Should There Be a Best Female Director Category at the Oscars?

If we want greater gender equality in Hollywood, should the Academy Awards still be splitting its acting awards along gender lines?

This was a question posed to me by a friend a few weeks ago as we watched the 72nd Golden Globe Awards.

“Of course!” I responded quickly. Why would we ever change something that draws national attention to the incredible work of these women?

“But why?” She asks me, genuinely curious and perplexed. Her reasoning: If we accept the two categories, do we also accept the idea that men and women can’t compete with each other? That one is somehow superior or inferior, or so different in ability or skill that they cannot be measured by the same standard?

Well, blast. I’m stumped.

Since she posed that question I’ve been internally debating with myself. How can I profess that we need gender equity in Hollywood, but still support a system that separates men and women and judges their acting ability only against their colleagues of the same gender? Does that system in some way reinforce inequality?

I continued this debate with friends, colleagues, and filmmakers over the past week, and the conversations have been fascinating.

Yes, my feminist thought-leader friend says to me, there should continue to be separate male and female categories. In theory, she says, by creating one gender-neutral category, we would be confirming that male and female actors are equal in skill in their craft. But in reality, there is great disparity in access and opportunity. The roles often aren’t equal.

If you’re in the entertainment industry, and particularly if you’re a woman, you’re familiar with the statistics. Women are not represented equitably in films: three out of four speaking roles are still given to men. Male actors continue to get paid more than their female counterparts. In 2013, women accounted for fewer than a third of all speaking roles in the year’s 100 top-grossing domestic films, and just 15 percent of those films had women in leading roles. As Maggie Gyllenhaal said at the Golden Globes, we are only just now finally seeing some complicated, multidimensional women characters.

These numbers are driven by the idea that male stories and male characters outperform films with female leads at the box office. While there are outliers like Bridesmaids, The Hunger Games, The Heat, and Gravity, the shift towards equity is slowed by the great FOFFF, AKA the Fear Of Female Film Failure. Anytime a film with a female lead fails, it becomes the latest example of why studios shouldn’t invest in them.

And so, my friend argues, because there is less equity in opportunity in the films released each year, and thus fewer interesting and complicated roles for women — roles that could lead to a nomination — it isn’t a fair competition. So we should continue to have separate categories.

Award nominations are crucial not just for an actor’s career, but also the bottom line of a film. Films with Oscar nominations will see a 250% increase in their revenue vs films that don’t. A nominated actor will see the coveted “Academy Award Nominee” label on his or her next film’s posters, trailer, and in their paycheck. The studio or distributor will increase funds for their marketing campaign to help them get that award, which will help actors get better roles and stories. In the case of women actors, this can create an upward spiral that increases opportunities for other women.

So this I can understand. We need the two categories because until we have equal opportunity for projects, we won’t see women nominees.

BUT, I say to her, then shouldn’t there be a Best Female Director category?

“Blast,” she says. “Let me think about that and get back to you.”

In the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, there has been only 4 female directors nominated and only 1 winner, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. Like their actor colleagues, a win can open doors to new projects and bigger budgets.

Recently, the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, which did not include Ava DuVernay in the Best Director category. It was the Great Snub of 2015.

Yes, Paramount sent out screeners too late. And while Selma was one of 8 films nominated for Best Picture, only 5 directors were nominated. The obvious brilliance of her work and the the lack of a Best Director nomination for her sent a shockwave across the industry.

Women filmmakers consistently have a difficult time making it to the multiplex, let alone the vaunted Oscar nominations. According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual Celluloid Ceiling survey, women accounted for only 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the 250 top-grossing films last year.

So by applying the same logic used on acting-performance categories, shouldn’t we create separate male and female categories for directors to elevate the work of relatively unknown women filmmakers?

“No, we can’t have separate male and female categories for directors,” a female producer friend said.


Because, she says, it would diminish the work of the filmmaker.

Go on.

