By far the highest grossing film on a per-theater basis last weekend was not Tom Hank's latest Cold War thriller, or the new boy-book-based Halloween horror flick, or more-mature-guy-book-based alien exploration -- all of which were written and directed by men, with males in the lead roles. Indeed, the highest-grossing film on a per-theater basis last weekend earned more per theater than those three top-grossing films combined. It was the Abi Morgan-written, Sarah Gavron-directed, Carrey Mulligan-starring Suffragette.
Also released this week: Women and the Big Picture, the first-ever study tracking women's behind-the-scenes employment on the top 700 U.S. films of last year. The effort, directed by Dr. Martha Lauzen and sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, found that 85 percent of the 700 top-grossing films of 2014 had no female directors. Eighty percent had no female writers. Less than half the films included female executive producers, less than a quarter female editors, and a mere 8 percent female cinematographers.
The gender of the person at the top reflects in the rest of the crew too, Lauzen found. For films in which at least one female director was involved, more than half the writers were female, as were almost a third of the editors and a quarter of the cinematographers. For films with exclusively male directors, the percentage of women in the same roles was 8 percent, 15 percent, and 5 percent.
The study comes at a time when even women at the top in Hollywood are noting the raw deal Hollywood offers them -- thanks in part to the disclosures of the Sony hack at the end of last year. Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence's $52 million for 2014 looks like some pretty terrific compensation ... until compared to the $80 million Robert Downey Jr. collected. Lawrence declared in a Lenny Letter that she is "over trying to find the 'adorable' way" to state her opinion, and plans to negotiate for herself the way male stars do. Other actresses taking up the charge include Selma Hayek and Gwyneth Paltrow.
But as Lawrence pulls her arrows from her quiver for this new assault, she might want to take note of the work of Laura Kray of the University of California at Berkeley showing women are more likely than me to be blatantly lied to in negotiations. The studies demonstrating that men and women alike react unfavorably to a women negotiating on her own behalf, while a man negotiating for himself only improves his esteem in other's eyes. The literature suggesting that if a woman means to have any success in negotiating for herself, she must first and foremost appear "nice."
But the study comes, too, at a time when the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is taking a look at gender discrimination in Hollywood. The effort started when director Maria Giese asked the ACLU to take a look at the state of women directors in Hollywood. In May, the ACLU filed a complaint with the EEOC requesting an investigation into "the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry," and the EEOC officially kicked off its investigation earlier this month, with teams of investigators from the EEOC and two state agencies.
Ms. Giese begins to look a bit like a modern-day Elizabeth Cady Stanton, although she'll be the first to tell you she's not the first to call out gender discrimination in Hollywood. She speaks with admiration of "the Original Six" -- the women who started the Directors Guild of America's Women's Steering Committee in the late 1970s. As a result of their efforts, the Director's Guild filed a class action lawsuit against the studios 1n 1983. The following ten years saw an increase in the number of women directors from .05 percent to 16 percent -- but none of that work went to the "Original Six," and in the end the Director's Guild was denied the right to pursue the lawsuit for lack of standing. "It is a profound relief," Ms. Giese says, "for female directors who truly comprise a lost generation to talk about the widespread forms of discrimination that kept them shut out."
In the intervening 30 years since the lawsuit was dismissed, the percentage of women directors in the industry has not grown.
The excuse the industry offers, of course, is that what sells sells, and they are in the business of supporting filmmakers who make films that will sell.
Suffragette opened last weekend only in a handful of theaters in the U.S., so perhaps its great per-theater results are skewed by the limited opening. But so too did Truth, and Suffragette earned three times as much per theater as the Robert Redford film. In the U.K., where Suffragette had a broad release, it was the second highest grossing film in its opening week.
It took activists and reformers in the U.S. nearly 100 years to win the right to vote. Let's hope the women of Hollywood find a faster path to equality.