So the Oscars are over now, and no time to do a post-morten on them, except I’m very glad that Crash won over the terminally dull Brokeback Mountain. Which led to a number of critics and commentators lamenting that Hollywood lacks the guts to salute Ang Lee’s “courageous” film about love between men. Which brings me to . . .
Forget the gay cowboys, folks. As one of the people accepting an award for Memoirs of a Geisha said, what really takes courage in Hollywood is to make a film about women.
Or even by women. Or with women involved. A week or so ago I read some startling statistics about women in Hollywood. They’re contained in a report called “The Celluoid Ceiling” by Dr. Martha Lauzen. The latest statistics available, they deal with the top 250 films of 2004. You can read the full report here. But here are some samples:
Women comprised 16% of all executive procucers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors on these films — a decline from 19% in 2000.
Women comprised 5% of all directors on these films, down 6 percentage points from 11% in 2000. In other words, the precentage of women directors was slightly less than half that of 2000.
Women comprised 12% of all screenwriters, down from 14% in 2000.
If you ask me, those are very discouraging statistics. Women are not even making slight gains in Hollywood; in fact, their role is declining. And for a woman who wants to be a screenwriter, especially so. I’ve heard a number of explanations from people in the trenches in Hollywood. Most are quick to deny that there’s any real sexism. You see, they say, women just aren’t as agressive as men in pursuing what they want, including in Hollywood. According to Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, about equal numbers of women and men enter the fellowship competition, but women don’t enter as many scripts as men, who tend to enter two or three scripts at a time. So that’s why more men win!
Forgive me for not buying it, but I can’t help thinking that something else is coming into play here. It’s well known that Hollwyood execs are largely male (women have actually made more inroads here than anywhere, but evidently not enough). They tend to write for a young male audience: 13 to 29, or 18 to 34 are some ballpark figures. They claim that this is the most profitable audience for films — though the truth of the connection, as one insider has pointed out, may simply be that most execs themselves are males under the age of 34. Therefore there are some favored genres in Hollywood, comedy, horror, action, sci-fi — and they aren’t genres in which women play a large role, or generally have much interest, though this is changing. Here’s some interesting advice from a screenwriting magazine, from a guy who has clearly absorbed the mindset:
[Speaking of a high-concept-type comedy] “We’ll naturally have a love interest, but this isn’t a rom-com . . .[she may motivate the hero, but] the story isn’t about her.” He advises writers to avoid writing “pages and pages” of romantic scenes between them, because after all, she can’t be allowed to take away from the “hero.” (“Write the Logline First,” Michael T. Kuciak, Script Magazine, September-October 2005).
Yet another writer whose name I can’t recall, adivised us in an earlier issue of the same magazine that though in a romantic comedy, the focus should be equally on both partners in all their neurotic glory, “in a straight comedy, [the female love interest] is just there to make our guy feel good about himself.” In other words, don’t waste any time on characterization of a female lead, unless you’re writing romantic comedy, and for heaven’s sake, don’t give her too much screen time! Did it never occur to him that a comedy can have a female protagonist?
My personal experience is even more discouraging. I’ve submitted a script of mine a couple of times to Triggerstreet.com, a site associated with Kevin Spacey’s production company, where aspiring screenwriters review each other’s work. What I’ve learned there is eye-opening – and not necessarily just about my script. You see, the screenwriters who use the site tend to be predominantly young and male, and to be writing the types of films (action/adventure, horror, sci-fi) that the studios want. They’ve already absorbed the mindset. Several writers have advised other writers that they have too many female characters in their films, which the studios don’t like. Any time someone submits a script that has a female lead (and deals with something other than having stuff blow up), some reviewer is bound sooner or later to say: “Right now I see this as a Lifetime movie for television, not a feature film.” In other words, if it deals with a woman in a prominent role, or is about relationships, it doesn’t belong on the big screen.
My own script, The Marquise, is about a woman and her struggles against a historical background of eighteenth-century Paris. It’s also a romance — very much so — but primarily I consider it a serious epic historical drama. Not so the reviewers. One warned me that “no self-respecting straight male” would be going to such a film, so naturally its box-office potential wasn’t that good. Two others told me that what I was writing was “straight out of a Harlequin romance novel” (this from guys who have obviously never opened a Harlequin romance novel in their lives–how would they know what one of them is like?). At least I was spared the “Lifetime movie” crack.
To be fair, some of my best and most helpful reviews on that site have come from more mature-minded male reviewers. But there is just a mentality in Hollywood that it’s hard from women to combat. No wonder it’s so hard for them to send in their scripts. And not to get noticed when they do. And things don’t look as if they’re going to turn around soon — unless women screenwriters do something about it. But what? Any ideas?