But a closer look at the figures reveals that women filmmakers aren’t a bigger financial risk. In 2008, Lauzen conducted a study called Women@the Box Office, which found that the key to big grosses wasn’t the gender of the filmmaker, but the budget. Big budgets equaled big grosses. “When women and men have similar budgets,” she wrote, “the resulting box office grosses are also similar.”
The problem is that the biggest budgets tend to be given to films that appeal to teenage boys — still considered the most frequent, most enthusiastic moviegoers (this may be because so many films are aimed at them, but that’s another argument). There’s no reason why women can’t make films for this audience — as Spheeris did with Wayne’s World. But female directors say that it is difficult to get assigned to the kind of comedy, horror or action movie that would establish their box office chops.
Despite the enormous success of films such as Mamma Mia! and Twilight, executives often seem perplexed by films with female themes. “I’ve been there when a film with a female protagonist has been screened,” says Lauzen, “and the guys at the top go, ‘Well, I don’t get it.’ When the majority of people in power are male, who are they going to relate to most on screen, and who do they think other people are going to relate to? Males. That’s no big conspiracy. I don’t even think it’s conscious, honestly.” Bird agrees. “One of the big problems is that, 90 percent of the time, the people who you pitch your idea to are male, and even though they might be very sympathetic, they do look at the world from a different perspective.”
I ask Lauzen whether she thinks female film careers are interrupted by motherhood, and she says no, as do Kinninmont and Coolidge (the latter has extensive experience of juggling the two). They point out that directors tend to be highly driven; there are many cases of heavily pregnant women and young mothers making films. “A lot of them will say, ‘Look, I wouldn’t let that get in my way,’” says Lauzen.
Kidron, however, says that motherhood has affected her career “more than gender ... At a certain point I had to stop making films in America, and make them here, which made a huge difference. Obviously men also give up an enormous amount for their families, but there are many male directors who have partners who take primary care of the family, or who are free to travel with them. That is rarely true the other way around. I absolutely don’t want to suggest that women are unreliable because we’re mothers — on the contrary. But the question of who brings up the kids has a material effect on all women’s careers.”
Bird agrees. “Film directing is more than a full-time job. When you’re making a film, it takes up every day of your life, 16 to 18 hours a day, for a year. Trying to have children and being a film director is virtually impossible unless you’re rich.” Bird doesn’t have children: “If I look deep down inside myself,” she says, “I’m quite sure that I never did it because I never really had time.”
The problems facing female directors are structural and systemic, a tangled mix of sexism, cultural differences between men and women, and maternity issues; in this, they mirror the problems affecting many women in male-dominated workplaces. But the film industry magnifies all this. As Spheeris says: “When the stakes are high, when fame and extreme amounts of money and power are involved, it’s a jungle out there. It’s brutal. How hard do you want to fight?”