Why Fox’s attempt to solve Hollywood’s women problem won’t work

Female character, male director.
Female character, male director.
Image: AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Alan Markfield
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Whether the measure is the Bechdel test or the Mako Mori test, it’s clear that opportunities for actresses on the silver screen fall far short of their male counterparts. The picture is even more grim when it comes to jobs behind the camera.

Only 6% of last year’s top 250 movies and 12% of television series were directed by women, according to the latest studies. This means that women are routinely excluded from creative decisions regarding how female characters are depicted on-screen, female-centric stories are passed over in favor of male-dominated scripts, and female film professionals earn less because the big budget jobs regularly ignore female candidates. In response to online activism like the Twitter campaign #HiretheseWomen, which recommended a growing list of female directors for future projects, and other critiques on Hollywood’s lack of diversity, 20th Century Fox is the first major studio to spearhead an in-house program to tackle the issue.

This is an inclusive step in a closed-off industry, but the program is playing it safe. A learning opportunity that doesn’t burden budding filmmakers with student loan debt is a great start but, as many recent college grads can tell you, training doesn’t necessarily lead to jobs. In the details of the Fox Global Directors Initiative, the description reads like an internship–none of the costs are covered for participants, and there’s no guarantee for job placement. Employment is what separates the dismal 6% of women with directing gigs in Hollywood from those who work in the independent field, where women direct 23% of film festival features.

According to The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, the majority of behind-the-scenes jobs for 2013 movies were held by men; women made up only 16% of directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors. That’s actually a 1% drop from the number of women working in Hollywood from 1998. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of female writers fell 15% to 10%, the number of women working as executive producers slipped from 17% to 15%, and the amount of female editors shrunk from 20% to 17%. Only female cinematographers were able to make gains in 2013, from a paltry 2% to 3%.

Additionally, the fact that female filmmakers are routinely excluded from lucrative franchise means that there’s less production capital to fund other women’s movies (think of how Guillermo del Toro or Steven Spielberg produce other movies or TV shows, creating job opportunities for young directors). For instance, a woman has never directed a multi-billion dollar Hollywood superhero franchise. Rather, young male directors like Marc Webb (with only one previous feature length credit, (500) Days of Summer under his belt) and Rian Johnson (of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper fame) are scoring big name blockbuster franchises like Spiderman and Star Wars. Webb cut his teeth in music videos while Johnson mostly directed notable episodes of Breaking Bad before the Star Wars announcement.

As far as the equally profitable Young Adult literature adaptations are concerned, the entire record-breaking Harry Potter series and four of the five Twilight films were helmed by male directors. Even the female-centric franchises of The Hunger Games and Divergent are slated to be directed by men. No industry insider can prove female directors unworthy of helming a franchise if they are never given the chance to do so. In fact, if number-crunching is all Hollywood is concerned with, Catherine Hardwicke’s first installation of the Twilight series raked in $400 million in box office and DVD sales.

For studio programs to truly invest in female filmmakers, they need to do more than train directors in their craft—they need to shift to focus inward and look at their own hiring practices. A more successful system would sustain female directors by better bridging a pipeline to jobs. A major studio like 20th Century Fox is in a unique position to develop young filmmakers’ resumes with actual job prospects. Their post-training apprenticeship is a step in the right direction, but it’s only the beginning. Leveling the field from the top-down is what’s necessary to change the game once and for all.