'Change has been so slow': Director laments female advancement in Hollywood
Director Gillian Armstrong in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2014. (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, September 24, 2015 1:13PM EDT
TORONTO -- "Little Women" director Gillian Armstrong truly believed female filmmakers were on the verge of a major breakthrough 20 years ago.
Armstrong was part of a small group of women, including "The Piano" director Jane Campion, making headway in Hollywood's studio system with the kinds of movies they wanted to see.
Her hopes were soaring under the assumption that directing "Little Women" -- an Oscar-nominated family film starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder -- would help usher in a new era of gender equality behind the camera.
Looking back, Armstrong says she was sorely mistaken.
"What I'm absolutely now ashamed of is how I really thought that once people like me, Jane Campion and other directors all over the world, had sort of lifted the glass ceiling, things would've changed so much more radically," Armstrong says in a recent interview.
In fact, only a small amount of progress has been made, she says, with female directors remaining a minority in Hollywood and many other key movie-making countries.
That's why Armstrong is calling on the international film community to get serious about commitments to gender diversity. She wants Hollywood to lay out an industry-wide action plan that puts more women in the director's chair.
"Everyone has been talking about this for 25 years but change has been so slow," she says.
"You have to have a target. It's time for affirmative action."
The lack of opportunities for women -- both as directors and in Hollywood boardrooms -- was the focus of a recent panel discussion at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Armstrong elicited gasps from the crowd when she began to describe her early career in the film industry. Her stories about working on "Mrs. Soffel," a film starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton that was shot in Ontario in 1984, left some in the audience shaking their heads.
"On my first (North American) feature my very kind and wonderful producer Edgar Scherick said, 'I think you need to get rid of the female production manager because they don't trust a woman dealing with the money,"' she recalls.
"And my agent once got a call from one of our executives who said, 'Why are the crew going so slow in the snow? Has (the director) got her period?"'
While those comments wouldn't fly at studios today, women still face an uphill battle for the top jobs on movie sets.
A new report set for release in late October by Women In View -- a Toronto-based advocacy group for gender and racial equity in film and TV work -- shows that women are by far a minority when it comes to Canadian productions.
The study found that of 102 directors on films backed by Telefilm Canada during the 2013-14 production year, only 17 of them were women.
About 17 per cent of the television series produced in Canada during the 2012-2013 year employed women directors.
"How many times am I the only woman in a meeting?" says Gigi Pritzker, founder and CEO of OddLot Entertainment, the production house behind "The Way Way Back" and "Drive," at the TIFF panel.
"If there was one or two more (women) it would've totally changed the balance. I think we have to aggregate together to be able to create a critical mass in a situation."
North American productions could take their cues from a recent initiative launched in Sweden, suggests Anna Serner, chief executive of the Swedish Film Institute. The organization has committed to splitting its financial backing evenly between films directed by men and women.
"You have to be persistent," Serner says.
"If you don't meet your target, then ask yourself why. We all want good material -- and the quality is there -- it's just about finding a way to encourage women to step forward with their ideas."
Hollywood studios have put a stronger emphasis on films delivered from a female perspective, helped by the recent box-office successes of "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Bridesmaids." But few screenplays are written by women, says Warner Bros. production vice president Niija Kuykendall.
"There need to be more agents and managers who are continuously putting scripts from female writers in front of me," she says.
"There's a market that is hungry and there's money being left on the table."
Putting the blame on a lack of good female-driven content isn't the problem, Armstrong counters, because there are plenty of eager women out there trying to get projects off the ground.
"(Producers) take much greater risks on young male talent then they do with young women," she says. "I've now seen so many young, talented women who are not getting the features, or they get the first one and not the second one.
"We've got to do something about that now."