TORONTO - "The Hurt Locker"'s Kathryn Bigelow could make history this weekend as the first female director to win an Academy Award, smashing a so-called "celluloid ceiling" that Canadian filmmakers say is far less prevalent north of the border.

Directors including Kari Skogland and Ruba Nadda credit a publicly funded film industry with helping to level the playing field when it comes to making room for women who want to call the shots.

"I am the poster child for supporting Telefilm because we have a unique opportunity here in Canada as filmmakers where we have a process that they allow us to grow," says Skogland, whose IRA film "50 Dead Men Walking" earned her a best director nomination this week for the Genie Awards, Canada's version of the Oscars.

"They will support us as we grow and create, on a regular basis, internationally viable filmmakers. This is now really starting to pay off."

In the 82-year history of the Oscars, Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola have all been nominated for best director, but going into Sunday's show, Bigelow is the first woman heavily favoured to win.

In Canada, however, female directors have been recognized several times with this country's equivalent.

Sarah Polley won a Genie in 2007 for "Away From Her," while Sandy Wilson took home a trophy in 1986 for "My American Cousin" and Micheline Lanctot earned one in 1985 for "Sonatine."

"I think we have it a little bit easier in Canada in that we have tax credits and Telefilm Canada, we have a little bit of financing in place," says Nadda, whose languid romance "Cairo Time" was named best Canadian feature at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

"(But) I haven't had an easy time. The bottom line is that it's just difficult to make a movie and it's getting more and more and more difficult to make movies. I think there's pros and cons to being a woman and pros and cons to being a man."

Steve Gravestock, director of Canadian programming at the Toronto International Film Festival, says the privately funded U.S. system is more likely to subject film projects to the individual whims of financiers.

"People get more conservative and the money's so much more," Gravestock says of business in Hollywood, largely dictated by big movie studios.

"They fall back on assumptions, I think, and prejudices. It's more problematic that way. I do think that particularly in Canada and Europe that there's more opportunities for women to direct."

Bigelow will square off against Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds," Lee Daniels for "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air" and ex-husband James Cameron, for "Avatar." Cameron won the Golden Globe for his 3D box-office behemoth, "Avatar," but Bigelow took the Directors Guild of America prize, considered a stronger predictor of Oscar chances.

Still, Bigelow's breakout success doesn't necessarily signal a sea change, cautions Gravestock.

"Sometimes there's that phenomenon where because one person has done it they assume that things have been rectified and of course they aren't because it's just the one person, or a couple people. To have real parity it needs to be more significant than that," said Gravestock.

"At the lowest level it indicates that Kathryn Bigelow has a certain stature but it's not necessarily going to transfer."

And despite the recent high profile successes of female filmmakers, their numbers in Hollywood remain dismally low.

Martha Lauzen, head of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, estimates the number of women directors in Hollywood appears to have dropped by two per cent since 2008.

Lauzen's annual report on women in the movie industry, called "The Celluloid Ceiling," found that women accounted for just seven per cent of directors on the 250 top-grossing movies of 2009, the same number as in 1987.

In Canada, much was made in 2008 when a record number of female directors screened films at the Toronto film festival, with women making up nearly 40 per cent of the Canadian roster, says Gravestock. They included Skogland's "50 Dead Men Walking," Deepa Mehta's dark domestic drama, "Heaven On Earth," Ingrid Veninger's coming-of-age film "Only," and Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu's visually stunning Inuit tale "Before Tomorrow." (Cousineau and Ivalu will also vie for a directing Genie when the awards are handed out in Toronto on April 12.)

But Gravestock called 2008 an "anomaly," noting the number of female directors at the festival fell to less than 30 per cent the following year.

New Zealand's Campion, who lost the best director trophy in 1993 for "The Piano" but won the screenwriting prize that year, has credited her country's publicly funded system with encouraging women to try their hand at directing.

"It did actually change the landscape for us quite considerably," Campion said last fall at the Toronto film festival, where she screened her acclaimed period piece, "Bright Star."

"I remember saying to myself, 'Oh, they're going to let women direct?' I thought, 'Yes! OK, I could have a go. They'll probably let me try.' There was that sort of sense at the time, and there was a lot of talk about ... 'Could a woman tell a crew what to do? Would men listen to a woman telling them what they would want to do?"'

Speaking from Los Angeles where she's casting her next film, Nadda says women still have a harder time getting projects off the ground.

"As a female director you're always going to get, 'How are you going to do that? How are you going to pull that off?' and I've always had to ignore it, otherwise you get obsessively angry about it," says Nadda.

"The next movie I'm doing is a suspense thriller and I will get the questions of, 'Well, you've never done this, how are you going to shoot this?' ... Honestly, shooting a thriller is the least of my concerns. I smuggled film reels out of Cairo, I think I can shoot an action sequence."

But Skogland said Bigelow's triumph and her own Genie nomination go a long way towards establishing women as bankable directors, no matter the genre. She notes that her gender came up while she sought financiers for her action-oriented tale about a real-life IRA mole.

"I'd done action before and I'd done all different versions of the action we did in this picture, but that still wasn't quite enough for everybody," says Skogland, whose next project is an action film titled, "William the Bastard, 1066," about the Battle of Hastings.

"With the recognition across the board, I can now say, 'See?' and that conversation I don't expect will ever come up again."

The Oscars air Sunday on CTV.