Meet the Men Who Get to Direct Mainstream Movies


In mid-April, as the annual CinemaCon convention of Hollywood studios, film press, and movie exhibitors was winding down, Melissa Silverstein received an email. It was a schedule of upcoming releases from 20th Century Fox – not unusual, considering how much of CinemaCon is about building hype and staking claim to dates. But according to Silverstein, “It’s rare that we actually get that much information so far in advance,” and as she skimmed the list of 21 titles, lining up the studio’s slate into 2018, she made a startling realization. “I’m reading these names,” she recalls, “and there’s not a single woman’s name here.”

Silverstein spends a lot of time looking for women’s names. As the founder and publisher of the movie news and commentary site Women and Hollywood, she meticulously tracks issues of gender equality in the movie industry – disproportionate representation, gaps in pay, inadequate opportunities. “I tried to get some feedback from the studio, and I didn’t get any,” she says. “So I tweeted it up and I got a lot of responses, and then the Wrap story came from there.”

“The Wrap story,” which came five days later, did one better – noting that not only had Fox not released a film with a female director since 2010 (aside from January’s Kung Fu Panda, a Dreamworks Animation production that Fox distributed), but that Paramount also has no films helmed by women on their slate, which schedules into 2019. It was a startling exposé (and a surprising one, since one of the piece’s writers doesn’t believe in the gender pay gap, but I digress) that quickly went viral in film circles, where the annual ritual of head-shaking and teeth-gnashing over the pitiful lack of female representation often results in hopeful promises and bold initiatives, but little in the way of actual change.

Yet this irrefutable set of dates and data also brings the other half of this equation to light: who are the men who are getting these jobs when women are not? The answers are fascinating – and, unsurprisingly, depressing. (Fox and Paramount did not respond to requests for comment.) There are two features for each studio from men making their feature debuts, a “first big shot” that studios are loath to hand their female counterparts. And there are multiple efforts from male directors whose most recent efforts have failed badly yet are afforded multiple second chances, while similar female directors fall prey to what the Los Angeles Times’ Rebecca Keegan dubbed “the Ishtar effect”: the notion that women in the director’s chair are “subjected to higher standards and lower rewards than their male peers in Hollywood.” (It’s named after the notorious 1987 flop that ended the career of gifted writer/director Elaine May – though producer/stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, who shared final cut, had no trouble getting subsequent work.)

Let us first look at the Fox slate (directors and dates via The Wrap):

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer) – 5/27/16 Independence Day: Resurgence (Roland Emmerich) – 6/24/16 Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates (Jake Szymanski) – 7/8/16 Ice Age: Collision Course (Mike Thurmeier, Galen T. Chu) – 7/22/16 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton) – 9/30/16 Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel) – 12/21/16 Why Him? (John Hamburg) – 12/25/16 Keeping Up with the Joneses (Greg Mottola) – 2016 Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi) – 1/13/17 Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Wes Ball) – 2/17/17 Wolverine 3 (James Mangold) – 3/3/17 A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski) – 3/24/17 Mother/Daughter (Jonathan Levine) – 5/12/17 Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn) – 6/16/17 War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves) – 7/14/17 The Story of Ferdinand (Carlos Saldanha) – 7/21/17 Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott) – 8/4/17 Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh) – 11/10/17 The Croods 2 (Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders) – 12/22/17 The Greatest Showman on Earth (Michael Gracey) – 12/25/17 The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad) – 2017 Predator (Shane Black) – 3/2/18

Now, many of these assignments are totally understandable. Some filmmakers are proven properties, directors with track records whose films are consistently at least medium quality, and make money: Scott, Singer, Branagh, Black, Saldanha. And Burton probably qualifies, though his films are consistently lousy and he hasn’t had a monster hit since 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Since so much of the Fox schedule – like so much Hollywood product – is comprised of sequels, there are also directors with “franchise rights” who directed previous installments: Thurmeir/Chu, De Micco/Sanders, Mangold, Singer, Vaughn, Reeves, Emmerich, Ball. (Singer and Scott would qualify for both categories.)

Some of the other choices are a bit dicier. Levine’s last effort, The Night Before, was a box-office disappointment; ditto the last two features from Mottola. While Kurzel was already in production on Assassin’s Creed, his third film, his second picture Macbeth was released; it barely did a million dollars domestic. Hidden Figures will be Mefli’s second film, though his first, St. Vincent, put up respectable numbers. And then there’s Gore Verbinksi, who yes, directed some Pirates of the Caribbean movies; but d’ya know what else he directed? The Lone Ranger, a notorious flop for Disney back in 2013. And then there are two feature debuts, from dudes: Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates from Jake Szymanski, who has a handful of TV and web short credits, and The Greatest Showman on Earth from Michael Gracey, previously a visual effects supervisor.

From Paramount:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Dave Green) – 6/3/16 Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin) – 7/22/16 Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears) – 8/12/16 Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov) – 8/19/16 Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Edward Zwick) – 10/21/16 Rings (F. Javier Gutiérrez) – 10/28/16 Allied (Robert Zemeckis) – 11/23/16 Office Christmas Party (Josh Gordon, Will Speck) – 12/9/16 Silence (Martin Scorsese) – 2016 Monster Trucks (Chris Wedge) – 1/13/17 xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (D.J. Caruso) – 1/20/17 Same Kind of Different as Me (Michael Carney) – 2/3/17 God Particle (Julius Onah) – 2/24/17 Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders) – 3/31/17 Baywatch (Seth Gordon) – 5/19/17 World War Z 2 (Steven Knight) – 6/9/17 Transformers 5 (Michael Bay) – 6/23/17 Downsizing (Alexander Payne) – 2017 Sherlock Gnomes (John Stevenson) – 1/12/18 SpongeBob SquarePants 3 (Paul Tibbitt) – 2/8/19 Amusement Park (Dylan Brown) – 3/22/19 Ripley’s Believe It or Not (Tim Burton) – TBD The Moon and the Sun (Sean McNamara) – TBD Beverly Hills Cop (Brett Ratner) – TBD The Brazilian Job (a.k.a. “The Italian Job II”) (F. Gary Gray) – TBD

This is an even odder assortment of fellows: proven talents (Lin, Frears, Scorsese, Payne, Wedge), franchise bearers (Gray, Bay, Paul Tibbitt), guys whose bad movies consistently earn (Ratner, Burton, Gordon). Knight is working his way up, and WWZ2 is his third film, following Redemption and Locke; Stevenson and Sanders are making their second features, following Kung Fu Panda and Snow White and the Hunstman, respectively.

