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Top women filmmakers reveal stories of gender bias in Hollywood

by John Horn , Mike Roe, and Darby Maloney | The Frame

Our women in film panel: Betty Thomas, Angela Robinson, Catherine Hardwicke and Cathy Schulman. Darby Maloney/KPCC

On the heels of high-profile successes of women directors including "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Fifty Shades of Grey," a group of women filmmakers whose credits span indie films, big budget studio movies, and top-rated television series spoke with the Frame about why women directors face gender bias in Hollywood.

We get into the problems below, but if you want answers, be sure to check out part 2 of our discussion, talking how to give women in Hollywood greater opportunity.

"The widespread exclusion of women directors from employment"

Last week, the ACLU made news when it asked, in a public letter, for state and federal agencies to investigate what it calls “the widespread exclusion of women directors from employment in directing episodic television and feature films.”

The ACLU cited statistics from recent studies, including a three-year study undertaken by the Sundance Institute and the non-profit group Women In FilmAnother study from the Directors Guild reveals that, in the 2013-14 season, only 14 percent of television episodes were directed by women.

To put a human voice to these stats, we sat down with four successful women in the business to share their personal stories.

Those filmmakers:

  • Catherine Hardwicke — Film director known for the movies "Twilight" and "Thirteen"
  • Cathy Schulman — Head of production for STX Entertainment and president of Women In Film, known for producing movies including "Crash" which won an Oscar
  • Angela Robinson — A film and TV writer and director, whose credits include the indie film "D.E.B.S." and the Disney movie "Herbie Fully Loaded;" currently writes on ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder"
  • Betty Thomas — First vice president of the Directors Guild of America and co-chair of its Diversity Task Force, TV and film director known for titles like "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel"

What happens after you direct "Twilight"

Twilight trailer

A recent long-term study from conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — and commissioned by Sundance Institute and Women in Film —  found that female directors are perceived to make films for a less significant portion of the moviegoing marketplace. Hardwicke shared her own experience with barriers to entry — she directed 2008's "Twilight," which had a $69 million opening.

"After that, I was expecting, 'Oh my God, I'm going to get offered one of those famous three-picture deals, or an office at a studio, or maybe they'll give me a car like I hear they give to all these directors!' And at the end of it, I didn't get any offers, and I got a mini-cupcake."

Hardwicke says she found the lack of new options startling.

"That's the first time I thought that there is gender discrimination, because before that my movies had gotten love in various sectors — 'Thirteen' got a lot of critical love — but they never had made a bundle of money. But 'Twilight' made a bundle of money, and I thought something good would happen after that."

Higher budgets = Fewer women

Hardwicke's phone not ringing is a direct example of something shown in that Sundance/Women In Film study, Schulman says.

"One of the key things that we discovered in the study is that when money and risk get higher, opportunity for women gets lower. There's an absolute correlation."

Schulman says Hardwicke likely had greater opportunity earlier in her career, when she was making movies for a smaller budget with less risk.

"We don't know exactly what happens in the film schools, in terms of where gender bias starts to set in, but we do know that there's 50/50 enrollment. Then by the time we get to the festivals, we're at 25 percent women. By the time we get to studio directing jobs, we're under 4 percent. And so, interestingly enough, as your opportunity got bigger in terms of the money that was at risk and the amount of impact you could have on the industry from an economic standpoint, your opportunity immediately went down."

That same problem was seen by Schulman, who didn't receive the opportunities she expected after "Crash" won the Best Picture Oscar in 2006.

Crash trailer

"I thought that, after that happened, that I would get off the stage and people would be lining up in the rows asking me to produce their next movie, and that didn't' happen either."

What happens when showrunners hear the statistics

Not everyone is affected in the same way — Thomas says she doesn't feel she's ever experienced discrimination.

"My honest answer is, not really, to my face, not honestly. But that doesn't mean I don't know that that exists all over the place."

Through the DGA, Thomas has met with showrunners, who are the ones who actually hire directors on TV, to talk about bias against women.

"But of course, [directors] have to be OK'd by the network, so the network always says, 
'Ohhh, it's the showrunners, they won't let us hire more women.' And then the showrunners meet with us, and they go, 'Oh, we've never seen numbers like this!' That's an actual quote. 'Oh, and I can't believe we've never had a minority person or a woman in 13 years!' That's an actual quote from a meeting that I had."

Credit: DGA

Hardwicke was incredulous about how the showrunners wouldn't notice.

