Newsflash: Women Can Direct Movies

by Melissa Silverstein on September 11, 2009

in Actresses

Lone Scherfig

Lone Scherfig

The NY Times takes a look at some of the films generating buzz at Toronto and lo and behold women directors are really making a mark this season.  In general, women directors have a higher presence at film festivals.  Festivals try and get a diversity of films and of creatives.  But none of the festivals are 50/50 and one way to check on women’s progress at the festivals is to see whose film gets bought for distribution.  145 films are for sale at Toronto, lots by women, and we will track the deals.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s so nice to report some good news for women directors but let’s keep in mind that it’s still much harder for women to get a directing gig and it’s even harder if they want to direct a film about women.

As the Times says:

While still struggling to find their place in the movie industry at large — the number of directors at American studios remains well over 90 percent male — female filmmakers have managed to occupy some of this 10-day festival’s most valuable slots: those showcase screenings and press conferences in the first couple of days, when everyone is still paying attention.

I am beginning to think (but don’t want to get my hopes up too much) that this year could really be a watershed moment for women directors.  The Times talks about how in 2003 women directors like Niki Caro (who will be at the festival again this year), Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Sophia Coppola (who actually got a nomination –  in my book Whale Rider by Niki Caro and Monster by Patty Jenkins were way stronger entries)

But this year feels different.  First, people are writing about the directors and the films.  None of the women who could be potential Oscar nominees are novices like was the case with some in 2003.  I think also that Monster was really small and it was all about Charlize’s performance, and this year even though Carey Mulligan is getting amazing notices for An Education and will most probably be a best actress nominee, the film itself and the director Lone Scherfig are also getting noticed.

Second, because there are several strong women directors along with their strong films this year it has become a trend story and not a lone woman trying to make it is a man’s world.  That’s a big deal.  Numbers matter.  The women can talk about their films and not their gender.

Third, the guys have not yet impressed the same way that women have.  We all know that once the momentum starts for a male director like it did last weekend for Jason Reitman and Up in the Air it has a tendency to suck the air out of the room for the women.

The key for the women directors will be continuing to build on the momentum out of Toronto (because it will fade fast) as the campaigns for all the fall releases start rolling out.

But I gotta ask- could this be the year a woman (or two) breaks through not only getting a nomination for best director, but actually winning?

In Toronto, Directing Is Clearly Women’s Work (NY Times)

On a side note there are way more women than have gotten into the Times piece.  Here’s the ones I’ve found:

Cairo Time – Ruba Nadda

The Waiting City – Claire McCarthy

Cracks– Jordan Scott

Partir – Catherine Corsini

Fish Tank– Andrea Arnold

Lourdes -Jessica Hausner

My Year Without Sex – Sarah Watt

The Angel -Margareth Olin

Beautiful Kate – Rachel Ward

The Day Will Come – Susanne Schneider

A Brand New Life – Ounie Lecomte

Eamon – Margaret Corkery

My Dog TulipPaul Fierlinger | Sandra Fierlinger

La PivellinaTizza Covi | Rainer Frimme

Whip-It– Drew Barrymore

Women Without MenShirin Neshat

My Queen KaroDorothée van den Berghe


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Soirore September 11, 2009 at 11:57 AM

I find this really exciting and am very much looking forward to the London Film Festival next month where the line up is rather similar to Toronto.

It is great that so many of these films are about women as well as by them. Jordan Scott’s Cracks looks particularly interesting because of the setting in a girls’ school in the 1930s which is just my cup of tea. There are so many exciting looking films by women coming out now.

Karen September 11, 2009 at 11:57 AM

This is exactly why I like coming to your site!

King is a Fink September 11, 2009 at 12:31 PM

Thanks for the article. Making movies is hard, but it’s even harder when you think that you have to be in the boys club to get noticed. Looking forward to seeing some of these films soon.

Jan Lisa Huttner September 12, 2009 at 8:37 AM

Hey, Melissa.

