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Oscars 2022: Female Directors Write History with Every Win

Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao ... and now Jane Campion? In the 94-year history of the Oscars, only two women have won the best director's award. Is a turning point in sight?
Jane Campion is the hot Oscar favorite after her BAFTA best director win

Jane Campion is the hot Oscar favorite after her BAFTA best director win

"Well, the time has come," proclaimed Barbara Streisand as she read the envelope containing the name of the 2010 Oscar for best director.

For the first time in the then 81-year history of the Academy Awards, a woman had won one of the most important categories. A surprised Kathryn Bigelow, who beat James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino with her film "The Hurt Locker," picked up the coveted award.

At the time, there had only been four female directors who had actually been nominated in the category: Bigelow was preceded by Lina Wertmuller (1977), Jane Campion (1994) and Sofia Coppola (2004).

The 2021 Academy Awards marked another first in the history of the Oscars, as two women — Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell — were nominated for best director in the same year, with Zhao winning the award for "Nomadland."

Another precedent was set this year, with Jane Campion becoming the first woman to be nominated for the second time as best director.


But are things really changing at the Academy?

"I hesitate to call this progress," says Martha Lauzen, director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University. "I think it would be more apt to characterize it as surrendering to sustained objections ... that something is seriously amiss when, year after year, no women are nominated," she told DW. 

"The Academy's routine exclusion of women in one of its most prestigious categories was simply no longer sustainable or justifiable," she added. 

The imbalance in the film industry

Step by step, women are entering the male-dominated areas of the film industry.

However, according to the current Celluloid Ceiling Report, which has been published annually for the past 24 years and examines the employment of women in the 250 top-grossing US films, progress is very slow and is sometimes stalled. 

After reaching an all-time high in 2020, the proportion of female directors who helmed the top 250 and top 100 films has declined in 2021. The share of women who directed the 250 best films fell from 18% in 2020 to 17% in 2021, and the proportion of female directors for the top 100 films dropped from 16% to 12%.

Women are also severely underrepresented in other film professions: In 2021, 94% of the top 250 US films were made without female cinematographers, 92% of them without female composers, 82% without female directors, 73% without female editors, and 72% without female screenwriters.

Chloe Zhao also made history as the first Asian woman to win best director at the Oscars in 2021

Chloe Zhao also made history as the first Asian woman to win best director at the Oscars in 2021

"The Academy does not exist in a vacuum. It reflects the attitudes, predispositions and biases of the larger mainstream film community," said Lauzen.

The biases disadvantaging women include the "unfounded beliefs that women lack the necessary vision and drive to helm major studio features, and that women are uninterested in directing such features," she added. 

The researcher also notes that while studios and investors are happy to "bet big" on male directorial up-and-comers, they typically regard "promising women directors" as "'risky hires.'" 

Lauzen believes this bias advantaged for example filmmaker Colin Trevorrow, who was signed on to helm "Jurassic World" (2015) after directing a single independent feature, "Safety Not Guaranteed" (2012). 

"As the story goes, Trevorrow reminded Steven Spielberg of his younger self, and he hired him for the job," she said. 

"Spielberg was willing to take a chance on a relatively unproven director," Lauzen added. "Women who direct are much less likely to benefit from this sort of implicit bias."

A turning point for women?

In recent years, the lack of diversity in Hollywood's highest film awards has been in the spotlight, with hashtags such as #OscarsSoMale and #OscarsSoWhite condemning the marginalization of female and minority filmmaking talent.

Diversityhas long been a popular buzzword in the film scene, but actual reforms in the Academy were made in reaction to the #MeToo and Black Lives Mattermovements.

The number of women on the Board of Governors, who decide on the Oscar winners, was increased from 26 to 31, out of a total of 54 members.

Reforms were also announced in the best film category. To be nominated, films must meet at least two of four diversity benchmarks, which include featuring actors from underrepresented groups in lead roles or at least 30% of the cast. Similar criteria applies in the production and creative teams.

The topic of the film also receives diversity points when the story centers on women, LGTBQ people, minority groups or the disabled.

The Academy is also searching for ways to open the awards ceremony to the public due to a drastic drop in viewer numbers.

Only around 10 million people watched last year's event — less than half of the TV viewers of 2020. Now the organizers of the Oscars have introduced an audience award that film fans can vote for on the internet.

The film industry in Germany

In Germany, too, the challenges facing women in the film industry and necessary reforms have long been debated.

Even though significantly more female graduates come out of film schools, the male graduates end up with an overwhelming majority of the top industry jobs.


"Even though it is now somewhat more common to have female directors than a few years ago, they still have to overcome significantly more hurdles than their male colleagues," said Sarah Duve-Schmid, deputy chairwoman of the Board of Management and Head of Funding at the German Federal Film Board (FFA).

"Perseverance, assertiveness and flexibility are among the success factors in directing, and men are still more likely to have access to this than women," she added.

The film industry's high workload, long absences from home, but also a frequent lack of childcare infrastructures and poorer pay, are factors that still lead women to temporarily leave their jobs after film school — or move on to a different career path altogether, notes Duve-Schmid.

More recently, films made by women have garnered greater recognition in Germany due to a new sensitivity to the issue of equality, according to Duve-Schmid.

"As far as the funding of projects directed by women is concerned, the FFA regularly monitors the projects submitted and funding commitments,: she explained. "Over the past years, there have been significantly more applications for projects with female directors; reformed structures will hopefully allow many more women to claim their place in the industry."

This article was originally written in German.

Courtesy: DW

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