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The Celluloid Ceiling

 Sunday, 4th March, 2018

Words by Mark Heywood

It's easy to get carried away. Last year saw the first female Dr Who, a superhero franchise film helmed by the character of Diana of Themyscira in Wonder Woman, and the release of critically acclaimed Mudbound directed by Dee Rees.

This year we've seen Academy Award nominations for Greta Gerwig, who directed Lady Bird, and Rachel Morrison, cinematographer on Mudbound, the first time the Academy has ever nominated a female in this category. Is enough being done to eliminate gender disparity?

Spoiler alert. No. Enough is not being done. Considerably more effort needs to be invested and, fortunately, things are starting to happen to make sure momentum is maintained.

The San Diego State University publishes an annual report about women working in US film and television. The Celluloid Ceiling looks at the gender gap across the top 350 grossing films released in the US. The figures make uncomfortable reading.

Here in the UK the Arts and Humanities Research Council funds a project titled Calling the Shots: Women in Contemporary UK Film Culture.

The data is compelling. According to the project, the percentage of British films with a female director between 2003-2015 was about 12% year on year. The only real spike was in 2010 when the figure reached 19%, probably influenced by Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award. But even this spike seems woefully inadequate. More affirmative action is required and in 2018 the BFI Film Fund has decided to tackle the issue head on. From April, the BFI will set a funding target based around 50% women and 20% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups. 

This is a positive start, but we need to see more comprehensive data to understand exactly where the problem lies. It seems incongruous given the prevalence of female talent in other sections of the film industry. Take film editing for example. Female editors have won 14 Academy Awards compared to one for directors. In fact female editors have cut some of the best known films ever made - from Stars Wars to Pulp Fiction. Sally Menke has edited pretty much all of Tarantino's work and Thelma Schoonmaker worked with Scorcese for forty years, picking up three Academy Awards along the way. Add in Verna Fields (Jaws), Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), and Margaret Sixel (Mad Max: Fury Road) and a genuine pattern starts to emerge. Female editors, huge box office, and a glut of awards do go hand in hand.

According to Creative Skillset 40% of the editing roles across the UK creative industries are occupied by females. So why should directing and cinematography be such outliers? It's not just film, this is also a major problem across advertising too.  So much so that a new US campaign Free the Bid has, since it launched in 2016, managed to raise the percentage of adverts directed by women from 10% to 30%.  These are highly paid and highly sought after opportunities which can often serve as a pre-cursor to the film industry.

Just as editors have long had role models to look up to it doesn't seem fanciful to imagine a young girl watching Rachel Morrison behind a camera and think, I want to do that. Or to listen to Greta Gerwig and Dee Rees talk about helming a major film project and think, that could be me.

But the problem needs more than dreams. It needs facts. Facts about the size of the gap. Facts about the exact nature of the problem and how to address it. Reports like The Celluloid Ceiling and Calling the Shots are part of the solution and it will be interesting to see what impact the new BFI funding targets will have. And whilst I'm on the subject of the BFI check out the Girlfriends season playing at BFI Southbank until the end of March. A whole programme of films celebrating female friendship.

Until then keep your eye on the Best Cinematography Award. Whatever happens Rachel Morrison has already made history. But how can we expect people to take our industry seriously if we have to wait until 2018 for a female to even get a nomination?

Go for it Rachel. Go smash that celluloid ceiling.