Kathryn Bigelow — the only woman ever named Best Director — took home the Oscar for The Hurt Locker at 2010’s 82nd Academy Awards, defeating her ex-husband James Cameron, who was nominated for Avatar.
Her film, set during the war in Iraq, also won Best Picture.
As a frame of reference, during the six-year period since Bigelow’s recognition, David O. Russell has been nominated three times (for The Social Network, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle), Alexander Payne twice (for The Descendants and Nebraska), Martin Scorsese twice (for Hugo and The Wolf of Wall Street), and Iñarritu twice [for Birdman and The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Women, as a whole: Zero times.
Throughout the nine decades which encompasses the Academy Awards, only four women directors have been recognized for their work. Besides Bigelow, they are Lina Wertmüller (1976), Jane Campion (1993), and Sofia Coppola (2003).
In 2016, women are a bit more represented in other key behind-the scenes Oscars categories including: writing, Inside Out (Meg LeFauve), Straight Outta Compton (Andrea Berloff), Carol (Phyllis Nagy), and Room (Emma Donoghue); as well as editing, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey) and Mad Max: Fury Road (Margaret Sixel).
According to Vocativ, only two female screenwriters have won an Oscar in the last decade: “Out of the160 screenwriters credited for the 100 films nominated between 2005 and 2014, only 18 were women. Those women contributed to 16 films — or 16 percent of nominated screenplays — two of which won Oscars, (Juno and Brokeback Mountain).”
Even when women do manage to get nominated, they have a hard time actually winning. Ruth Gordon and Nora Ephron, two of the most celebrated female screenwriters, were both nominated three times apiece — the most by any woman — neither ever won. (By contrast, Woody Allen, the most nominated male screenwriter, has 16 nominations and three wins.)
Over the last seven years, women accounted for just three percent of the cinematographers among the 250 top-grossing films. No female Director of Photography, (DP), has ever been nominated for an Academy Award.
This past Monday a study was released by the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It is one of the most sweeping and unconditional examinations of the film and television industries, and includes a pointed “inclusivity index” of ten major media companies. It gives a failing grade to every movie studio and most TV makers.
“The prequel to OscarsSoWhite is HollywoodSoWhite,” said Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and one of the study’s authors. “We don’t have a diversity problem. We have an inclusion crisis.”
The study, entitled the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, (CARD), examined the 109 films released by major studios (including art-house divisions) in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015. More than 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation and LGBT status. Some 10,000 directors, writers and show creators were examined, as was the gender of more than 1,500 executives.
“Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” the study concludes.
In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were from minority groups — about ten percent less than the composition of the entire U.S. population. Characters 40 years or older are disproportionately heavily male across film and TV: 74.3 percent male to 25.7 percent female.
The disparity behind the camera is more pronounced. Directors overall were 87 percent white. Broadcast TV directors (90.4 percent white) were the least diverse.
Just 15.2 percent of directors, 28.9 percent of writers and 22.6 percent of series creators were female. In film, the gender gap is greatest: Only 3.4 percent of the films studied were directed by women, and only two directors out of the 109 were black women: Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Amma Asante (Belle).
Since 2006, USC has been publishing the study in different configurations, and this year, CARD now includes the “inclusivity index”, a “report card” for the performances of 21st Century Fox, CBS, NBC Universal, Sony, the Walt Disney Co., Time Warner, Viacom, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Those companies encompass all of the broadcast networks, most major cable channels, all of the major movie studios and three of the dominant streaming services.
Each was rated by their percentage of female writers and directors. None of the six major studios rated better than 20 percent overall; Time Warner fared poorest of all with a score of zero. The report concludes that the film industry “still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club.”
“When we turn to see where the problem is better or worse, the apex to this whole endeavor is: Everyone in film is failing, all of the companies investigated,” said Smith. “They’re impervious to change. But there are pockets of promise in television. There is a focus that change is possible. Companies that are attempting to be inclusive, if they’re producing and distributing motion pictures, can change. We now have evidence that they can, and they can thrive.”
Last year, director Ridley Scott attributed the non-diverse casting decisions, (a white cast in the lead roles) on Exodus: Gods and Kings to a need to attract financial backing.
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up,” he told Variety. The film was banned in Egypt for its “historical inaccuracies” last year.
By contrast, “Gods of Egypt” director Alex Proyas and the film’s studio, Lionsgate, have issued apologies for the lack of diverse casting in the mythological action film, which has generated controversy for its predominantly white cast. The film opens in wide release on Feb. 26.
“The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse. I sincerely apologize to those who are offended by the decisions we made,” Proyas stated, and even Lionsgate “sincerely apologized” and acknowledged the need for more inclusive casting, but, once again, nothing changed.
Another diversity study conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA in 2015 had similar findings.
This report quantified the striking racial and gender imbalances in film and television, both behind and in front of the camera, by comparing the representation of minorities to their actual proportions of the population.
“At every level, in every arena, women and minorities are under-represented in the industry,” says Darnell Hunt, the study’s co-author and director of the Bunche Center.
Although Hollywood is a business, constantly in search of new ways to make a profit, Hunt says the high-risk nature of the entertainment industry, combined with existing demographics, presents a barrier to diversity.
“Gatekeepers and decision-makers, who are typically white men,” says Hunt, “want to keep their jobs. They want to succeed. And they feel that their best chance for success is by surrounding themselves with other white males, basically.”
Unfortunately, all of these statistics are unlikely to change, especially in a year that has seen record profits for films, television, and their respective ancillary markets. Bringing diversity into the film and television industries, both in front of and behind the camera, has yet to prove any economic benefit to the moguls who control the purse strings and “greenlights”.
In Economics 101, some folks may recall the “Norm Theory” where people are expected to feel greater regret and responsibility for actions that deviate from the norm or default options because it is easy to imagine doing the conventional thing.
The conventional thing in Hollywood is to maintain the status quo; for now, that reality is: the bottom line remains the bottom line.
The 88th Academy Awards will broadcast live on ABC (KRGV-TV in the Rio Grande Valley), this Sunday, Feb. 28, beginning at 6 p.m. local time for the Red Carpet, and 7:30 PM for the Ceremony. For further information, visit oscar.go.com.