October 27, 2015
The film industry relies on its female audience, so why aren’t more women helping shape its offerings?
In the 35 years or so the gender equity issue for women in the screen industry has been on the table, the arguments have failed dismally to shift the consistently poor representation of women in leadership roles – directors, producers, writers, distributors and exhibitors.
I have come to the conclusion that nothing will change unless we can effectively make a business case demonstrating that having more women leaders will be good for audiences and for the bottom line of the screen industry.
The Australian screen industry is an incredibly complex ecosystem and is largely shaped by the management of risk and opportunity, capital and cultural policy, audience taste and the flow of really good ideas.
The leaders and decision makers in this landscape – the exhibitors, distributors, sales agents, investors, producers, directors and writers – are overwhelmingly male. These are the people who shape what appears on our screens. They also care passionately about making good films that make a good return on investment, either commercially or culturally.
Most films require a high level of risk to be taken at every stage of the value chain. It’s a miracle that any film gets made – it is just that hard!
It is basic psychology that male decision makers in a high-risk business environment feel more comfortable backing people they have affinity with – that is, other men – on stories and genres they understand. We need to show these leaders that there is talent currently being overlooked and there is potential for market growth by making more films that appeal to women.
This is self evident from all of the data that shows women buy more than 50 per cent of all movie tickets and women aged over 35 is the only growing demographic worldwide at a time when cinema audiences are shrinking. In fact, female-focused films like Fifty Shades of Grey ($547 million worldwide) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 ($752 million) have been credited with rescuing the box office last year.
It is patently absurd in the face of this market demand that year in, year out, less than 25 per cent of all films in the market are about women or have female protagonists.
When I was financing The Dressmaker (directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) four years ago and speaking to local distributors, I chose Universal Pictures because it was the only one at the time to talk seriously about the female demographic as a commercial market.
So who is actually taking the risk on women’s stories? For a start, female directors are. Their films are overwhelmingly about female protagonists. But according to Screen Australia statistics, they represent only 16 per cent of directors working in Australia. This figure has not shifted appreciably in decades.
In Australia, it is very unlikely that a woman will get to direct a film unless she has at least one female producer on board. In fact, in the past five years, 90 per cent of women directors had female producers. Male producers overwhelmingly work with male directors.
You have to look higher up the chain and go back to the problem of perceived risk. The distributors, sales agents and investors want to be comfortable about where they place their money and their confidence and, unsurprisingly, will repeatedly select projects with male protagonists and male directors.
I experienced this challenge when financing The Dressmaker. Even starring Kate Winslet and Judy Davis, arguably two of the greatest actresses of our time, the film was still considered too high a risk for international buyers. In a film about a woman dressmaker targeted primarily to a female audience, the exclusively male sales agents and buyers needed A-list male actors to secure the sales estimates.
We need to collectively agree that the status quo is not serving the industry or the audiences. I welcome Gillian Armstrong’s call to arms on this issue and the seriousness with which it is being taken by the Australia Director’s Guild and Screen Australia. I am not in favour of quotas; I would prefer to see the whole industry get behind targets that we can all sign up to – starting with doubling the number of films directed by and about women by 2020. There is no silver bullet solution and many strategies must be put in place to achieve this.
If the whole industry is to prosper, it cannot ignore the untapped creative talent and leadership potential of women. It’s about time we adjusted the set.
Sue Maslin is an award winning screen producer and adjunct Professor of the School of Media & Communication, RMIT University. The Dressmaker opens on October 29.