It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Mad Max: Fury Road, the testosterone-fueled postapocalyptic turbo ride, was destined to rule last weekend’s box office. Why? Its biggest competitor was a “girl movie” directed by actress Elizabeth Banks, who had never steered a film before. Instead Max got trounced by the Barden Bellas: Pitch Perfect 2 pulled in $69 million and took the top spot. Just like that, Banks became the second female director this year to open a movie at No. 1. (Sam Taylor-Johnson did it in February with Fifty Shades of Grey.) “The first film flew under the radar, and it was a gift,” Banks told EW months before the movie opened. “This time around, there are much higher stakes.”
Higher than she could have anticipated. Ever since the film business began, women have been consistently under-represented as directors. Despite strides in gender equality in the studio-executive ranks, only one woman in history, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), has won an Oscar for directing, and according to the most recent statistics from the Directors Guild of America, only 13.8 percent of its director members are female. In all these decades, and increasingly in the past 10 years, industry insiders, journalists, and female directors themselves have been trying to unravel why that is. Then, on May 12, three days before PP2 opened, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it has spent two years examining the film industry for alleged gender discrimination in its hiring practices, particularly when it comes to directors. It has urged three government employment agencies to continue this effort. “I’m very hopeful they will take it on,” says Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU.
Ironically, we’ve seen signs in the past few months that the cracks in Hollywood’s gender ceiling may finally be widening. Selma director Ava DuVernay is in contention to direct Black Panther for Marvel. If hired, she would be the studio’s first female director. Indie filmmaker Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) has signed on to co-write and direct a remake of The Craft. And when director Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones) left Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman movie, the studio replaced her with another woman, Patty Jenkins (Monster). “Change is in the air,” says DuVernay. “The first step to any movement is awareness. Then conviction. Then strategy. Then action. All that is happening. And it’s a positive thing.”
But if the first problem is women being hired, the second problem—and the more difficult one to combat—is the kinds of movies they are hired to make. Most female filmmakers who are working are making low-budget indies and documentaries, not major studio tentpoles. The ACLU report noted that only 1.9 percent of the 100 top-grossing movies in the past two years were directed by women. “I think we all know it’s a different game if you’re a dude,” says Janiak. “The big hurdle women filmmakers need to make now is moving from this indie space to where we can make these big-budget movies.”
And that may be trickier than it seems, says director Maria Giese (Hunger), who first approached the ACLU about the issue two years ago. After all, it’s easier to get a job if you don’t cost much. But if you don’t cost much, you’re diminishing your own value. “If they don’t have to pay you or pay you much, they will hire you,” she says. “Money is the barrier.”
The success of Pitch Perfect 2 certainly helps the cause, even if it doesn’t quite solve the persistent (and sexist) perception that women are best at making movies targeted only at women: a sort of pretty rom-com ghetto that assumes women won’t buy tickets to, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. But Hollywood may be evolving on that idea, too. “We do have a wider scope, and there is a giant female audience waiting to be tapped,” says Janiak. Now female directors just need to make sure they deliver. “We’ve got to create great stuff, too,” she says. “It’s also on us.”
(Additional reporting by Tim Stack)