Pushing the Envelope: Our Guide to Taking on the Movie Industry

by Sarah Browning

Thanks to the hard work of Professor Martha Lauzen, we’ve known the ugly news for several years: Hollywood is inhospitable to women directors. Only 5% of the 250 top-grossing films released in 2004 were directed by women. Only three women have ever been nominated for Best Director in the 78-year history of the Academy Awards; none has ever won. Women artists are being shut out, and we’re all deprived of the stories and visions women would bring to the screen.

Moreover, Lauzen’s studies are not showing any improvement: in 1998, 9% of the top films were directed by women. (See Lauzen’s study, The Celluloid Ceiling at: www.womenarts.org/advocacy/CelluloidCeiling2004byMarthaLauzen.htm).

What can be done about this situation?  Clearly it will take a long-term effort to make a substantial change, but women around the country are mobilizing and taking action. This month we asked three women in the field who have been active promoting women directors and their films to talk about the challenges they see and their strategies for change:

  • Tara Veneruso is a director and film editor. She is Director of Movies by Women and the First Weekenders List (www.moviesbywomen.com) and the mastermind behind the Guerrilla Girls’ billboard that hangs this month in Hollywood, demanding, Unchain the Women Directors!
  • Debra Zimmerman is Executive Director of Women Make Movies (www.wmm.com), the largest distributor of films by women in the world.
  • Jan Lisa Huttner, film critic with Chicago Woman and the World Jewish Digest, is managing editor of Films For Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com) and a founding member of WITASWAN: Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now (www.films42.com/witaswan.asp).

The Fund for Women Artists has launched its own campaign, Push the Envelope, Please!, to support women writers and directors in film and theatre; some of our strategies are discussed below. You can read more about the campaign at: www.WomenArts.org/


Why Care About the Film Industry, Anyway?

The fact is, we all have a stake in the issue –  Hollywood is incredibly influential in American culture. Americans went to the movies 1.5 billion times in 2004. The images and characters the film industry creates and the stories it chooses to tell have an impact on public attitudes about gender, race, social class, and sexual orientation.  Movies affect how your co-workers perceive you and how you perceive them, and they play an important role in shaping our children’s expectations for themselves and others.  The film industry represents us around the world, as well: movies are the United States’ primary cultural export.

Furthermore, it is a simple matter of fairness. We don’t tolerate inequality in other fields. Instead, we initiate class-action lawsuits and advocate for legislative solutions. Although the arts are often dismissed as a frill in the U.S., the entertainment industry is big business. The Oscar nominations for Brokeback Mountain are being hailed as a triumph for a low-budget film, since it only cost $14 million to make, compared to blockbusters like King Kong at $207 million or Chronicles of Narnia at $180 million.

For anyone interested in improving opportunities for women artists, Hollywood is too big to ignore. The movie industry offers many of the best-paying arts jobs in the country, as well as the capacity to reach the largest audiences nationally and internationally. The financial resources of the non-profit world are puny in comparison – the budget for one blockbuster film like King Kong is nearly double the $124 million annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, our federal agency charged with “bringing the arts to all Americans.”

Women Directors – Focus on: Tara Veneruso and Movies by Women

Tara Veneruso is a director who is making her way in Hollywood. Movies with budgets on the scale of $200 million tend to be action/adventure or science fiction films, the so-called blockbusters. Veneruso is currently directing an independent action film as a way of breaking into that genre.

She remembers a panel discussion with women directors at which the moderator, a male journalist, asked, “Do you really think studios are going to put a $200 million budget into the hands of a woman director?” Well, why not? Women are heads of state and bankers and the directors of huge non-profits, all without the world collapsing. Still, according to Veneruso, “The studios are terrified of trying something new, when that much money is at stake.” (Slate ran an interesting series on the economics of the movie business by Edward Jay Epstein, if you want to delve further: www.slate.com/id/2134297/)

There is an entrenched assumption that women can’t do action or sci-fi flicks. Which is one reason Veneruso started Movies by Women, an organization that promotes any and all movies directed by women. She is not interested in women being pigeon-holed into any one genre. The all-volunteer group maintains a website (www.moviesbywomen.com) that lists movies by women and provides statistics and historical background on women in the movie industry.

