is some talk of the systemic harassment faced by women in Hollywood in the film, but the tone is different from what we've seen post #MeToo and Time'sUp. Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?
"The conversation — even as far as people's willingness to talk about this stuff — has shifted. But the film is not about the bad behavior of men, or about women naming and shaming a long list of like Hollywood heavyweights. It's about women filmmakers, and their creativity, and their drive, and the incredible work that they've made, and that's what we wanted the focus to be. We wanted to honor those stories, but the approach of the film was always to celebrate the women rather than have it be a laundry list of the shit that they've gone through.
On the one hand, I think we definitely need to celebrate women breaking into a very male space, but on the other, I sometimes wonder if the label "female filmmaker" is a little reductive. Where do you fall on that?
"Every woman working in film has a different take on that, and I recognize and honor where each person falls on that. The fact of the matter is there are so few working women directors — there are not few women directors, we are legions, there are thousands, and thousands of us, but as far was women directors who are actively working within the system those numbers are so low. For a very long time, it was an asset for women directors to say 'I'm not a woman director, and I don't pay attention to gender, and don't label me.' And on the one hand sure, true, it is somewhat reductive. But I think you can't not look at the context of who's working in the industry, and to kind of deny that you're a women filmmaker in a way to pretend that this imbalance in the industry doesn't exist. And it does period."
What do you hope women take away from the film?
"I hope people are introduced to women filmmakers they may not have known, or [are] reminded of women filmmakers' work that they have loved and [maybe] didn't make that connection before. The greatest compliment that I could get about the film is people saying they left the movie, and were even more determined to make their own films."
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