But then there’s Gutiérrez and Onah, also making their second features, though their first titles are a touch on the obscure side (2008’s Before the Fall and last year’s The Girl is In Trouble). Carney and Brown are making their feature directorial debuts. McNamara’s behind a strange assortment of family movies, particularly (seriously) three Baby Geniuses sequels. And while Gordon and Speck, Caruso, Zwick, Zemekis, and Bekmambetov have all had hits in the past, their most recent efforts were disappointments, if not outright flops.

Does that mean they shouldn’t get another shot? Hardly. But it’s hard to look at Paramount handing Zwick a potentially lucrative Jack Reacher sequel in light of Pawn Sacrifice’s $2.4 million gross, or Zemeckis getting a Brad Pitt-fronted period piece following The Walk’s miserable $10 million domestic take, or Verbinski getting another studio gig less than two years after Lone Ranger lost something like $100 million, without thinking about the Ishtar effect. “The amount of time that it takes for women to get their next movie, when their previous movie is perceived as a failure…” Silverstein trails off; this is one of the truly galling double standards. “It’s called ‘directing jail.’ Directing jail is brutal on women. You can be in there for a decade, and men get out there a lot quicker than women do. Mimi Leder is a great example of that.”

Leder’s Deep Impact made a mint for Dreamworks in 1998, but when Pay It Forward flopped two years later, she was exiled to television. Karyn Kusama is another example; her Girlfight was a big indie hit in 2008, but when Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body underperformed, she didn’t get another shot until the (independently financed) The Invitation this year, her first feature since 2007. Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who’s Talking, and Clueless were huge earners, but when her next studio comedy Loser tanked, she was all but forgotten. If they flop, these women are one-and-done – while the likes of Zwick, Rob Reiner, Garry Marshall, Stephen Hopkins, Oliver Stone, and (on a junior scale) Max Landis keep failing upwards, given opportunity after opportunity even after their films have been dismissed by both audiences and critics.

Of course, that’s assuming they even get those opportunities in the first place. As with filmmakers of color, women directors who hope to work within the mainstream system find themselves facing studio gatekeepers who are simply accustomed to hiring people who look like them. “These false narratives that are continually perpetuated about women’s capabilities,” Silverstein says, “and that’s one thing that we really have to pause on and say, why do we feel that women are not capable of directing a movie? Why are executives saying they don’t have the capacity to do it, and the experience? They’re going to film school, they’re getting degrees… what this part of the business is saying is that they don’t have the right kind of experience to direct this type of movie.”

By “this type of movie,” of course, she’s referring to the monsters and superheroes, the blockbusters and franchises that have steadily come to define studio filmmaking – at the expense of the kind of adult-targeted, character-oriented, mid-budget comedies and dramas that studios were (sad to say) less reluctant to hand over to female directors. Now, the studios making slam-bang superhero Product are even less inclined to hire women; the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still untouched by a female director, though DC has hired Patty Jenkins to helm Wonder Woman. But she’s the exception to the rule.

If they flop, these women are one-and-done – while [men] keep failing upwards, given opportunity after opportunity even after their films have been dismissed by both audiences and critics.

“I find that so revelatory in the fact that it’s just basically stark sexism masked with a lot of bullshit. They don’t say that about women who become producers; we know women are producing hundred-million-dollar movies,” Silverstein explains, noting super-producer Laura Ziskin’s role in kicking off the modern super-hero craze with Spider-Man. “So it’s not that they won’t let you write the checks, so again it goes back to, what is it? Do you not think people can take orders from women? You don’t think women can lead?”

Happily, we’ve seen some positive change in front of the camera. Just a few years back, the percentage of films about and starring women were depressingly low; over the past few years, thanks to the robust returns of everything from The Hunger Games to Frozen, studios have wised up and put more films with female protagonists into their production pipelines. But the problem is, they’re still being almost entirely directed (and frequently written) by men. Some of last year’s best female-driven dramas (including Brooklyn and Carol) had male directors; this year’s big indie hits starring (older) women – Eye in the Sky, Hello My Name is Doris, and The Lady in the Van – all have men behind the camera. And (as writer Kyle Buchanan recently noted) though Bridesmaids was a huge moment for female-fronted R-rated comedy, studio heads seem to have taken away from that success that such films have to be directed by men – hence last year’s Spy (directed by Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig), Trainwreck (directed by Judd Apatow), and Sisters (directed by Jason Moore); this year’s How to Be Single (directed by Christian Ditter) and Bad Moms (directed by Hangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore); and the forthcoming Women in Business (directed by Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates’ Jake Szymanski) and Fox’s Mother/Daughter (directed by Jonathan Levine). Many of these men do fine work! But it’s time to let some women tell their stories too.

“All we can do is keep talking,” Silverstein says, “and make people understand that movies are a reflection of all of our culture. And women need to be let in the door.” But as long as studios like Fox and Paramount won’t open that door, mainstream moviemaking will remain a boys’ club – and that’s not just their loss, but ours.