To paraphrase, she says: “I want to be judged by and with my peers, and my peers are also men. I never want to be the best ‘female’ anything. I just want to be the best. And to say I can only be the best among other women implies that I can’t compete with men. It actually reinforces gender inequity in the industry by implicitly saying women directors can’t compete without the help of their own category.”

As the founder of my own company, I can completely understand and relate to this. But right now, female directors can’t compete fairly. Or at least it’s very difficult to.

Female directors don’t receive the same types of budgets that male directors get. Stacy Smith, co-author of the USC Annenberg’s report on women in film, says the reason is that studios still see female directors as a risky investment — despite the fact that, according to the aforementioned SDSU study, the sex of filmmakers does not have an effect on box-office grosses. Studios historically have given male directors — even first-time directors — more funds and opportunity than their female counterparts with experience.

Where we are seeing equity, and often where the scales are tipped more in favor of women, is in independent cinema. At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival last month, 32% of the movies that screened were directed by women — compared to only 4.4% of the top 100 movies at the box office each year from 2002 to 2012. Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and Seed & Spark have provided women filmmakers with alternative means of funding. Organizations and investment groups like Gamechanger, Chicken & Egg, and the Film Circle have all ramped up efforts in the last couple of years to elevate women directors.

So over time — and it will probably be a lot of time — we will see women-directed films become award nominees and headline theater marquees as more money flows in.

But does that mean we have to wait? Shouldn’t we start making that change now, starting with our culture-driving award shows?

I chat with another friend about this, and she brings up another great point. It’s possibly not just about the number of films out there with female leads and directors. It’s also about the institutionalized thinking within the voting bodies, like the Academy. Even if there are more women directors, there isn’t much diversity in institutions like the Academy. Here’s a segment from an article she sent me from Slate:

Every Academy voter can vote in the Best Picture category, but individual categories like Best Actor and Best Director are voted on by their peers. A 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that overall, academy members are 94 percent white and 77 percent male, and that their median age is 62.

So are we going to have to wait for the next generation of voters to arrive get change? Kind of.

But then I had an epiphany. I have it! I have a solution!

On the one hand, if we keep separate gender-based award categories, we implicitly support a gender bias and the idea that men and women can’t compete.

On the other hand, if we have only one gender-neutral category, I fear we will see less female nominees, and progress for women in film will slow or stall.

So the solution, I think to myself, is to create one gender-neutral category per award with a higher total number of nominees, but require the nominees to be 50% women and 50% men. Women and men then compete against each other, but with the same opportunity for exposure.

I’m brilliant!

I proudly share this with my friend.  She pauses, then agrees!

I’m totally enthralled with myself, and feeling very smug about my brilliance. But then she smiles and says, But isn’t there also a racial diversity problem too? Should then 11% of the nominees in each category be black to also reflect society? What about Asian or Latino? Trans? There are very few trans actors actually getting trans roles, you know….

Insert animated gif of popped balloon.

This year, as the camera pans to the faces of the Academy Award nominees in the audience, we will see almost all white faces. For the same reasons that there are few female stories, there are few racially diverse voices and faces on screen.

So yes, if we want to change the Oscars to better allow for attention to new and diverse voices, then we must be prepared to do this across the board and support all types of diversity. And where does this end? Should there be best female and male sound engineers? Best non-white costume designers?

So I’m back to being frustrated without a solution.

I started writing this on a plane to Salt Lake City for the Sundance Film Festival and finished on my way home. The festival and diversity present in the world of independent cinema was a wonderful reprieve from this internal debate. Increased foundation funding for the arts, coupled with a profound disruption in technology and distribution, has given filmmakers more opportunities than ever before to tell their stories and connect directly with their audiences. If we the audience can continue to support new faces and voices through our micro-donations on Kickstarter, our Instagram photos at film festivals, and our direct-to-artist purchases on VHX, then maybe we can bubble these voices to the top much faster.

Then maybe we can still love the Oscars.