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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.

Award winning director Sofia Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival, May 14, 2014. Photo: Antonin Thuillier, Getty Images
Award winning director Sofia Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival, May 14, 2014. Photo: Antonin Thuillier, Getty Images

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.

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