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The Oscars May Be Insular And Elitist, But They Still Make Careers


The historic and systematic exclusion of women from Oscar nominations has hobbled the careers of women directors.

In just two days, our societal spotlight will turn to the Dolby Theater for the 91st Academy Awards. Silver-screen celebrities, filmmakers, and every “industry peon” in between will don their designed-to-be-noticed garb and take to the crimson carpet to celebrate another year of filmmaking.

And while the Oscars are an undeniably pivotal moment in movie history every year, this year’s Academy Awards fails—again—to recognize the contributions of women for Best Director and other major categories. While many critics of the Awards wish to criticize the Oscars as culturally irrelevant, outdated, and plagued by insularity and elitism (not to mention plummeting viewership), nominations and wins have repercussions far beyond the glittering lights of the ceremony or the feverish clutching of a glinting gold statue.

Previously little-known directors find their names vaulted into a national discourse with nods from the Academy Awards; the historic and systematic exclusion of women from these nominations hobble the careers of women directors.

This year’s Academy Awards fails—again—to recognize the contributions of women for Best Director and other major categories. Click To Tweet

There are myriad examples of male white directors’ careers experiencing an adrenaline rush after their success in securing an Oscar nomination. Sam Mendes’ first film American Beauty (1999) won him Best Director and resulted in a series of major films including Road to Perdition (2002) and several James Bond movies.

Oliver Stone had directed movies with middling box office and critical success until he won Best Director for Platoon (1986) which launched him into the big leagues. In another instance, after getting several Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay for Memento (2000), Christopher Nolan went on to direct several other blockbuster and critically-acclaimed movies like the recent Batman trilogy, Inception (2010), and last year’s Best Picture nominee Dunkirk.

After being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015, Damien Chazelle became a media darling and soon saw a Best Director win for La La Land; his star has definitely risen, directing the well-received First Man (2018).

In terms of good old-fashioned capitalism, Oscar nominations have a huge impact on the box office returns of movies as well. In a 2011 study of films between 2006 and 2010, IBIS—a major market research firm—found that best-picture-winning movies receive an average of $20.3 million after being nominated and another $14 million after winning. Also in 2011, Box Office Quant found that a Best Director win bumps up the movie by an additional $10 million.

While further studies about the recent financial impact of Oscar nominations seems long overdue, these studies suggest that Oscar nominations (and wins) have a salient impact on the bottomline and the future viability of filmmakers’ future projects. Cash is king; hose bumps in dollars and critical recognition open up innumerable doors.

In terms of good old-fashioned capitalism, Oscar nominations have a huge impact on the box office returns of movies as well. Click To Tweet

When we look at the other half of the population however? The numbers are dire. No women—none—were nominated for best director this year. In fact, in the 91 years of Oscar nominations, only five women have been nominated, and two were in the last ten years. That’s approximately 1% of all the Best Director nominations in the history of the Oscars.

Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have won the award, and it’s no accident that her 2009 film, The Hurt Locker, focused entirely on the lives of men at war. Greta Gerwig made Oscar history in 2018 by being the fifth woman nominated, but only six women total won any awards in 2018; two were in categories of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Women’s Media Center found that 2019 saw 75% of all behind-the-scenes nominees were men. The only category where women have fared worse is Cinematography, where Rachel Morrison alone has been nominated, for Mudbound in 2018.

Women have received just 1% of all the Best Director nominations in the history of the Oscars. Click To Tweet

And despite what the industry sputters and pontificates, it’s not for a lack of movies led by women directors. FF2, a media organization led by Jan Lisa Huttner, which has been tracking and publishing about the problem for years, notes that 2018 saw 260 movies written and/or directed by women. Many were lauded by critics with almost perfect Rotten Tomato scores. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace received a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for several awards including Independent Spirit Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and others. It won two awards from the National Board of Review in 2019, but was completely shut out of the Oscars.

Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? also did very well critically, winning the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actor, among other awards and nominations. The film did pick up two acting Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Melissa McCarthy, as well as best adapted screenplay. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider topped many critic’s top ten lists for 2018 including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and others. For these three films, the Oscar campaign efforts ranged from a little for the indie The Rider and a lot for Can You Ever Forgive Me?  

