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Oscars: Perceptions of Progress – By Birds Eye View’s Tom Symmons (Data & Research

Oscars: Perceptions of Progress.

Welcome symbols of success obscure what has otherwise been a very mixed year for women in film, and a poor one for female directors in particular.

By Tom Symmons

We are thrilled that Jane Campion is an Oscar frontrunner for the superb slow burn gothic western, The Power of the Dog. Campion is also making history as the first female to be nominated twice for the Best Director award. This milestone has been a very long time coming and is a timely reminder of the glaring historic disparity for this most prestigious of film awards: twenty-six male directors have been nominated four or more times and nineteen have two or more Best Director Oscar wins.

Only seven women have ever been nominated for best director in Oscars history, and as of last year, two have won: Kathryn Bigelow took home the award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker and Chloé Zhao won in 2021 for Nomadland. Jane Campion was first nominated for The Piano in 1994, the year Steven Spielberg collected the award for Schindler’s List. In 2022, Campion is once again the sole female nominee going up against Spielberg; who has been nominated for West Side Story. Spielberg has been nominated eight times with two wins.

We are also delighted that Ari Wegner has been nominated for Best Cinematography for The Power of the Dog. Wegner is only the second woman to be nominated for the award following Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) in 2018.

Both nominations are welcome symbols of success but obscure what has otherwise been a very mixed year for women in film, and a poor one for female directors in particular. After reaching historic highs in 2020, the number of women directing top 250 and 100 US film releases regressed in 2021. Women accounted for 17% of directors working on the top 250 grossing films, down one percent from the previous year. The picture becomes more alarming when we look at the top 100 films where the percentage of women directors fell from 16% in 2020 to 12% in 2021. At Birds’ Eye View we track all UK film releases directed by women and our data tells a similar story: following an all time high of 18% in 2020 – 3% up from the previous year – this figure dipped by half a percent in 2021.

The US data is from The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual report produced by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Executive director Martha Lauzen cautions against letting the perception of progress override the reality: while there have been recent high profile critical and commercial successes – Chloe Zhao (Nomadland, The Eternals), Nia DaCosta (Candyman) and Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), the percentage of films by women is actually in decline. ‘Basing our perceptions of how women are faring on the well-deserved fortunes of just a few high-profile women can lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the state of women’s employment,’ states Lauzen, ‘Once again this year, more than 80% of films do not have a woman at the helm.’

However, there are some signs of progress. According to the report, women accounted for 25% of key behind-the-scenes roles such as directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 250 grossing films in 2021. That was an increase from 23% in 2020. But by breaking this data down further we see significant gains in some positions and no movement in others: women accounted for 26% of executive producers on the top grossing movies, which was up from 21% in 2020, and 32% of producers, an increase from 30% in 2020. There was no change from the previous year on the most popular films, by contrast, for writers (17%), editors (22%) and cinematographers (6%).

There has long been a faster rate of progress for women making documentary films, including for Global majority directors. This diversity is reflected in the nominations for the 2022 Best Documentary Oscar: Writing with Fire (co-dir. by Rintu Thomas), Attica (co-dir. Traci Curry) and Ascension (dir. Jessica Kingdon).

Female underrepresentation in narrative cinema remains a pressing issue and there is a long way to go yet. But we should take heart from recent successes: like Chloe Zhao’s Oscar win last year, a deserved victory for Jane Campion will undoubtedly have an impact, shaking-up perceptions and cementing the status of women directors in the eyes of more people who, consciously or unconsciously, believe filmmaking is the preserve of men. Here’s to a third nomination!


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