The organization’s key strategy, though, is building the audience for films by women. Its free email newsletter, the First Weekenders Group, publicizes movies that are about to open and urges subscribers to buy tickets for the first weekend. A big opening weekend is crucial, as it will convince decision makers to keep the film running and to open it in additional theatres. With our ticket-buying power, we in the audience can remind Hollywood that there is a huge audience for women’s movies.

And Hollywood does seem to need reminding. The film industry tends to have institutional amnesia, forgetting from one film to the next, the box-office success of strong and interesting stories about women like Thelma and Louise or Nine to Five.  And then there’s television, where executives have wised up to the huge female audience, creating massively popular shows like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy.

To help remind Hollywood, The Fund for Women Artists has drafted an Open Letter to Hollywood as part of our Push the Envelope, Please! campaign. The letter urges the movie industry to make more films by and about women. We have obtained almost 1,000 signatures in the first week, and we plan to keep collecting them in the coming year.

If you have not done so already, please sign the letter at: www.womenarts.org/Hollywood.htm. Tell your friends to sign too!

Of course, as in all areas of life, it helps if women do their homework. Veneruso urges young filmmakers to become apprentices and work hard at learning their trade. And she encourages seasoned veterans –  both men and women –  to train and mentor young women.

Increasing mentorships was one of her goals this year when she set about raising $6,000 to mount a giant billboard featuring King Kong in a pink dress on Sunset Boulevard, just a few blocks from the building where the Oscars will be given out. The billboard, designed by the Guerrilla Girls in their trademark humorous style, calls out to the industry to “Unchain the Women Directors!” (You can download stationery featuring this billboard as the letterhead at: www.womenarts.org/push/ggletters.htm.)

The billboard and its message are garnering lots of press attention and stimulating lots of talk, exactly as Veneruso hoped. Ultimately, it’s this kind of public education campaign, coupled with an aware audience using its ticket-buying power to support movies directed by women, that will make a real difference.

Alternative Funding: Foundations, Governments & The Fund for Women Artists!

Women looking to make films outside of Hollywood face major challenges as well. Preliminary research by Women Make Movies indicates that foundation and government support goes overwhelmingly to male-helmed projects. Especially slighted are films that address women’s issues. “Not surprisingly,” said Debra Zimmerman, the organization’s director, “women are often interested in making films based in their own experience. Just like men.”

By contrast, countries with a major public investment in creating and supporting an indigenous film culture, like France, produce many more women filmmakers. Niki Caro’s North Country is one of the two full-length films directed by a woman to receive Oscar nominations this year.  If you rent her previous film, Whale Rider, you will note that the first words on the screen are: “The National Film Board of New Zealand Presents:”

In response to these realities, The Fund for Women Artists has started raising funds to create a new Push the Envelope, Please! Grants Program to help women writers and directors in film and theatre. Our goal is to raise enough money this spring that we can start making grants in Fall 2006.

We need your help to make this program a reality. We have designed it to give people an easy way to invest in women artists and be part of a new movement to bring women’s visions to the center of our cultural life.  Please consider making a credit card gift online at: https://secure.ga4.org/01/push or mailing a check to:


If you make a gift and earmark it for Artist Grants, we will give every penny out as grants to women artists through our new Push the Envelope, Please! grants program. Please call us at (413) 585-5968 if you need information about making stock donations or employee matching gifts.

Distributing Films by Women/Focus on:

Debra Zimmerman and Women Make Movies

Women Make Movies (www.wmm.com) is the largest distributor of movies by women in the world. The marketing of a film is critically important and will often make or break it at the box office. Women are making movies, but the overwhelming majority of acquisition directors at distribution companies are men, who may not respond to a film by and about women. Too often, then, audiences are not getting a chance to see it.

