By Nicole Sperling
January 24, 2014 at 08:42 PM EST
Murray Close

Women obliterated barriers in Hollywood last year: ­Katniss Everdeen topped the domestic box office in the female-co-produced The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Disney’s ­animated smash Frozen redefined the princess genre with Jennifer Lee as one of two directors at the helm; and two films from power producer Megan Ellison (American ­Hustle and Her) were just nominated for Best Picture.

But take one step back from the A-list and the picture isn’t so rosy. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film’s Celluloid Ceiling report, 2013 marked a dismal year for women in behind-the-scenes jobs on the top 250 grossing movies. Filmmakers with XX chromosomes accounted for only 16 percent of the directors, writers, ­executive producers, producers, editors, and ­cinematographers on those films — a drop of 1 percent from 1998. And only 6 percent of the top films last year were helmed by women, down from 9 percent. Other than Kathryn Bigelow, still the only woman to win an Oscar for directing (The Hurt Locker), no female directors come close to the name recognition of Spielberg or Scorsese. The question is: Why?

Insiders say the problem is simple economics. Hollywood is making fewer films, with bigger budgets, and the fortunes of the major studios now rest on a handful of major franchises. In that climate, only directors with proven box office records (i.e., men) win. “There are fewer risks being taken now,” says producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens). “Sadly, it’s generally true that the last people into the tent are the first people ­booted out when things get rough.”

But the problem extends beyond tentpole movies. Catching Fire producer Nina Jacobson says she doesn’t see many female directors vying for jobs, even on lower-budget projects. She’s been seeking a director for an adaptation of the best-seller Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Few women have applied, which makes it tough if you’re looking to give female directors a break. “If the percentage of available talent is small, then the percentage of serious candidates is small,” Jacobson says. “It’s hard to break the cycle.”

Something, then, is pushing female directors out of the movie business — and it may just be old-fashioned ­sexism. Writer-director Jasmine ­McGlade Chazelle (Maria My Love), 28, was mentored by director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and wants to make movies about complex female protagonists. She hasn’t had much luck pitching to male executives. “I’ve seen blatant sexism at every level in the questions they ask me,” Chazelle says. Questions like, Would you be comfortable giving orders to a male crew? Questions, in other words, “that they’d never ask a man,” she says.

And maintaining a career as a female director is at least as hard as launching one. Women like Bigelow, Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) can enjoy long indie careers, but female directors of big-budget films have a short shelf life. Besides Nancy Meyers and the late Nora Ephron, the women who do create major commercial hits never seem to become ­studio faves: Think Catherine Hardwicke ­(Twilight), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World), and Mimi Leder (Deep Impact).

For whatever reason, women get less credit for a blockbuster and more blame for a bomb. The industry will often overlook a rare flop from a top male director like Jon Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens) or Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer). It’s yet to be seen whether Anne Fletcher, who followed her megahit The Proposal with a failure (The Guilt Trip), will be afforded the same courtesy. History is no comfort: Leder directed two ’90s action hits followed by a train wreck (Pay It Forward), and then didn’t direct ­another feature for nine years. “There are so many male directors that if one is given a shot to succeed and doesn’t, it’s an anomaly,” Hurd says. “But if a woman gets a shot at a high-profile film and isn’t perceived as having succeeded, then that negative experience is applied to all women.”

So what’s a woman to do? Hannah Phenicie, 27, a graduate student at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, will be getting her diploma in the spring. She’s trying to remain optimistic. “I’m hoping it’s a generational thing,” she says, but concedes, “I’m not out there yet, so I don’t see it.” She is optioning a script she’d like to direct and is about to start the search for financing. The director she’d most like to emulate is Amy Heckerling: “I’m such a huge fan of Clueless. If I could make a cult hit that good, I feel like my life’s work would be done.” Clueless was a touchstone film for a generation and one of the ­highest-grossing films of 1995. Heckerling hasn’t had a hit since.

— Additional reporting by Lindsey Bahr and Sean Smith