Imagine if half the people directing films were women

Jennifer Kent was the director of <i>The Babadook</i>.

Jennifer Kent was the director of The Babadook. Photo: Supplied

If there's been an overarching theme in film and TV commentary in 2015, it's been about women: how they are paid less and receive fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, and how they make up precious little of the "behind the scenes" roles in Hollywood and other major film industries.

From #AskHerMore and Patricia Arquette's stirring Oscars speech to Jessica P. Ogilvie's searing LA Weekly expose "How Hollywood Keeps Out Women" and the American Civil Liberties Union's plans to launch an investigation into gender biases in studio hiring practices, it's been a busy year.

Now, Australia is entering the fray, with news that the Australian Directors Guild is urging Screen Australia, the federal film and TV funding body, to adopt a quota model that would ensure 50 per cent of funded projects are directed by women.

"The screen industry has been funded by the Federal Government for more than four decades for reasons of cultural representation, economic stimulus, and professional development and innovation," Ray Argall, ADG president, told Mumbrella. "The ADG is concerned with diversity of all types, but is particularly concerned with the dramatic lack of equity in the funding of women and, in particular, female directors."

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The quota is inspired by a model adopted by the Swedish Film Institute, whose funding agreement, introduced in 2012, states "the funding shall be divided equally between women and men in the key positions of director, screenwriter and producer in those projects which receive funding from the Swedish Film Institute."

In response to the ADG's comments, Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron said funding body was "actively investigating options for addressing issues of gender equality in Australia's screen industry, with options to go to the next Board meeting in late November," and that they were looking at a number models, including the Swedish 'quota' model and the British Film Institute's diversity initiative.

The immediate reaction from naysayers has taken a typical tone, which is that directors should be chosen on merit, not according to their gender. It's an argument that holds little water when you consider that some of this country's most talented male directors find it hard to cue up a second or third project, and often head overseas instead; their female peers may find it hard to even get one film made.

"Merit" is a cousin of other industry falsehoods, such as "women just don't like directing action movies". As award-winning director Gillian Armstrong said on the topic of the potential for a Screen Australia quota, "My feeling has always been that it has to be based on merit. But the data from Screen Australia shows that the increase has only been about 6 per cent in 30 years. It is pretty obvious that the current system is not about merit – there is not a level playing field."

Additionally, "merit" is a flawed prism through which to view the film industry, since female writers, directors and producers face a range of barriers to employment, let alone funding. At last year's Screen Forever conference, a number of female producers noted that women will often refrain from seeking funding unless they feel their idea is "production ready"; men will often breeze in with little more than a few loose ideas to throw at the wall. Ensure that women are able to direct, write or produce half of funded projects, and the playing field is leveled considerably.

As Sweden's experiment has demonstrated, a quota means an increased number of jobs for women within the industry, and a more diverse range of voices represented on screen and beyond.

Around 80 per cent of the Swedish films selected for this year's Toronto International Film Festival were directed by women. Compare that to Hollywood's record and the effect is striking: only 17 of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014, in other words just 6.8 per cent, were directed by women.

So, let's say the ADG does convince Screen Australia – as well as state funding bodies, the ABC and SBS – to adopt a gender-based quota: what would the film landscape look like?

In truth, probably not all that different from the way it looks now. The idea that more women directors would necessarily mean an increased number of movies where women discuss their feelings over cups of tea is codswallop; women directors are just as capable of directing all manner of genres as their male peers.

(Indeed, perhaps a few more women directors might mean a few less depressing Australian crime dramas about performative masculinity – or at the very least, perhaps a few depressing Australian crime dramas that actively critique performative masculinity.)

Australia's film industry is enjoying its best year at the box office since 2001, with a 6.8 per cent share of takings reported earlier in October, and while the release of Jocelyn Moorhouse's terrific The Dressmaker is expected to continue the trend, the top 10 highest performing Australian films of 2015 so far have all been directed by men.

Does that sound like a business based on merit to you?