How women can improve their lot in the film industry

Bleak stats aside, women are making positive steps towards equality.


Sophie Monks Kaufman


It’s easy to become engulfed in the quagmire of what is wrong and why, and how bad and mad it is that 50 per cent of the population are still considered a creative liability in the film industry (and beyond). But after a while that becomes exhausting and the sheer density of negative facts result in an anaesthesia that will maintain instead of upturn the status quo.

It’s vital that people do the research and provide the uncomfortable facts – Helen O’Hara’s recent impassioned article for Empire on The Future of Film provides an extensive breakdown of where we are in all its disheartening non-glory. Melissa Silversteins’s Women and Hollywood blog for Indiewire links to damning reports as and when they appear (near-daily).

We also need the conversation to progress. How do you stay true to your temperament while plugging into an epic battle? “I’m not just black, I’m a woman, so there are two glass ceilings I have to break every time I open my mouth,” said Gone Too Far! director, Destiny Ekharaga, recently to The Guardian. “But if I wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh my God, I got two ceilings I’ve got to smash today’, that’s no way to live. I’m serious when I have to be; other than that I talk about food a lot and watch Netflix.”

Do women definitely want to be working in the film industry? A study by the BFI entitled, ‘Succès de plume? Female Screenwriters and Directors of UK Films, 2010-2012’ reports: “Women outnumber men at university, film school and creative writing courses, yet they are under-represented in the industry in key decision-making and creative roles… The problem seems to lie in the commissioning process, where producers of UK films turn to mid-career writers and screenwriters often already known to them, the majority of whom in the past have been male.”

This quote exposes how unconscious the perpetuation of inequality can be. A producer turning to an established male director for a job thinks he is an innocent cog in a bigger machine. It’s the task of every man working today to have a good think about how much he values equality and – if that amounts to anything positive and serious – to translate his values to meaningful practice. In other words, it is the job of every man working today to be mindful with his social power.

Which isn’t to say that overt macho bullshit isn’t still a thing that women in the industry have to deal with. We spoke to a female director who had a short film ruined by a bullying male cinematographer. He scorned her shot list and made her main actress cry. She is uneasy counting the finished work among her canon as it is so coloured by his negative presence.

If we are to move away from the dark ages of men as chest-beating alphas who rule over women we need enlightened individuals of both sexes acknowledging that equality is not simply going to take care of itself. Ours is a world and a culture born out of male dominance. Just because you don’t do anything directly sexist it doesn’t mean that you are helping to create a fairer world.

“The key trend I’ve noticed is that there are now more women coming into the film and TV industries. That’s the good news,” says Kate Kinninmont, who became CEO of Women in Film and TV after being a director member for 20 years. “However, there is still a celluloid ceiling,” she adds. “We still don’t have equal pay, and many women still suffer from ageism behind as well as in front of the camera.“

Is this lack of equality a contained issue that needs to be solved within the closed environment of film sets and studio boardrooms? No. The director’s job has an image problem that the media (newspapers, magazine, websites, film books) all too naturally perpetuates. “The big issue for me is when you have a generic piece about filmmaking there’s always usually an image of a man with a camera on the front of it rather than a generic picture of woman,” says Lizzie Francke, senior development and production executive at the BFI Film Fund and former journalist. “When an article about filmmaking has a generic picture of a woman with a camera and it’s not a piece about women in filmmaking then everything’s as fine as it can be.”

A recurring problem is that hardly anybody wants to be the one that says, “Why don’t we use a picture of Agnès Varda instead of Stanley Kubrick?” The media is as in thrall to tradition as any industry, and within that, we are all fragile humans with insecurities and playing it safe is appealing. The same phenomenon is as rife in film media as it is in on the production side: “In the UK nobody wants to come first, everyone wants to come second. They want to watch somebody take that risk, and then do it, ” says Ekaragha.

Of course it’s annoying and claustrophobic that gender even matters. The idea of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as oppositional identities erodes everyone. Emma Watson said in her now-famed UN speech: “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.” This idea may not be new (it is the fuel behind queer culture) but it is heartening to hear it espoused on a global stage from a mega star. Whether Watson’s words and the He For She campaign will cause significant political advancement remains to be seen. What is certain and good is that Watson reached millions of young people who have now consumed the belief that identity is not determined by chromosomes.

To arrive at a place of true equality, we need all manner of different voices from contrasting backgrounds working and creating and discussing work. In other words: intersectionality. For the time being, if you belong to the biggest minority in the world and are looking for avenues for hope, they do exist.


Solidarity has always been a way for minorities to operate outside of disinterested institutions. “No force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, but the union makes us strong,” my trade union negotiator father used to sing. This motto is born out by the New York-based founder of female filmmaking collective, Film Fatales. Leah Meyerhoff has a way of speaking and acting that makes you believe that she’s going to switch shit up. “It seems like human nature that we should strive for equality on all levels and that includes gender equality. I’m passionate about trying to make the world a better place because what else is the point of us being here?”

Film Fatales came about naturally and intuitively in 2012 when Meyerhoff was working on her first feature, I Believe in Unicorns. She reached out to six established female filmmakers for guidance. They came to dinner and from this blossomed Film Fatales New York. They asked, “What can we do actively in a grassroots way to change the statistics?” Meyerhoff says the answers were practical, “We can help each other make our films. In addition to the monthly meetings we host, we have several other offshoots. We do screenwriting groups that meet at the Writers’ Guild where women bring their screenplays and give each other feedback. We do masterclasses where one member of the group will teach a topic to the rest of us on distribution or Kickstarter or whatever. We do field trips.”

