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Bravo, Sofia! Now what?
Best Director nominee Coppola leads a pack of female-directed Oscar contenders. Will it matter?
February 26, 2004: 11:48 AM EST
By Alexandra Twin, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - When the nominees for Best Director are read aloud at this month's Academy Awards, a quartet of male names will be interrupted by a lone female name: Sofia Coppola, for "Lost in Translation."

It's a remarkable feat, considering it's only the third time a woman has been nominated for Best Director and the first time an American woman has received the honor in the entire 76-year history of the Academy Awards.

And although the "Lost in Translation" helmer is the only female filmmaker with a Best Director nomination, this year's pack of Oscar-nominated films has no shortage of women behind the camera, including "Monster" writer-director Patty Jenkins, "Thirteen" co-writer and director Catherine Hardwicke and "Whale Rider" director Niki Caro.

"The fact that men and women are nominated this year in films that women have directed is good for women filmmakers generally," said Catherine Wyler, artistic director of the High Falls Film Festival, a three-year-old festival that showcases films that feature women behind the camera in prominent roles, such as director, screenwriter or producer.

But rather than signaling a major breakthrough for women filmmakers, this year's female director presence at the Oscars is more like another step on a long path.

"We've had more than 30 years of women working in the business," said Mollie Gregory, author of "Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood." "The success these women are having right now is a continuation of that. These are the flowers that grew from those roots."

But what impact this current year's crop of talented women directors will have remains to be seen.

"While it's wonderful to see all these women getting recognition, we have had these moments before where a door seems to open and then it turns out that the door doesn't lead anywhere," said Terry Lawler, the executive director of New York Women in Film & Television, a non-profit organization that helps promote equity for women in film, television and other media.

For example she cites the success of the Mimi Leder-directed "Deep Impact," a 1997 action film that cost $75 million to make and earned $140 million at the U.S. box office. While the box office returns enabled Leder to direct other big-budget films, it hardly opened the floodgates for women to direct, let alone direct other action films.

"It's important that some of this year's films were produced for a low budget and have managed to make money, because it shows that women can make money, which in the film industry is key," Wyler said. "But behind that is the question of will there be more women directors and cinematographers now as a result of this?"

Perhaps, but not necessarily.

Gregory thinks that the number of women directors will have to improve, and notes that it has by a small margin each year, however, a small margin.

The celluloid ceiling

"There's this misguided notion that things have gotten better each year for women in the business," said Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, a professor in the School of Communication at San Diego State University. "People outside of the business see someone who is very high-profile like Sofia Coppola and think it marks a big change. But the business remains a men's business."

Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes  
Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes

Lauzen leads a team that puts out a yearly survey on the status of women in the film industry. Called "The Celluloid Ceiling," the survey measures behind-the-scenes employment of women in the top 250 domestic grossing films of each year.

The most recent data, for 2002, shows that overall, women comprised 17 percent of executive producers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the year's top 250 earners. That's down from 19 percent in 2001 and flat with 2000 figures. When you just focus on directors, the number of women goes down to 7 percent, up from 6 percent in 2001 and down from 11 percent in 2000.

The study also showed that films directed by women and men generated similar box office grosses, which speaks to an interesting contradiction: if money is key, why does the fact that women-directed films do just as well financially not enable more women to get hired for directing jobs?

"Perception is reality, and green -- money -- is the only color that matters," Lauzen said. "The perception is that women-directed films won't appeal to as broad an audience and won't make as much money."

Lost in Translation  
Lost in Translation

There are exceptions this year. For example, Diane Keaton's Best Actress-nominated performance in "Something's Gotta Give," directed by Hollywood veteran Nancy Meyers. However, with another $100 million-plus earning film under her belt, 2000's "What Women Want," Meyers is an exception to the rule.

But that film is not typical of the type of female-helmed Oscar contenders this year. More typical would be a low-budget film like Fine Line's "American Splendor," co-written and co-directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and discovered initially at the 2003 Sundance film festival. "American Splendor" is vying for a Best Adapted Screenplay award.

Like "American Splendor," most of the women-directed films that are nominated for Oscars this year did not originate at big studios. And that's why their success will likely mean more to independent filmmakers than to traditional Hollywood.

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"Finding financing for films is, I think perhaps the biggest obstacle for women filmmakers," said Leslie Ann Coles, founding director and programmer of the Toronto-based Female Eye Film Festival, a three-year old festival that exclusively shows films written or directed by women.

"I would hope that the attention that these Oscar-nominated films get would bring more attention to women filmmakers in general, and to the fact that women make great directors," said Coles.

While that shift in perception is likely to occur, the experts say, whether Sofia Coppola's nomination -- and this year's spate of female-directed Oscar films -- brings change to the film industry in the short term seems unlikely.

"Changing Hollywood has been likened to turning around a battleship," Lauzen said. "It will happen eventually, but it takes a long time."  Top of page

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