tue 20/08/2019

First Person: 'I am one of only three percent' | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: 'I am one of only three percent'

First Person: 'I am one of only three percent'

Female film directors are an industry minority. With her second film out this week, Susanna White argues it's time for a change

Helmswoman: Susanna White on the set of 'Our Kind of Traitor'

Last week a report was published by Directors UK laying out the cold facts of a trend that a lot of us knew had been going on for a long time - if you are a man you are six times more likely to make a feature film than a woman. The needle hasn’t moved for the last 10 years.

What shocked industry insiders was the funnel effect on women’s careers. Unlike science and engineering which have had trouble attracting girls, 50 percent of the entry into film schools is female, and 49 percent of people entering the industry in vocational roles like runners or production assistants are women. What the study shows is that at each rung of the career ladder you are increasingly likely to be squeezed out if you are a woman. Only 27 percent of short films and 21 percent of publicly funded films were directed by women. As budgets rise fewer women were hired - 16 percent of low-budget films, 13 percent of mid-budget films and as little as three percent of big-budget films were directed by women. This filtering effect has resulted in the disappearance of women directors at every level as they try to progress their careers.

It took me till my late forties to direct my first feature film

For an industry that we think of as all about zeitgeist, it is actually very risk-averse. It’s a vicious circle: people tend to hire people with experience and that experience is hard to get if you are female. The freelance culture means that career development happens on a project by project basis, so unlike areas like the judiciary or the armed forces it has been very hard to monitor and adjust. For years I’ve had people telling me that the reason there weren’t more women was that it was a choice people made to stay home with their children. But that argument didn’t ever make sense to me when I went into work and saw the legions of women at the top of make-up, hair and costume where women were encouraged. They work longer hours than anyone and it didn’t put them off.

Despite being given a Fulbright Scholarship to study film at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s, it took me till I was in my late forties to get to direct my first feature film, despite having won a BAFTA for directing Bleak House and having numerous Emmy nominations. I used to think deep inside that maybe it was because I wasn’t actually that good. I now realise that I was actually part of a huge trend, and that is strangely reassuring. 

When I did get that film it was a family film, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, a wonderful opportunity to make a huge studio film with big stars, but again, typical of another trend - that when women do get offered films there is often another type of subconscious gender bias. I’ve just made my second film, John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, which opens in cinemas this weekend, starring Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis (pictured above with Susanna White) and Naomie Harris. In the genre of espionage thrillers, I am one of only three percent of female directors.

Every director makes a film according to their own sensibility, but there is certainly evidence that women tend to favour stronger roles for female actors and often have a different attitude to screen violence. We all know what a powerful influence on our society cinema is. The good news is that this study has had an impact beyond the film industry, with questions being asked this week in the House of Lords about what it says about the culture we live in. There are strong signs that people want to change that behaviour and the good news is there is a massive pool of talented women ready to take up the challenge when the tap is turned on.

It’s a vicious circle: people tend to hire people with experience and that experience is hard to get if you are female

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