Female directors have missed out on 91 years of Oscar nominations offering similar accelerants to their careers. Courtney Hunt directed Frozen River (2008)—which won many accolades including AFI Movie of the Year (2009)—and received two Oscar Nominations, but she didn’t direct her next major motion picture film until 2016 with the poorly received The Whole Truth.

Cash is king; hose bumps in dollars and critical recognition open up innumerable doors. Click To Tweet

Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right (2010) won several awards—including Golden Globes’ Best Motion Picture for Comedy or Musical—but has not directed a major film until the forthcoming Toni Erdmann. More recently, Patty Jenkins directed Monster (2003) that garnered a Best Actress Award for Charlize Theron, but she did not have another major motion picture release until Wonder Woman in 2017.

Dr. Martha M. Laurzen of Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film points out:

“Being excluded from the race to be crowned king—or queen—of Hollywood directors has short- and long-term consequences. The first, and most obvious, is that these filmmakers miss out on the avalanche of publicity in the run-up to, and following, the Oscars.”

And this publicity can aid them in securing their next film.

In 2015, Dr. Darnell Hunt, the director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, noted, “The Oscars set a standard. The Academy establishes benchmarks… An Oscar win increases likelihood for more alternative points of view, if they’re being rewarded.” And of course, this cycle is perpetuated itself when women and minorities are left out.

In the Women Media Center’s annual report, Jane Fonda, a co-founder, said, “A nomination for an Academy Award can open doors. With three out of every four non-acting nominations going to men, women, again, are missing that stamp of approval.” Not only were women not nominated for Best Director in this Oscar nominations round, WMC notes, women were not nominated for cinematography, editing, visual effects, or original score.

There’s been a lot of discussion about supporting the diverse voices in filmmaking but it seems to be just that—discussion. Institutions are not providing the resources—funds for filming, critical recognition, advertising dollars—to help non-white male voices find success on a national or even international scale. The Academy claimed to diversify its membership as a way to expand the nominations, but these efforts seem insufficient to garner real change.

Only five women have been nominated for Best Director in the history of the Oscars and two were in the last ten years. Click To Tweet

Part of the problem lays in the embedded structure of film criticism in the U.S. In a 2018 Thumbs Down report by Martha Lauzen, she found disproportionate numbers of male critics compared to their female critics: “Men comprise 68% and women 32% of all film reviewers.”

Moreover, the study found that women reviewers were more likely to review films with female protagonists than men: “51% of the reviews written by women but 37% of the reviews written by men are about films featuring at least one female protagonist.” However, Lauzen noted that: “63% of the reviews written by men, but 49% of those written by women are about films with male protagonists.”  

This skewed coverage and implicit bias impacts the movies getting pushed out to the award associations and the folks clamoring to the theaters—and the great wheel keeps spinning around itself. This broken system resides in a profound catch-22 wherein the industry desperate needs stories from and by more diverse communities, but the industry doesn’t reward these stories with awards, publicity or money, which in turn makes it more difficult to make them, so those same diverse voices shy away from trying to produce those films.

And of course, numbers for minority women are even more miserable—there are a host of more-than-worthy female directors of color—including Ava DuVernay for Selma (2014) and hard-hitting documentary 13th (2016), and Dee Rees for Mudbound (2018)—who have not been nominated. Of the meager five Best Director nominations for women, none were women of color.

Other major categories also boast dismal stats for WOC; per WMC, Hannah Beachler is the first African American woman to be nominated for Production Design for her work in Black Panther. In fact, April Reign, now activist and former lawyer, started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 in reaction to the paltry nominations for minorities of color. Spike Lee credits her for his Best Director nomination.

Of the meager five Best Director nominations for women, none were women of color. Click To Tweet

Amid the sea of these disturbing stats, there are some small glimmers in the Oscar pool will be more equitable. Notably, minorities found success in recent Oscar nominations including Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther for Best Picture and Spike Lee’s nomination for best director for BlacKkKlansman. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro won for best director and film last year for The Shape of Water. Perhaps this year will pave the way to more promising wins and more equitable award nominations; after all, despite the controversy of the Oscars, it’s still a hell of an accolade.  

To borrow a line from The Maltese Falcon, Cinema is “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Let’s make that true for all people.