You can’t imagine the electric current that went thru me as I read this article yesterday because the person ringing all the bells about the 2004 Oscar Noms, was, you guessed it, yours truly. As I called around doing interviews for my Women’s eNews article, everyone was focused on Sofia Coppola. Almost no one (not even the folks at Women in Film in LA!) had fully appreciated the bigger picture. This article ended up winning the “Best News Article Written for the Internet” award from NPFW the following year, effectively setting me on my way:

But as you read my article in current context, note this: I asserted then (& I still assert now) that success in 2004 didn’t just depend on a good crop of films. It was also a result of the fact that many women (including me) howled in protest when Julie Taymor was NOT nominated for Best Director for FRIDA (even tho FRIDA received 6 nominations & eventually won 2 Oscars).

If history is repeating itself, then perhaps the howling we did last year about Loveleen Tandan has helped to sensitize everyone again this year? Before you blow me off &/or accuse me of grandiosity (or worse) consider this: The Hurt Locker screened in Toronto last year… but it was barely noticed… When Independent Spirit Award noms were announced only Mackie & Renner got noms (quickly forgotten as the race heated up). What changed? Well, lots of things changed (including the election of Barack Obama & new conditions in Iraq), but two things that did NOT change are the film & its director.

Think about it… And then, let’s keep the pressure up!!!

Meanwhile: You Go, Girl!!!

Vanessa September 12, 2009 at 1:07 PM

Another female writer/director not to be forgotten who actually has 2 films at the Toronto Film Festival this year is Guo Xiaolu.

Her films are:

She, a Chinese


Once Upon a Time Proletarian

She’s also an excellent novelist.

Maura McHugh September 13, 2009 at 9:22 AM

What’s more important is that his heat results in the studios offering these women work in other projects.

Normally, directing a film that gets this level of attention ensures that a male director will get further up the food chain and land more commercial and challenging projects. This hasn’t happened very often for women.

When we see a woman directing a blockbuster action movie like Transformers or Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a film that starts out with a big budget and is marketed that way) then you know that women are beginning to achieve parity.

One of our problems is that women writers and directors are labelled as niche or low-budget filmmakers. This year I’m seeing some hope that this might change. But, it’s down to the conservative decision-makers at the studios to hand out the plum jobs, and they prefer men.

Maura McHugh September 13, 2009 at 9:23 AM

That should be “this heat” in the first sentence. Doh!

Melissa Silverstein September 13, 2009 at 10:45 PM

Very true. Women need to get the big budget stuff. But that always goes back to my question- do women really want to direct films like transformers?

Melissa Silverstein September 13, 2009 at 10:45 PM

Thanks for the info.

Melissa Silverstein September 13, 2009 at 10:47 PM

Interesting. I think that it was a huge mistake for The Hurt Locker to go for the nominations last year before it was released since it had no buzz and that made it so much harder for Bigelow to get noticed. But now that she has it’s not just the performances but it is the film that is being considered. I think it will make the top 10 for the oscars. don’t know whether she will but women and men like the movie and like her precisely because she is not in the girl box.

Melissa Silverstein September 13, 2009 at 10:51 PM

Keep us up on what is happening in London. If you want to write a blog post about the festival let me know. I’d be glad to post it.

Maura McHugh September 14, 2009 at 11:10 AM

Why wouldn’t a woman want to direct a Transformers movie? It’s big budget, high profile, and will bring her international recognition. It might not be to every woman’s taste, but I’m sure there are plenty of women who would love the chance for one of those projects.

I think it’s hurting women’s opportunities that there is a notion abroad that women only like to work on small, independent movies. So far that’s the case because that’s where they’ve found the work: i.e. they’ve worked hard to create those opportunities.

There are different forms of entertainment. Sometimes I want a big blow-em-up movie, and other times I want something more personal and well-made. Women should be hired on crews/staff on films across all of these categories.

CParis September 14, 2009 at 4:04 PM

@Maura McHugh – speaking of women directing big budget films – I’ve always wondered what happened to Mimi Leder. She had some success back in the late 1990s – Deep Impact had a decent budget and made over $140million.
We see lots of male directors go from make music videos to getting mainstream pictures (McG) or a singel well-reviewed indie to blockbusters (Bryan Singer). Women seem to have to prove themselves over and over again.

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