Where Are The Women?

18 February 2015

Why are there so few female directors making dramatic feature films in New Zealand?

It’s a vexing question with no easy answers.

A couple of stats drawn from published NZFC data:

  • Of the 28 dramatic features (discounting Hollywood and overseas independents) released with NZFC investment from 2010 to April 2014, four (14%) were directed by women (Simone Horrocks, Roseanne Liang, Kirstin Marcon, Juliet Bergh), of which one was a micro-budget Escalator film.
  • And of the 99 shorts funded in the NZFC Fresh and Premiere Shorts initiatives from 2010 – 2015, 36 (36%) had female directors.

The gathering that attended the DEGNZ/WIFT panel discussion on gender imbalance in the NZ screen industry chaired by Kim Hill at Auckland’s Basement Theatre in August last year came up with one idea to address the issue: A motion was passed to approach the NZFC to ask for state funding, [to pursue] gender equality through positive discrimination that will be in place for a certain amount of time until it’s not needed, so that women’s work can have a special place where applications go.

The motion came about from the discussion that night that mooted a number of potentially influencing factors. Amongst them were:

  • It’s a market driven industry where the main cinema audience is males aged 18 – 35.
  • Feature film directing is bloody hard work and all consuming, putting a considerable number of women off the job.
  • Women’s stories tend towards more complex arthouse drama, without the whams, bams and kapows of boysie films, so they are less appealing to the mainstream audience.
  • The psychology of filmmaking has been influenced primarily by men, pushing female protagonists and women’s stories to the sidelines.

Another cause suggested was that the gatekeepers are a key reason why the number of female directors is low. So I took a look at the NZ film gatekeepers to see how the gender statistics stacked up.

In the last five NZFC annual reports, 44 board members including the chairs were listed, with 12 of those female (27%), one the chair for all five years.

Across the same period, we had one CEO, Graham Mason, thus 0% female.

In the same timeframe, Marilyn Milgrom departed as Head of Development to effectively be replaced by Graeme Mason, and then Lisa Chatfield, making two out of three Heads of Development female (66%). And of the seven development executives listed for those years, excluding the Heads, three were female (43%). The full development teams across that time with Graeme Mason included gave a 50/50 gender split. (Although there is a significant lead time for feature film, I did not look earlier when Ruth Harley was CEO and Caroline Grosse Head of Development.)

These gatekeeper stats don’t look too bad, except we could obviously do with more women on the NZFC board.

How about the screenwriting?

In the NZFC statistics on gender released in September last year we see that female writers made up 34% of applications going in for development funding, and 29% of those who received development funding.

Of the 28 features looked at earlier, 7 had female screenwriters credited (25%) while with the 99 shorts, I identified 33 females (33%) as the screenwriters.

Does this mean that if we funded more female writers for feature development, we would get more films greenlit that are written by women and thus more films directed by women? This is a possibility, particularly with the propensity for NZ feature films to be the output of writer/directors.

NZFC is aware of the gender inequality issue and considering how best to respond.

A number of the guilds are debating it as well and taking action as they see fit.

At DEGNZ in the last year, we lost three key female board members in Leanne Pooley, Kirstin Marcon and Briar March, each for personal reasons. We were fortunate to recruit to the board director Louise Leitch and editor Annie Collins who joined director Roseanne Liang, giving females three of the 10 seats (30%). Director Kezia Barnett has taken up an Advisory Board role with the guild strengthening the numbers. With our selection panels, we are seeking at least a 50/50 split in gender terms. However, there is much more to be done, both at DEGNZ and in the industry at large.

Gender inequality in the screen industry will be a hot topic when Screen Industry New Zealand convenes later this month to look at the issues we face. And we are all interested in what strategies and initiatives the NZFC will devise and implement. Hopefully they will allow Jane Campion to unclench her jaw a little more when next asked to comment about it.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director