Zimmerman’s favorite example of a movie that was lucky enough to escape this fate is the spectacular German film Nowhere in Africa, written and directed by Caroline Link. The audience at a private screening for potential distributors was predominantly male. Apparently unmoved by the story of a German Jewish woman coming into her full humanity in Kenya during the time of the Third Reich, the men took a pass. Happily, two women from Zeitgeist Films (a woman- owned company) were in the audience and snatched the film right up. Nowhere in Africa went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002 and became the top-grossing film in Zeitgeist’s 18-year history.

But how many movies by women don’t get that lucky?

Another challenge is that in Hollywood, marketing budgets are often based on the size of the movie’s budget. And so the vicious cycle continues: small-budget films don’t get marketed, so they don’t get seen, so industry insiders say there is no audience for women’s films, so directors don’t get a second chance.

Moreover, theatre programming decisions are concentrated in very few hands. Over 50% of movie screens are owned by just five theatre chains (www.womenarts.org/push/moviechains.htm), all of which are headed by men.

In the world of independent film, it is festivals that are the most important entry point. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is a fact that must be stated: the vast majority of festival programmers are men. Sadly, a decision-maker’s gender really does influence his or her choices: Zimmerman tells us that one of the programmers of the Toronto Film Festival, one of the most important in the world, had been a woman.  This past year was the first one in which she was not part of the programming decisions and  the percentage of films by women screened at the festival definitely dropped.

All of which makes the work of Women Make Movies essential. For 34 years, the organization has helped women make their films and get them onto television, into festivals and theatres, and into classrooms at all educational levels. It is both a place of discovery for Hollywood and the film industry and a critical support system for women who have no interest in going the commercial route.

Women Make Movies is distributing one of the few films directed by a woman to receive an Oscar nomination this year, God Sleeps in Rwanda, nominated for Best Documentary Short. Winner of numerous festival awards, Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman’s powerful new documentary is an amazing story of hope in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. And in April, the organization is opening Sisters in Law, an award-winning documentary profiling women prosecutors in a small Muslim town in Cameroon. These are the kinds of films we might not get a chance to see without the years of hard work of Women Make Movies and Zimmerman, who has headed the organization since 1983.

The Critical Critics/Focus On: Jan Lisa Huttner

Critics play a crucial role in creating buzz for a film, which convinces distributors to put more money into the marketing budget and to try to open it in more theatres. And sadly, here again, men have most of the jobs. Only 14% of the New York Film Critics Circle are women.  Of the 61 critics whose Top 10 Films of 2005 lists are posted on the site Metacritic.com, only 13 are women.

Does their gender make a difference in how critics view movies?
The critic Jan Lisa Huttner thinks so. She has sat innumerable times in the private screening rooms set up for critics and found herself the only woman in the room. Sometimes, watching a movie by a woman, she’ll find herself laughing – and realize she’s the only one getting the joke.

As an example, she described a moment at the end of Bride & Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywood reinterpretation of the classic Jane Austen novel. Bollywood convention forbids screen kisses or other explicit sex. So none is shown throughout the film until the credits begin to roll, when Chadha and her husband (decidedly not movie-star types) enjoy a lusty kiss and a dance, as fountains go off around them. Silly fun. Jan loved it. And laughed. Alone.

“You have all these people reviewing movies they’re not understanding or appreciating,” Huttner says, “And they’re not being forced to acknowledge that they have a particular perspective.” In Huttner’s own city of Chicago, the primary reviewers are not only all men, they’re all middle-aged, middle-class white men.

The impact of this concentration of power is huge. Critics have the ability to anoint (or kill) a film early on. And it can be very hard for filmmakers or marketers to combat bad or indifferent reviews.

Which leads us ultimately back to the Academy Awards. If a film gets buzz, and if it gets on the all-important Top 10 lists that appear at the end of each year – whether or not the film’s been seen by large audiences – studios will begin a campaign to win it Oscar nominations. Studios will send these films as “screeners” to Academy voters, and invest millions in ad campaigns in industry publications. Because so many films by women don’t get wide distribution, Academy Award voters are at the mercy of the studios –  they may not have seen a worthy film during theatrical release and, if studios choose not to promote it at Oscar time, they may never see it.

