TIFF ’16: Dissecting film’s gender problem

The film industry's growing gender gap was placed under the microscope during an industry programming panel entitled "The 4%: Film's Gender Problem" on Day 4 of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
September 13, 2016

The film industry’s growing gender gap was placed under the microscope during an industry conference programming panel on Day 4 of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The Sept. 12 panel showcased a screening of Caroline Suh’s documentary The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem, a series of six short films designed to explore the hot-button issues around the striking gender gap in Hollywood. It was followed up with a discussion that featured Suh, along with leading research professor Stacy L. Smith, Laura Michalchyshyn, executive producer and co-founder of Robert Redford’s Sundance Productions, and Stacey Offman, senior VP of development and production at Jigsaw Productions.

Both the panel and Suh’s film were based on a recent report conducted by Smith — who serves as director of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. That study found that, across the 800 top-grossing films from 2008 to 2015, only 4.1% of the 886 directors were women. 

“Only three of those women were African American or black, and only one was Asian,” Smith noted.

The study also found that the Academy Awards had nominated only four women in the best director category over the past 85 years, with The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow the only woman to have ever walked away with hardware.

The exclusion of women from in front of and behind the camera is a problem requiring immediate action, panel members agreed. Better representation of women in the directorial chair is a matter of social, political, economic and cultural importance. Bridging the gender gap in mainstream media, Smith argues, would inevitably push for richer stories detailing a new narrative on complex and diverse social issues.

Smith’s research found that stereotypes prevail regarding a woman’s inability to correctly financially assess the risks tied to a particular project over their male colleagues in the rigid hierarchical work model. The study also found that women report having to work harder and perform at a consistently higher standard than male peers, while being seen personally as demanding and difficult.

In order to bolster the industry with an even 50/50 split, leading female directors must band together in an effort to support those still struggling to attach their names to a feature project, said Michalchyshyn.

“Whenever we’re about to start a new project, instead of just assuming you know who you want for the DP or cinematographer role, we’re all sending notes to each other and looking for someone amazing or anyone new that we don’t know,” she added.

“Nine times out of 10, there will be a woman on that list,” Michalchyshyn continued. “I do a ton of Googling every single day to find out who directed that or who shot this – it takes a little bit of extra work, and I think Hollywood has tended to fall into the easy route with the same list that goes from agent to agent and producer to producer and we’re just trying to shake that up a little bit.”

A recent study for Canadian Unions for Equality on Screen (CUES) came to the same conclusion about gender equality in film. The 40-page study, entitled What’s Wrong with this Picture?, found “an overwhelming body of evidence unequivocally demonstrates that the content we consume on our screens, in markets around the world, in all languages, is predominantly generated by men.”

Authored by Dr. Amanda Coles of the University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communication, with assistance from the Directors Guild of Canada, the report notes that no single action will remediate a problem deeply rooted in longstanding industry structures, practices and power relations. Instead “action requires a solid, well-resourced commitment and accountability framework from across the film and television production ecology – and in particular the engagers, the workforce and governments – to ensure foundational change.”

Efforts to alter the way in which the male-dominated industry views female-fronted filmmaking have already been set in motion, with both Smith and Coles putting forth practical of solutions that could make an immediate impact.

Though noting efforts require an industry-wide undertaking, Smith suggests demanding inclusion in a way that’s contractually mandated through an equity rider, while also adopting gender equality as a core principle in policy development by implementing the Rooney Rule,an NFL policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for available positions.

“We’re exploring this issue from Stacy’s study, but we’re looking at it from a human-rights issue – that was our attraction to telling the story. This is a civil-liberties problem, this is a real issue that we really need to dig in on,” said Offman of Jigsaw Productions. “It’s controversial, but…there needs to be programs and quotas because it’s a crisis.”

“It’s just a think-twice thing,” said Suh. “People need to think twice before they make their knee-jerk decisions about who they want to work with and who they think is capable and why they have those assumptions.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.