Some of the most popular British films since 2000 have been directed by women; films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mamma Mia and Suffragette. However, it has become a media habit during each award’s season to point out that the numbers of women directing films is less than 10 per cent and has been since 1998. The research these numbers come from is produced by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University and is based on Hollywood films. Our research is focused on UK films and will show the numbers of women working in the UK industry, which has its own cultural, industrial and political contexts that need to be taken into account when considering gender inequality in filmmaking.
In 2014, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) awarded us £589,710 for our research on women in the contemporary UK film industry. In addition to us as principal investigator (Shelley) and co-investigator (Linda), our team consists of Dr Natalie Wreyford, our research assistant, and our two fully funded PhD students, Sarah Smyth and Ania Ostrowska; in addition, the project is funding a two-year lecturer post that has been taken up by Dr Beth Carroll. The project will have two key outputs. The first will be data on the numbers of women working in key production roles – director, writer, producer, exec-producer, cinematographer, editor – on UK films from 2000-2015. The second output will be 50 interviews with women who work in those roles in the UK film industry.
The data will be made publicly available and the interviews will be housed with the British Entertainment Union (BECTU) History Project. Alongside BECTU, we have other project partners who are working with us to provide information and to help us disseminate our research to the public. These include the British Film Institute, Women in Film and Television UK, Shetland Arts, Harbour Lights, and Bird’s Eye View Films.
The interviews will help us find out what challenges women face on entering and maintaining production roles in British cinema. In a study conducted by the not-for-profit organisation Creative Skillset, the interviews they conducted suggested that young women leaving film school have not yet experienced prejudice, unlike women who are further on in their careers.
In film schools, numbers are generally 50:50 men to women, there are equal opportunities and equal training. Women make up 50 per cent of all short films entered into festivals (according to Directors UK) but they seem to drop out, or are pushed out of filmmaking, later in their careers.
We hope that our interviews will help shed some light on the hurdles and blocks that women face at different points in their filmmaking careers.
This large project builds on a pilot study conducted in 2013 by Shelley (funded by the University’s Annual Adventures in Research scheme) that collected data on the numbers of women working on UK films between 2009 and 2010. Of all the British films in those two years, only 16 per cent of the directors were women, writers 13.7 per cent, editors 14.7 per cent, cinematographers 4.3 per cent, producers 30 per cent. It’s not surprising to me that we have found there are more female directors in Britain than in the US because we include independent British films whereas the US counts top grossing films, but less than 20 per cent is still clearly problematic. Furthermore, it is significant that the numbers of women cinematographers is so low because we know that role is one of the most common starting routes to move into directing. It also suggests that there is additional prejudice against women in the more technical positions of film making.
In 2009, 19 per cent of all UK films had no women in any of the six key roles – director, writer, producer, exec-producer, cinematographer or editor.
This is particularly concerning when we bear in mind that those six roles don’t mean six people; there can be 10 or 12 producers on a film sometimes. This is the kind of information our data collection will be able to show, and, we hope, to influence various film organisations’ remits for diversity.
Even more important to us, though, is that our outputs will include new histories of women working in the contemporary UK film industry. One thing we know for certain as feminist film scholars is that women’s place in film history regularly and easily gets ‘lost’, and many of our colleagues around the world have excavated information on the large numbers of women working during the early silent period. Our interviews, our database of women, and our conference, articles and books that we produce from this grant project will establish an initial history of women working in the UK film industry in the first 15 years of the 21st century, and our hope is that this means others will have a foundation to build on in the future rather than having to dig and start from scratch.
For more information, visit www.southampton.ac.uk/cswf