This week, Empire Magazine, the UK’s top film review publication, released its “definitive list” of the 100 greatest films ever, as voted in by the public. The magazine also polled some film-makers for their own lists, noting that both men and women were asked, although the online version of this list does not include their choices. As it stands, what we have been presented with is a typically mainstream focused selection, akin to the IMDb top 250 in its narrowness, but more generic in scope. That’s all well and good, and there’s no surprise in the 100 films listed being action and genre heavy, but there’s something so smothering in the lack of shock I felt at reading this entire list and seeing a grand total of two movies directed by woman (those film being Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix).
As I said, there was nothing especially shocking about this list in terms of its demographics or genre preferences. As someone who grew up reading Empire and found that experience hugely formative in moulding my experience as a film lover, I was all too aware of the male-skewing nature of the publication and how that impacted its reporting (although their list of the best British films from last year, where no women directors at all were included, feels like a more egregious omission to me). According to Statista, readership heavily favours men, and blockbusters remain their bread and butter. The films that are seen by the most people will be the ones that are chosen most frequently for such lists, hence the sheer number of Marvel movies on there. You can’t force voters to make different choices, and people will always like what they like, damn the preferences of others, but all this list does hammer home the sheer lack of opportunities offered to women directors in an industry that fetishizes the narratives of straight white male heroes.
Let’s look at the state of the biz: It’s 2017, and a grand total of two live-action films have been released that were directed by women with over a $100m budget (Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker, and Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman); It has taken until this year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to hire a woman director; no woman has ever directed a Star Wars film; only one has ever won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; we have one woman Best Director Oscar winner alongside three other female nominees over the course of close to 90 years (all of whom are white); three of the most successful franchise starters written and directed by women - Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and Mamma Mia - were all replaced by men for the sequels once the money came in; Spider-Man’s coming up for six movies but Black Widow has none; And, perhaps most damning of all, women are now losing ground as directors in Hollywood. According to San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, “Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016. That figure represents a decline of two percentage points from 2015’s 9 percent.” There’s a reason Jessica Chastain was “disturbed” by what she saw as a Cannes jury member this year.
The opportunities aren’t there, the assumptions remain that women are just too darn risky for the big jobs, but every scruffy 20-something white dude in a baseball cap gets his own 9-figure-budget Summer tent-pole. Think-pieces ponder whether Patty Jenkins, Emmy nominated director of an Oscar winning indie that made back 7 ½ times its original budget is too risky for a blockbuster, all while lauding studios for taking a risk on Colin Trevorrow and letting him use Jurassic World as a form of on-the-job grad school.
It doesn’t fare any better on the indie level, where women are slightly more numerous, but are denied opportunities to move into bigger work or even adopt the mantle of auteur in the way men are rewarded. Catherine Hardwicke once talked of pitching for The Fighter but being turned down because they wanted a male director. The eventual choice, David O. Russell, a notorious bully, was considered a safer bet than a woman who never once screamed abuse at their cast.
It’s not just the gender disparities in the directors that makes the 100 greatest list so disappointing. The overwhelmingly white male focus of the films is just as indicative of the industry’s biases. Even as we have solid figures to show the shifting of valuable cinema-going demographics that weakens the iron grip of the fabled 18-49 white male crowd, that is still the group who are the most pandered to. Their views and people are seen as a universal default mode that everyone can relate to. Every instance of a film bucking this trend - from Get Out to Wonder Woman to Hidden Figures - is dissected like a rare beast, as if its success is a bizarre anomaly rather than the way of things. I’ve yet to see an article posit that the disastrous flopping of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie signals the end of white male directors. Hell, it didn’t even stop Ritchie from hanging onto his gig directing Disney’s upcoming live-action Aladdin remake.
I can already hear the rumbles of complaint regarding the Empire list, wondering why this is such a big deal. It’s not the end of women in film as we know it, that’s obvious, but it does signal the cultural smudging that takes place when there is so little variation in terms of voices at the table. White men deem these films to be the greatest, so the coverage continues to build around them, so the industry continues to pander to them, thus making it all the harder for more diverse stories to be told by and for those audiences. That bias shown by that dominant audience is seldom malicious, but sometimes it can manifest in harmful ways, such as the frequent use of the IMDb ratings system to attack work like Ghostbusters and Dear White People. A FiveThirtyEight report revealed the ways that method was abused to heavily lean against work popular with women.
No list of anything deemed to be “the greatest” will ever be definitive, nor should it be. Audiences change, film evolves, and our ideas of what constitutes greatness shift with the times. Perhaps in 10 years time, Empire will do this again and suddenly half the films chosen will be directed by people who didn’t fall off the wannabe Spielberg assembly line. For now, let’s continue to seek out the stories we want to hear.