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.

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.