"You just look at them," Thomas says, "and go, do you have a daughter? Do you care about that daughter? Then what are you doing?!"

Thomas says that, of course, the showrunners say they care deeply about their daughters.

"You have to make it personal. It feels like, to me, when you're in those rooms, if you don't make it personal, it can skip off those numbers and just turn into the wall."

The quiet bias of Hollywood

Robinson says that she's always taken it as a given that she'll face discrimination, as she's a black gay woman — "I, like, triple threat, hit all the boxes" — and everywhere she goes is all white and all male.

"But I used to think it was much more stark, and now I feel like it's actually more insidious, 'cause I used to think people were bad people. Now I just feel like it's so institutionalized."

That's what's so interesting about the ACLU study, Robinson says.

"I feel like it's literally just ingrained in people so that they just don't think that women can do it. And if you ask them, they'll be like, 'Of course,' but it's deeper, knee jerk. Like 'They can't lead a crew of men,' or 'I perceive them to be bitchy.'"

The reasons for women not getting hired go unspoken, Robinson says. She describes it as "deafening silence."

"Nobody will be like, 'We're not hiring her 'cause we don't think a woman could do that job.'"

Robinson worked as an executive producer on "True Blood," and many of the episodes were directed by men. She directed an episode and saw there was another slot open, so she suggested five highly qualified women directors. In the end, a white man who had previously directed some television got hired, Robinson says, and she doesn't know why that happened.

Male words are seen as director words, while female words aren't

The Sundance/Women In Film study explored how word associations play into the perception of female directors, Schulman says.

"Words that are considered words that describe a director are 'boss,' 'in charge,' 'leader,' 'general' — a lot of army-related words. 'Strength,' 'muscular,' things that have to do with being ballsy. Then similarly tested was, what kind of associations do we have with women? And women, the words 'nurturing,' 'caretaking,' 'collaborative' — all of which should be part of directing — weren't associated with 'director' or the word 'male.'

Some other words that matter when it comes to bias against women, Hardwicke says: "difficult" and "emotional," as opposed to "passionate."

Getting emotional on set

"I would love to talk about the dirty little secret about tears," Hardwicke says. "On 'Twilight,' one time the sun came out — which if the sun comes out, you can't shoot, because Edward can't have sun on him, 'cause then he sparkles, and it costs a lot of money in CGI effects.  So you can't shoot in sun, you can't shoot in rain — that might melt the makeup. So it's got to be foggy or whatever. So we had a terrible day where it was hailing and raining. I went behind a tree in the forest and I just silently cried for about 20 seconds, and then I just bucked myself up and came back out and kept directing. And we didn't go behind schedule, we never didn't make the day or anything, and of course the movie turned out great. But I was labeled emotional, because somebody saw me crying behind that tree."

She says it's different with male directors.

"I've been on sets where men are yelling, screaming, hitting, pushing — that's cool. They're 'passionate.'"

Earning a crew's trust as a woman

Herbie: Fully Loaded trailer

Robinson dealt with those perceptions when she went from directing parody film "D.E.B.S." to a Disney movie starring Lindsay Lohan, "Herbie: Fully Loaded."

"I remember being alone in an office in Burbank as we were hiring the crew, and this awesome guy named Michael Fottrel was the line producer at the time. But I could tell he was so nervous that they'd hired this 28-year-old black lesbian to do the Herbie movie, and he was just like, everybody was just terrified, because it was just, would the 300 teamsters follow what I did? And at the beginning, it was really rocky, because I could tell that somebody had told him to watch out, I think."

There's a gap between getting hired and gaining the crew's confidence, Robinson says. During that gap, Robinson says you need to do an excellent job and be twice as good as a man in that position.

"Because you just need to know your s--- basically, and then people start to trust you. And I remember we did the whole, very long shoot, and at the end of it, we were at the wrap party, and this guy who was the key grip came up to me — he was this huge guy — I was sitting down, and he got on one knee, and it was so formal and interesting, and he said, 'Um, I wanted to tell you that when they hired you, we were worried. I gotta say, we were worried. And I said men, we've got to make sure we're running a tight ship here in case this thing goes down. But I want to say, you did an excellent job, and I'd follow you anywhere.'"

Robinson says she was touched, hearing the fear and the subsequent relief of the crew given voice.

The conversation continues in part 2 of our series on women in film as we discuss potential solutions to gender bias against women directors in Hollywood.

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