On Friday, Wonder Woman director, Patty Jenkins, became the highest grossing female director of a live action movie, pushing Phyllida Lloyd’s Mama Mia out of the way with over a $609.8M total take at the global box office.
It goes without saying that this is pretty huge. What’s even more impressive is that coverage of the movie links Jenkins with its success, even though reports indicate that she had not officially signed on to direct the next Wonder Woman (but it’s rumored she will). The last feature film that Jenkins directed was Monster with Charlize Theron, over 14 years ago. That film was a critical success and earned Theron her Oscar, and yet Jenkins had to wait over a decade to get a shot at directing another film.
And yet, many male directors and actors don’t seem to suffer much if their films aren’t critical successes or bankable. (I’m looking at you Johnny Depp.)
One pervasive and totally A->B logical reason for why female directors don’t direct many films is because there aren’t many opportunities open to them to do so. This is a studio issue that doesn’t reward risk taking. You only need to look at Kathleen Kennedy’s abrupt firing of Han Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller for proof of this. Lord and Miller were hailed as a aesthetic departure from the rather serious approach taken to other films in the Star Wars universe, and fans looked forward to their cheeky sensibility to infuse young Han Solo with his trademark snarky charm. Yet, their risk taking was not one that fulfilled the producers’ criteria of making a bankable movie with lots riding on its success. In this case, the directors were male, but their ouster is indicative of the ultra-conservative approach that Hollywood takes to filmmaking.
Female directors have to battle against these same winds, without the benefit of being able to be the same gender as most of the decision makers in Hollywood. This all seems fairly obvious and pretty basic. But the standard approach to critical views of Hollywood is that a decision to hire a director is one built on meritocracy – i.e., if the director is good, they will rise to the top, getting opportunities that reflect their abilities. This just isn’t the case. Merit in Hollywood is linked to box office take, and even that isn’t a guarantee that a female director will get a chance to make a sequel to her own smash hit. Look at the situations of Catherine Hardwicke and Sam Taylor Johnson who directed the first Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, respectively. Hardwicke and Taylor Johnson both claim they walked away from their sequels, but they were also rumored to be butting heads with executives prior to their “decision” to leave. Being a “difficult director” removed from a successful series isn’t something you hear often, which is what makes the Lord and Miller firing so unique. However, it is the exception that proves the rule about bottom line motives: safe money. It’s not enough for a money to make money. The female Ghostbusters (2016) movie took in over $229M worldwide on a budget of $144M, but it wasn’t enough to make a sequel (which inherently don’t do as well as the original), and was considered a box office bomb. The money has to be guaranteed.
The bottom line is money, and women directors are just not trusted (yet) to make enough of it. But maybe the success of Wonder Woman will help to shift perceptions. There are already a new raft of female action hero movies lined up (Captain Marvel, Gotham City Sirens, Batgirl), but all of them have male directors attached, even if Joss Whedon is one of them. Maybe Patty Jenkin’s success will help change things if a Black Widow, or Harley Quinn movie is green lit. But, in the meantime, Go, Patty Jenkins, get your money, girl. And have some back-ends tied into it to boot.