Myth of the Two Percent: Why Hollywood’s Shifting Views on Female Cinematographers are Good News for Indies

David Geffner interviewed seven of America’s “hottest female cinematographers” for issue 35 of MoveMaker in 1999.

He began the article by promising that, “…there will come a time in Hollywood, and it won’t be long, when the whole ‘gender thing’ is history.” Sixteen years later, the whole “gender thing” is still an issue. Gender discrimination continues to be a problem in the film industry and gender roles behind the camera continue to be one of the most glaring examples.

But as the industry becomes increasingly variegated, both in terms of budget and in the proliferation of mediums and platforms, the picture gets more complicated. With a clear divide between female cinematographer representation in the studio and independent sectors, can traditional discrimination have an inadvertent plus side? More importantly, how can women cinematographers get seen even by the most blinkered?

What Women Cinematographers?

The reason most people picture a man when they hear the word “cinematographer,” some argue, isn’t gender bias so much as it is an accurate demographical representation. In 2013, the New York Film Academy released a series of statistics about the number of women working in the 250 top-grossing films of 2012. Only two percent of the cinematographers were women—the lowest number of all the professions examined. But does that number reflect the reality of the entire industry?

“I can’t tell you how many times I have met someone who said, ‘Wow! I’ve never met a woman DP before!’ I reply, ‘Wow, that’s amazing—because I know about 100 of them!’” says cinematographer Jendra Jarnagin. “I know too many to name.”

Jendra Jarnagin on the set of the film A Bet's a Bet. Photograph by Will Vinci

Jendra Jarnagin on the set of the film A Bet’s a Bet. Photograph by Will Vinci

Alexis Krasilovsky is the author of Women Behind the Camera, a documentary film of the same name, and the upcoming book, Shooting Women: Behind the Camera and Changing the World (to be published in 2015). Inspired by a meeting with Brianne Murphy, Krasilovsky has made it a point to make women cinematographers more visible to studios and to audiences. Like Jarnagin, she has no trouble finding women actively working as cinematographers. “My co-editor, Harriet Margolis, and I, interviewed over 90 female cinematographers for our forthcoming book. And that was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the camerawomen working in the U.S. and abroad today.”

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) has a startlingly low number of female members—14 out of 372, or 3.7 percent. Members of the invite-only ASC must fit specific criteria and are voted in based on personal reputation. There’s a vicious cycle built into this “old boys’ club” system. As Bob Fisher, the co-author of Vittorio Storaro’s new The Art of Cinematography and cinematography-specialist journalist of nearly 50 years, says, “There aren’t a lot of [visible] role models who inspire young women to follow in their wake.”

The lack of women members certainly limits the selection of female cinematographers when studios are looking at the ASC roster for potential DPs for big-budget films. In 1919, the society was organized as a way for cinematographers to network and collectively refine the standards of their art. In 1980, Brianne Murphy was invited to become the first female member. She was also the first female member of the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG), organized in 1928. (Fisher believes that Murphy was allowed to join the ICG in 1973 only because feminist activist Gloria Steinem demanded a female camera crew to shoot an NBC-TV documentary about the women’s movement in the U.S.)

With an inherited injustice that organizations have yet to shake off, women have been kept out of the professional organizations that could have provided them with visibility and connections. Even director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), who worked with DP Mandy Walker on 2011’s Red Riding Hood, was only able to name three other women cinematographers off the top of her head in our interview. It seems, then, that the problem lies not in a scarcity of women, but in the fact that people just don’t know how to find them—especially the people with hiring power. And that’s even more true (as that two percent demonstrates) of the people with hiring power in the major studios.

Studio Myopia, Indie Vision

While there are few women working on studio blockbusters, the rest of the moviemaking universe shows healthier vital signs. “As Dr. Martha Lauzen’s studies on indie films have shown, more women are getting hired as directors and cinematographers on indie films than on studio films,” says Kravislovsky. “Talented, hardworking, qualified female cinematographers are available at all levels of film and television production.”

And this female talent has risen to the top of the indie pool, frequently outshining its male counterpart. In 2014 alone, three women won three out of four cinematography awards at the Sundance Film Festival (Rachel Beth Anderson for E-TEAM, Nina Bernfeld for Happiness, and Ula Pontikos for Lilting)—though no female cinematographer has ever been nominated for an Academy Award. And moviemakers who hire these women, shut out of the studio system, are getting the best, for cheap: indie cinematographers like Reed Morano (Frozen River), Polly Morgan (The Truth About Emanuel), Jessica Gallant (Scenes From Oblivion), and Stephanie Paris (Message From Earth).

Of course, this talent hopefully won’t always be such a bargain. As cinematographer Elle Schneider (I Am Divine) says, “The statistic is not that two percent of people shooting movies are female; it’s that two percent of people being paid to shoot movies are female. There is a huge difference. ‘Working’ means earning a living as a cinematographer and being able to support one’s self with their craft. There are virtually no women cinematographers who are able to do this, and it’s what I’m actively trying to change.”

Gender-based Tech Literacy

“Women behind the camera are discriminated against first by the assumption that they are not technically proficient enough to be in charge of an army of technicians,” Schneider—who co-created the popular Digital Bolex camera package—said. “And second, by their likeliness to not own equipment. These two issues, rather than any question of talent or drive, are what keep women out of the camera department.”

 A Culture of Competition

In “No Debate,” a 2012 article that appeared on ICG Magazine’s website, cinematographer Jim Denault was complimentary towards his female camera crew on the political satire The Campaign, while his loader, Tonjia Greenfield, expressed surprising hostility: “I was a little apprehensive when I heard that both firsts and seconds were female, because that’s a lot of estrogen…women can be catty and competitive.”

