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Women, Sexism and Hollywood

By Susanna Lo
Los Angeles, CA, USA

Susanna Lo
Susanna Lo

A female film executive recently told me that my first feature film, Black & White: A Love Story (1996), was too "dated" to show her what I could do as a film director. This is a 35mm, 92-minute film, shot in 10 days, with a $42,000 budget, that went on to win directing awards in multiple international film festivals throughout Europe and North America. It had a US, Canadian and European theatrical release and was the Pick of the Week for many critics writing for established entertainment news publications, including Variety, The Village Voice and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

As usual, we women grin and bear it, but this time I also thought I should write about it. It's not like it's going to cost me that directing job with that film executive.

I wonder if anybody has ever told David Lynch that Eraserhead is too dated to show if he could direct another feature film? Sorry David, Blue Velvet is a great script, but do you have a current music video you can show us as an example of your directing work? Gus Van Sant, Mala Noche is too gay for it to count as a sample reel to get you heterosexual directing work, we're giving Good Will Hunting to that guy who did that macho car commercial. Wayne Wang, Chan is Missing is too Chinese to show if you can direct a mainstream American feature film. But don't worry, somebody will make Joy Luck Club into a film soon enough and you can direct that one, but make sure the actors speak some Chinese in the film.

The statistical chance of an American director, who happens to be female, getting the opportunity to direct a second feature film is less than one percent, even though 9 out of the Top 10 grossing films of 2007 were written and produced by women*.  Even having multiple festival awards, positive reviews from respected film critics and a great follow-up script might only land you a television directing job - if you get an Oscar nomination or have the right contacts, ideally a husband or father already in the film industry. Yet everyday, men who have never directed a feature film before are given eight or nine figure budgets to direct their first, full-length movie. Some of them have directed big budget shorts, music videos or commercials, but never a feature film. How does a three to five minute piece of work demonstrate to an executive that you can sustain a story for 90 to 120 minutes? Does that MTV video, which frequently relies on a high-take-per-shot ratio mixed with staccato editing show someone you have an understanding for composing multiple one-shot scenes without the help of editing and still be an effective storyteller? Can a car commercial establish that you have the ability to communicate to actors with the well-studied talents of Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis to the instinctual abilities of Sean Penn or Gena Rowlands?

I can hear the men in Hollywood already saying, "Here's another woman bitching about how unfair men are to women in this biz".  Which is why I started with the words: A female film executive. Women in green light positions at studios, networks and production companies should give another chick a chance, especially if she's already made a film before with no budget and received good reviews for it. Imagine what she can do with four or five million bucks. Male executives give male directors a break all the time in Hollywood. It's how Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood advanced their directing careers. It's really embarrassing that the Directors Guild of America has such an imbalanced ratio of male versus female directors **.

We solemnly swear we won't disappoint you for giving us a shot. We'll thank you when we win our Oscars and never forget to pass it on to the next generation of directors, who happen to be female. And most of all, we'll make sure our claim to fame after being given $170 million to direct a film isn't cheating on our wives and kids with our leading actresses.



*The Huffington Post found the top grossing 112 films of 2007 listed in IMDB, with 2.68% directed by females and 97.32% directed by males. In addition, the study also examined production cost of 914 films and found that as the percentage of females involved in a project increases, the size of the budget decreases, yet 9 out of the Top 10 grossing films, involved a female producer or writer.

**The DGA currently list 19.4% of their members as women, but this includes Unit Production Managers, 1st Assistant Directors and Episodic Television Directors. According to the Celluloid Ceiling study for 2011, women accounted for 5% of directors, a decrease of 2 percentage points from 2010 and approximately half the percentage of women directors working in 1998.


Susanna Lo is an award-winning film director and screenwriter.She is the author of Alma Of My Heart.Alma Of My Heart

All opinions expressed by Susanna Lo are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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