Huttner gives as an example this year’s The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio, directed by Jane Anderson. Critics agreed it was not a perfect film, but they almost universally acclaimed Julianne Moore’s lead performance. Many female critics in particular called Moore’s performance a shoe-in for a Leading Actress nomination. And yet, Oscar did not come calling. (And because Prizewinner was in our big cities so briefly – and in our small towns not at all – most of us never got a chance to see it and decide for ourselves. The movie took in a TOTAL of $626,000 in box-office gross.)

In fact, the only fiction film directed by an American woman to make the 61 Top Ten lists on the Metacritic site was Me and You and Everyone We Know, written and directed by Miranda July, which landed on ten lists. (See the lists here: www.metacritic.com/film/awards/2005/
.)  It was the only one directed by a woman on any of the lists.

No wonder movies written and directed by women aren’t getting Oscar nominations. They face so many hurdles along the way that they’ve been eliminated from contention by this time of the year. Despite the acclaim, Me and You and Everyone We Know didn’t receive any nominations. North Country, directed by Nicki Caro, did though: Charlize Theron is nominated for Best Actress and Frances McDormand for Best Supporting Actress. (Interestingly, North Country was funded in part by the new production company Participant Productions, established by eBay billionaire Jeffrey Skoll to produce social-issue films. Would a movie about a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit otherwise have gotten made?)

To get an alternative critical view, check out Huttner’s site, Films For Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Created with her husband, the site reviews films from both their perspectives, giving women and men an easy way to make a movie-going choice together. She also created Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now! (WITASWAN), an organization whose members have made a commitment to see at least one film every month directed and/or written by a woman, either in a theatre or on DVD/VHS.

You’ll also find wonderful interviews with women directors on the site and an excellent resource, Treasures, with features on the work of specific filmmakers (e.g. Sally Potter) or on a particular theme, such as Women and War or Musical Women. Great when heading to the video store or skimming the Netflix catalogue: www.films42.com/treasures/treasures_fp.asp

So Sunday night, come Oscar time, root for Theron and McDormand, root for Don’t Tell, the Italian film by Cristina Comencini nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and for the animated short Badgered directed by Sharon Coleman, and root hard for God Sleeps in Rwanda, the documentary short distributed by Women Make Movies.

Have fun, too! And take our quiz, testing how well you remember some of the statistics in this article, while you learn more fun – and maddening – facts about women’s status in Hollywood. Download it at: www.womenarts.org/push/TriviaQuiz.htm. There’s still time to throw a party, too! Our site gives you all the tools you need for a fab, feminist romp. Click here: www.partylaunch.com/womenarts/.

Finally, after the Oscars are over, and we’ve recovered from our popcorn and rhinestone hangovers, remember, we can support movies by women all year long. And by doing so, we’ll have a lasting impact on the cultural life of the country – and the world! Then we’ll really party!

Take Our Trivia Quiz! How well do you know the facts about women in film?

Find out when you take our Trivia Quiz!
Hint: Many of the answers are in this month’s newsletter.

Sign Our Open Letter to Hollywood!

We are off to a great start with almost 1,000 signatures in the past week!

We will send the letter to film execs next week and we will keep gathering signatures so that we can send it again next year with thousands more names!

Tara Veneruso
Tara VenerusoFilm Director & Oscar Billboard Mastermind
Movies By Women

Debra Zimmerman
Debra Zimmerman
Women Make Movies

Jan Huttner
Jan Lisa Huttner

Film Critic
Films For Two


This newsletter is made possible by generous grants from the Valentine Foundation, the CDQ Charitable Trust, the Women’s Funding Network Venture Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

This entry was posted in Film, Interviews with Women Artists, Oscars, WomenArts on by .

About Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is Director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). The recipient of an artist fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, she has also received a Creative Communities Initiative grant and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. Browning has worked as a community organizer in Boston public housing and as a political organizer for reproductive rights, gay rights, and electoral reform, and against poverty, South African apartheid, and U.S. militarism. She was founding director of Amherst Writers & Artists Institute — creative writing workshops for low-income women and youth — and Assistant Director of The Fund for Women Artists, an organization supporting socially engaged art by women. She has written essays and interviewed poets and artists for a variety of publications.