Today’s article is an offshoot of two strands of research I’ve been working on over the past few years – gender in the film industry and UK films with public funding. I looked at the percentage of female writers, producers and directors within UK films, focusing on how the female representation changes between films supported by a public body and those that are not.
- 20% of UK films shot 2009-13 received some form of public funding
- Across all UK films 2009-13, women accounted for 14% of directors, 27% of producers and 15% of writers
- On publicly-backed films, women account for 20% of directors, 32% of producers and 24% of writers
- The BFI fund a disproportionately large number of dramas, biopics and period dramas
- The BFI fund a disproportionately small number of horror, documentary and fantasy films
- 45% of period dramas made in the UK received some kind of UK-based public funding
Who are the public funding bodies?
One in every five features films shot in the UK receives some sort of public funding, underlying the significance of public funders in the UK industry. In 2013, public funding bodies spent £157 million on UK film – through funding, training and support. (This is in addition to the £206 million tax breaks given to UK films by the HMRC).
The major funders are the British Film Institute (BFI), the BBC and regional screen agencies that look after geographic areas of the UK. In all, I tracked 37 public funding bodies (details here). I used IMDb users and Metascore as proxies for quality as judged by film audiences and film critics, respectively. I was able to show that the vast majority of UK films with public funding received better scores than the UK average.
How well are women represented within UK films with public funding?
There’s no getting around the numbers – women are massively underrepresented within UK film. Research I published last year showed that 14% of directors on UK films shot 2009-13 were women. Producers look a bit healthier at 27.2% and writers stand at 15.2% female. There is much debate as to why this is but I’m not going to address that in today’s article. What interests me at this stage is measuring and quantifying the situation so we can have an open, healthy debate about the topic.
I combined my research into publicly-funded films and the gender split within the crew to see how the average percentage of women in key roles differs if a film receives public funding. And the results are quite clear – women are much better represented within the key roles of films backed by public funding.
19.9% of directors on UK films with public funding were women, compared to just 12.6% of directors on films not supported with public money. The trend continues with producers (32.1% versus 23.6%) and for writers (23.6% versus 12.8%).
Why is this?
Sadly, the numbers alone cannot reveal why this is happening – correlation is not causation. But it could be a combination of the following factors…
- Female writers, producers and directors are more likely to make the kinds of films public funders wish to support. I’ve previously published research on the genres of the films publicly supported – i.e. a whole lot of dramas, period dramas and biopics and very few horror and action films. In the past I have also shown how the kinds of films women tend to write, produce and direct differ from men. Normally I would split out the data to test this theory but the number of films to study is so small in some cases that the margin of error would be quite high.
- The public funding bodies are seeking out female creatives. Whether explicitly via diversity quotas or implicitly via personal choice of the decision makers. The BFI has recently instituted diversity quotas on all of its production funding, which includes gender, although the films I studied predate this quota.
- People hire differently when they feel they are being watched (or have to submit an application justifying their actions). The film industry is mostly a collection of freelancers on short-term contracts, making it hard to monitor hiring practices. However, when a filmmaker wishes to apply for public support they are aware that their choices will be judged by others, and in some cases they need to provide details of why they have chosen the people they have. Social scientists tell us that people are more likely to act virtuously when they believe we’re being watched and so this is a possible factor.
- The kinds of people who make films outside of public funding are less keen to hire women. I find this argument unpleasant as that category includes my work as a writer and producer. That said, it cannot be ruled out as a possible factor.
But these are just possible reasons; further research is needed before we can say with any certainty why this is happening.
Today’s data relates to feature films shot in the UK between 2009 and 2013 (shoot year, not release year). For more details of the methodology please read the appendix of my ‘Women in UK Film Crews’ research which can be found here stephenfollows.com/what-percentage-of-a-british-film-crew-is-female
Unless you’re promoting a quota system, aren’t these statistics meaningless if you don’t first determine what the gender percentages of people in a given film position are that are seeking employment? Can’t you get majors by gender from film schools? For example, I would be shocked to find 50% of cinematographers being women since few women are in the inexpensive cinematography classes I have taken but it is the most often quoted statistic to justify a bias that only women should receive public funding for films. I always find it interesting that people trying to argue that women should be hired over better experienced men never discuss why there is a much larger percentage of producers that are women than directors that are women. In my experience that has a significance that is intentionally overlooked in all these gender bias “studies”.
You also don’t mention the gender of the staff of the public bodies making the funding decisions. As long as you are speculating, depending on these two unreported statistics you don’t even mention, you might just as truthfully state “it cannot be ruled out” that the women at the public funding bodies “are less keen” to fund projects headed by men. Bias is bias. You seem to consistently harp on this gender bias issue without ever conclusively proving it with complete and proper scientific statistics which seem common sensical to me and you skim over the whole diversity issue in general as a hot potato. Is it possible you are too involved in the industry to really be forthright without fear of retaliation from the people in charge of the public funding? Finally, I am not promoting this as it is illegal though never enforced in the USA but why don’t the women who are in control of films just decide to hire an all woman crew?
Thanks for your thoughts. I think you raise some good points but you have also passed over your anger or frustration with other people’s opinions on gender issues onto me. For example, you seem to imply that I am one of the “people trying to argue that women should be hired over better experienced men”. I’m not. The ideal solution gets to the root cause of the current gender imbalance and if it turns out to be down to (conscious or unconscious) actions which harm the careers of women then we should work to have equal opportunities going forward.
I am indeed working on measuring the gender of new entrants. It’s tricky as there is not one source and everyone takes their own path. However, based on my early results (and my experience teaching at many of the major UK film schools) it seems that women make up between 40% and 55% of film students. It’s certainly much healthier than the employment situation in the industry. Ideally we would also be able to see how the gender of film students has evolved in the past decade or so to see if that has much of an effect on gender representation in the industry.
Likewise, measuring the gender of ‘decision makers’ in public bodies would be a handy fact but it’s not something I know how to measure. Each scheme has it’s own system of filtering and selecting – many of which are not transparent.
When you say “you skim over the whole diversity issue in general as a hot potato” do you mean that of race? I tried on numerous occasions to develop a system to fairly measure race and class but so far nothing has been robust enough to publish. Gender is binary and relatively easy to measure from the outside, whereas race and class are highly subjective and extremely hard to judge without direct contact with each person.
“Is it possible you are too involved in the industry to really be forthright without fear of retaliation from the people in charge of the public funding?”. It’s possible but not true. I’ve not had public funding for any of my projects to date, I’m not currently applying for any and I have enough faith in the bodies as to not hold a grudge. I see my role as research and reporting, not campaigning and so I look at everything I think is pertinent and possible. I have in the past reported all my finding, even when they are not welcomed by people who support previous research (i.e. stephenfollows.com/films-that-fail-the-bechdel-test-are-better-than-those-that-pass).
When you ask “why don’t the women who are in control of films just decide to hire an all woman crew?” I think you’re missing the point. Hypothetically we could have half the films staffed entirely by men and the other half staffed by women but this would be a terrible solution. I’m not pushing the idea that we should have any particular gender split in employment, just that there is equality of opportunity. I’ve often said that if it turns out that the current representation of women in the industry is entirely down to free choices made by women then that’s not a problem. My issue is that from looking at the numbers and speaking to women in the industry that seems to be far from the truth.
I welcome all views on the topics as all good-natured discussion of the results is healthy.
Thanks for taking the time to include yours to the conversation