Cracking down the celluloid ceiling

With the 2022 Oscar nominations hot off the press, we take today to look at the female nominations – and Hollywood’s unfinished business with equality.

Ever heard of the glass ceiling? It’s the invisible barrier keeping women (or any other minority demographic) from rising beyond a certain level, usually in their working environment. When that happens in the cinema industry, we bring back the material used to make the film stock that was once used to make motion pictures to speak of the “celluloid ceiling”.

While visibility in the arts has been historically male-dominated (we dare you to name 3 female Renaissance painters), at its origin cinema was poised for breaking the mould. Starting with the first female director, Alice Guy-Blaché who created La Fée aux Choux in 1896 – if that sounds early, it’s because it may well have been the first narrative film ever released. Another key first was scored by Helen Gardner, the first film actor, male or female, to form her own production company, The Helen Gardner Picture Players. Women screenwriters were also highly sought after in the silent and early-sound cinema eras, and one of them, June Mathis even went off to become the first female executives in Hollywood.

Fast-forward to today and we can imagine those pioneering cinema ladies clutching their pearls at what the sector has turned into. The most recent outlook tells us that:

  • Women comprised 17% of directors working on the 250 top grossing films in 2021, down from 18% in 2020.
  • Women accounted for 25% of those working in key behind-the-scenes roles (directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, cinematographers) on the top 250 grossing films in 2021, up from 23% in 2020.
  • By role, in 2021 women accounted for 17% of writers, 26% of executive producers, 32% of producers, 22% of editors, and 6% of cinematographers.

The divide goes even further when we think of a film’s success after its release – in great measure due to the work of critics, among which we find that 65% of film reviewers in 2020 are male, while only 35% are female. We are also not sure about how many men truly got the message behind Great Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

All the numbers above could easily be read as “yet another grim outlook of a male-dominated industry”, but they become particularly unsettling when we think that in 2020-21, females comprised 52% of major characters appearing on streaming programs. Not only that, but films and shows on streaming services also counted with substantially higher percentages of women working as creators, directors, and editors than broadcast programs. Maybe there is indeed space for women, behind and in front of the cameras, after all?

We will never get tired of remembering Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award for Best Director in 2010 for The Hurt Locker – the first woman to score in the category, and facing none other than James Cameron. It would take another decade to match that feat, with Chloé Zhao’s 2021 win in the best director category which, for the first time in its 93-year history, the Academy nominated two women, herself and Emerald Fennell.

We promised some 2022 Oscar talk, and we are definitely not happy to see that women represented 28% of all of this year’s individual nominations, the lowest percentage in three years, with some flaunting a whopping number of zero female nominations, such as original screenplay, VFX, or International Feature.

Hollywood ladies aren’t happy about this either, and have been clawing their way through effective change for years – from the much needed #MeToo movement to end sexism to their spearheading of inclusion and integration of minorities and demographics traditionally disdained in the industry (can Laverne Cox have her Oscar already?).

There is still a long way to go until a female actor is no longer asked about her diet when promoting a film, but in the meantime and to celebrate today, we leave you with all the ladies we’ll be cheering on for the next Oscars:

  • First woman to receive a second career nomination for Best Director (and only female nominee), Jane Campion.
  • Encanto composer and first Latina woman to ever be nominated in the Original Score category, Germaine Franco.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay nominees Siân Heder, Maggie Gyllenhaal and again Jane Campion (go, Jane!).
  • Film Editing nominee Pamela Martin, Cinematography nominee Ari Wegner and Sound nominees Denise Yarde and Tara Webb.

We will have our popcorn ready on 28 March, until then – Happy International Women’s Day!

Sources: The Celluloid Ceiling in a Pandemic Year: Employment of Women on the Top U.S. Films of 2021, Boxed In: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes on Broadcast and Streaming Television in 2020-21, Indie Women in a Pandemic Year: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women in U.S. Independent Film, 2020-21, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top Grossing U.S. Films of 2020, Thumbs Down 2020: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters, Women’s cinema : the contested screen, “Lights, Camera-maids, Action!”: Women Behind the Lens in Early Cinema.