Award winning director Sofia Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival, May 14, 2014. Photo: Antonin Thuillier, Getty Images
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The unspoken glass ceiling of the film industry

A new report uncovers the gender imbalance in the film industry, made worse by the issue of class.

What do Angelina Jolie (A-Lister and humanitarian), Lynn Shelton (key figure in the mumblecore indie movement; that’s “naturalistic dialogue” for those of you who don’t read Vice), and Trish Sie (responsible for both the OK GO music video hit set on a treadmill and 3D dance smash Step Up 5) have in common? They’re the only female directors on IMDB’s list of the 50 most popular feature films released so far in 2014. 

In light of a new report which found that women directed only 5 per cent of the top 2,000 US box office hits in the past 20 years, this figure comes at no surprise. On the surface, this is yet another startling example of women being under-represented in a male dominated industry. But if you look at that tiny 5 per cent figure and analyse the backgrounds of the female directors who have smashed their way through the glass ceiling there is another key issue at play: class. The film industry invented the phrase "it's not what you know but who you know" and this attitude is pandemic across Hollywood.

Let’s look at the female directors everyone points to as the exceptions which prove the rule. First up: Sofia Coppola. While she undoubtedly has a prodigious talent and has made a name for herself with her love of dreamy slow-mo shots set to the soundtrack of shoegaze, she’s an easy target for cries of nepotism. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, needs no introduction. From when Sofia appeared in The Godfather as a baby, she had access to a contacts book most aspiring young directors would kill for. Her first feature Lost In Translation rocketed to success and she became the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director before winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In 2010 Sofia became the first American woman to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, for Somewhere which featured her recurring themes of fame and angst. While she has an impressive repertoire, managing to combine commercial success with an independent vibe, this been achieved safely within the golden circle of Hollywood's elite.

Next up for inspection is Kathryn Bigelow. While she was a student at Columbia she was friends with her tutor Susan Sontag and then worked with Philip Glass renovating properties. She later became the first and,so far only, female winner of the Oscar and Bafta Best Director awards for her work on The Hurt Locker. Finally, there's the second woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Jane Campion, whose mother was an actress, writer and heiress to a shoe chain, and whose father was a prominent theatre and opera director.

While the reputation of these female directors is deservedly huge, their positions demonstrate the twofold nature of inequality of an industry which discriminates against women and those who have not had the fortune of a privileged upbringing.  Of the 100 best selling films of the last 20 years analysed by the report, 13 per cent of the editors, 10 per cent of the writers and just 5 per cent of the directors are women. If this was a bleak picture worthy of a still from Campion’s Top of the Lake then it gets grimmer, as the number of women on film crews has decreased from 22.7 per cent in 1994 to 21.8 per cent in 2014. This slight decrease highlights the ambivalence of the industry to this problem, as film boards and funders either don’t care or ignore the problem. For women to break through this glass ceiling the subtext is clear: if you don’t have wealth and contacts in Hollywood, then you're going to need a miracle to make it to the top.

Photo:Getty
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.