Greenfield’s sexism is only half of the puzzle. Female studio executives and top directors have traditionally been reticent in vocally discussing the proverbial glass ceiling. At the indie level, women are far more explicit about the topic. In a recent blog post on her website, director Lexi Alexander called out Universal’s Donna Langley and Sony’s Amy Pascal on the issue of studio-level gender discrimination. “Why don’t Amy and Donna, the two women amongst the 18 mentioned green light big-shots, solve the whole gender inequality issue for us?” she asks. She then goes on to say that “token women” at studios are less inclined to hire other women.

Schneider argues that criticism only goes so far. “I don’t recall ever seeing [Alexander] retweet a female filmmaker’s Kickstarter project, or shout out a women filmmaker who wasn’t courting her praise specifically. We need to be concerned with everyone other woman’s job prospects equally as much as our own, otherwise there is no chance for success.”

Hardwicke met Red Riding Hood DP Walker through channels of praise. “Baz Luhrman spoke highly of her and she was very impressive in the interview. Then she was approved by Warner Brothers.” Just as DP Amy Vincent got her break working with director Kasi Lemmons on Eve’s Bayou, and was the first woman ever featured on the cover of American Cinematographer, it takes woman-to-woman support to break the studio ceiling.

Sexism’s Legacy

“Of course there’s a bias,” Krasilovsky says. “The studios continue to be dominated by men who hire mostly men. If studio producers were to look at cinematographers’ reels in a gender-blind process similar to the WGA’s Diversity Access Program, it’s likely that more women and minorities would break through the barriers to top budget opportunities.”

“If studio execs think a woman can’t do a job,” says Jarnagin, ‘it’s because of the mindset in which they were raised. But people who are coming into their careers now, who have been raised by empowered feminist mothers and fathers, don’t have the same gender bias that older generations do. You see women shooting student films and indie films at much higher numbers.”

Pointing out that “Roland Emmerich has done a number of huge films with [DP] Anna Foerster,” Schneider nevertheless suggests a different attitude towards men and women when it comes to studio hiring: “Women are judged more on what they have done, while men are judged on potential. How dare women just want to do something cool? Many men, like Marc Webb with the Spider Man franchise, for example, are hired on projects they have no related experience for, but have a gung-ho energy that’s convincing enough.”

Elle Schneider is part-owner of Digital Bolex. Photograph by Robyn Von Swank

Elle Schneider is part-owner of Digital Bolex. Photograph by Robyn Von Swank

Ending Misconceptions

Reversing the insidious media and industry fallacies about women cinematographers by creating visibility is the answer. “The studios have to be blind and completely wrapped up in cocoons at this point if they claim not to know of any women cinematographers on the planet. Many other countries have societies of cinematographers as well, with notable members such as Mexico’s Hilda Mercado, who is also in the union in L.A,” says Krasilovksy. “There’s also the British Society of Cinematographers: Sue Gibson has served as the BSC’s President. Another female DP, Inês Carvalho, served as president of the Society of Cinematographers in Portugal.” With her books and documentary, Krasilovsky herself has been instrumental in creating visibility for women cinematographers.

The Internet is a major source of visibility for women in all aspects of the film industry, allowing women an equal playing field to market themselves and their careers. Professionals in smaller film markets can connect and find jobs with an ease that was previously impossible. Online resources include Facebook groups (like Camerawomen L.A.), websites like Women in Film – Los Angeles and Women Directors in Hollywood, and “watchdog” blogs like The Bitch Pack and Women and Hollywood. “People want to support the underdog,” Jarnagin says. “They think it is fantastic that I am an established, successful woman DP. People pay attention to my career and what I am up to.”

Even advocacy is full of complexities. While Jarnagin embraces being termed a “female cinematographer” because of the promotional possibilities, some women don’t feel the same way. “I don’t like being labeled as a female cinematographer, myself, unless it’s in the context of a discussion about gender and cinematography,” says Krasilovsky. “We’re no longer in the 19th century, talking about ‘lady poets’ or ‘lady painters,’ right?” She admits to an element of hypocrisy. “On the other hand, I was a proud member of Behind the Lens: An Association of Professional Camerawomen (which disbanded in 1996). Currently I’m an enthusiastic participant in Women in Film, the WGA’s Committee of Women Writers and the Alliance of Women Directors. We are actively pushing forward a women’s initiative to address imbalances in hiring practices, as well as reaching out to our associates in the DGA.”

“No one wants to have an asterisk next to their name, to be the best in a marginalized subcategory,” Schneider explains. “No one wants to be the ‘best gay rock star,’ or a ‘good black president.’ But the larger the marginalized group becomes, the more normalized, and the greater of a voice the group has and the more opportunity is available to everyone.”

Schneider’s grant for female cinematographers, the Digital Bolex Grant, is an excellent example of using power—in this case, financial—for immediate change. The grant offers free camera kits with $10,000 in additional gear and accessories on a rolling basis to narrative short and feature film projects that plan to use a female cinematographer.

“Gender shouldn’t even be an issue but I’m afraid that until we approach some kind of balance, professional and informal initiatives like this will have to continue,” says Fabien Heurelle, a French journalist who runs a Pinterest board dedicated to “highlighting the faces and creations of the women working behind the scenes.” As he says, “There are several organizations tackling this, mostly led by women, but this is also a male problem. This is everybody‘s problem. Having more women working at important roles means a better industry.” MM

 This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2014 issue. Featured image of Alexis Krasilovsky.

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