Meyerhoff is on a mission to bring Film Fatales to the world. When she attends film festivals she reaches out to other female directors present. In some cases, they go home and form their own chapter. Film Fatales now also exists in Austin, Detroit, New Orleans, LA and London.

The London chapter came about after Rebecca Johnson read about Film Fatales. She got in touch with Meyerhoff and together with filmmakers Jo Coates, Claire Oakley and Nicola Mills, ran their first meeting this summer. It’s a smaller operation with a less elastic admissions policy but Johnson – whose first feature, Honeytrap, is in the 2014 London Film Festival line-up – has all the proactive enthusiasm of her American counterpart: “We absolutely don’t want to be sitting around going, ‘Oh woe is us’. There’s nothing to be gained from that. We’re all doing it against greater odds than if we were men but we’re doing it nonetheless.”


If big producers and studios are not among your contacts then find another way. Gillian Robespierre, a member of Film Fatales NY and director of abortion comedy, Obvious Child, topped up her independent funding drive with Kickstarter: “We didn’t knock on Hollywood’s door. We didn’t ask for their money or their permission.”

When reaching out to the crowd-funding community, Robespierre had the benefit of a short film version of Obvious Child so potential backers could taste what was to come. All the women in this article made short films before moving to features. Shorts can function as a calling card fostering a fan base. Making a feature is not something a person can do alone. If one isn’t going to reach out to mainstream institutions then it is necessary to build one’s own network.

The most generous way to engage is in a mutual way. Robespierre subscribes to the communal idea at the core of Kickstarter: “You can collaborate with art and artists that you are excited about. I’m not just somebody who has a Kickstarter campaign. I’ve contributed to a bunch of campaigns… So has my mum!” There are (as ever in this internet age) alternate, equivalent platforms. Here’s Rebecca Johnson on the BBC World News expanding at length on the merit of the IndieGogo campaign behind Honeytrap.

Positive discrimination

“Until we get to a point where we’re equal I think it’s necessary to have some form of positive discrimination whereby people look at their crew and make sure that it’s 50/50.” This is the decisive view of Gabriella Apicella, now writing her first feature, In This Body, and who previously co-founded the female shorts platform, UnderWire Film Festival.

This idea may not appeal to those who believe – as in the romantic notion of ‘true love’ – there is only one ‘true star’ for each film role on and off-screen. However, there’s a buzzy phrase for y’all. Check your privilege. Chances are that there’s an oppressed minority standing in the corner who would do you proud.

Meyerhoff is in accord with this belief: “Until everyone starts acknowledging that women filmmakers and other minority filmmakers are at an institutionalised disadvantage, nothing’s really going to change.” She has a fact up her sleeve to give pause to the naysayers. “In film schools in America we have affirmative action laws which have had an impact. Now 50 percent of the graduates are women because it was mandated by law.”

This type of affirmative action is starting to happen in small ways in the UK. The BFI is one of our major funding organisations and now has diversity guidelines in place. Known informally as the three ticks, these guidelines require directors to implement on screen diversity, off-screen diversity and – long-windedly but importantly – to create BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and disability opportunities and to promote social mobility.

It may sound dry and, again, it flies against the romantic mythology of movie-making, but if it shakes up the ridiculous lack of representation in this industry then it’s a great thing. Until we as a species evolve to become perfect equality-implementing thinkers then frameworks in place to help us better ourselves are essential.

Be guided by inspirational people who share your values i.e. find friends

After the negative experience with the male DoP, the aforementioned female filmmaker approached her mentor, an established male director. “He was like, ‘All you can do is learn from this. You’ve got to cast your crew really carefully and work with the right people because it’s so important and it does affect the film.’”

This nugget of advice transformed the director’s production practice. She went on to make another short which played out totally differently. “It was a real family atmosphere. Our producer picked people that she knew were nice and knew were receptive to children and women. It was lovely, a really nice shoot. It was actually a joy.” The resulting work played at film festivals and the director is now working on her first feature.

This robustness of spirit, this determination to learn from negative experiences, regardless of what kind of bigotry they may be rooted in, is key to succeeding against the odds in realising personal visions. Kate Kinninmont received an MBE for her services to women earlier this year. Her advice to women is: “If you want to be a writer, just write; if you want to be a filmmaker, go make films”.

These words are notable for being as inspiring as they are universally applicable. Women may be a minority in the film industry but the mentality that gets things done is the same whoever you are. Of course, blinkered ignorance of statistics is enabling to the conservative forces that would keep women and all minorities in the shadows. Awareness and education is useful – it just serves a different purpose to the actual mechanics of getting on.

To return to the practical professional urgings of Kinninmont: “The technology has never been easier or cheaper. There is a wide variety of fund-raising options like Kickstarter. If you want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, build up your showreel. Get together with like-minded people, take turns crewing and directing, send your films to festivals and do lots of marketing.  Join a film club or industry organisation, go to festivals and network.”

Being alone is not an option when it comes to being a filmmaker, so reach out to friends or contacts who inspire you. Don’t second-guess yourself. If Michael Bay has the self-confidence to keep making films then so should you. If there’s nothing in the public market that reflects your artistic goals then – rather than seeing this as evidence of your irrelevance – realise you could be a fresh morning breeze. If you believe that films should represent life in all its forms than go ahead and put your own life out there. Final word from Rebecca Johnson: “The more women that get on and do it, the more women will get on and do it”.

Follow on Twitter: Rebecca JohnsonDestiny Ekaragha, Kate KinninmontWomen in Film and TVLizzie FranckeEmma WatsonLeah MeyerhoffGillian RobespierreGabriella ApicellaMelissa SilversteinHelen O’Hara.

Published 13 Oct 2014

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