Netflix have yet to announce if their teen rom-com smash hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before will have a sequel yet it seems all but confirmed that such things will happen. There are two more books in the Lara Jean saga, as written by Jenny Han, and there’s no way Netflix won’t want to lock Lana Condor and new heart-throb du jour Noah Centineo down for the full trilogy. There’s no doubt there, but the question on my mind is whether they’ll bring back Susan Johnson for the sequels.
Johnson is a director and producer who made her directorial debut in 2016 with Carrie Pilby, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to strong reviews. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is only the second film she’s ever directed but it managed to score strong reactions across the board. Fans of the book loved it, critics were won over by its sweetness, and it’s one of a handful of 2018 films being credited with reviving the rom-com. That’s a big deal for any director, but especially a female director only on her second film working in a much-maligned genre that appeals primarily to teenage girls. So, of course, my first thought was that she’ll probably end up being replaced for the sequels by a man.
I refer to these situations as being Hardwicked or an instance of Hardwicke-ing: To allow a woman director to make a film in a genre or with a story that primarily appeals to other women, have that film become a huge hit, only to make sure the sequels are made by men.
The trope is in reference to Catherine Hardwicke, the celebrated and oft-underrated indie director who directed the first Twilight film. Hardwicke has talked frequently about getting Twilight made and the pushback she faced with the project. The book was popular but not considered a hot property when it was optioned. Hardwicke had a $37m budget and only 44 days of shooting. It was her idea to shoot in hand-held cameras and to create the earthy tones of the cinematography. She was the one who pushed for Kristen Stewart to play the lead, even though she was a minor at the time which meant they couldn’t film the long days typically required. The best things about that film are rooted in Hardwicke’s serious commitment to the material and doing it properly. As messy as those books remain for a multitude of reasons, the first film remains the best one. While the film wasn’t rapturously received when it opened, it did have its fans. Owen Gleiberman praised her for re-imagining Stephenie Meyer’s book as ‘a cloudburst mood piece filled with stormy skies, rippling hormones, and understated visual effects.’
Of course, the critical responses were quickly overshadowed by the box office grosses. Twilight made over $393m worldwide and crowned Catherine Hardwicke as the most commercially successful female director since Mimi Leder. Summit Entertainment had a new franchise on its hands, and surely Hardwicke would be the one to shepherd it to new heights?
Well, we know what happened. Hardwicke herself has said she turned down directing the follow-up film, New Moon, because the producers wanted a rush job. However, it was tough to ignore the gossip and industry reporting around their decision to bring Chris Weitz on board. One rumour frequently reared its ugly head, wherein Hardwicke was positioned as ‘difficult’ because, one day during a tough scene, she went away for five minutes to cry, then came back and got on with her job. It’s easier to make women seem like difficult whiners on film sets than men, even if they pull David O. Russell levels of temper tantrums. Whatever the case, Summit had a hit franchise to call their own, one that appealed to women young and old, and they gave every single sequel over to a male director.
This is nothing new. We saw it happen with Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel created a film that made back over 14 times its budget thanks to its appeal to majority female audiences, only for the sequels to be directed and written by men (one of whom was E.L. James’s own husband). The circumstances may have been different here - James famously clashed with Taylor-Johnson and Marcel and loathed even the most minor changes made to her book - but the optics remain troubling.
It happened again with Mamma Mia. Phyllida Lloyd directed not only the film but the original West End and Broadway productions, with Catherine Johnson returning for writer’s duties. Together, they made the fifth highest grossing film of 2008 - it made more money than James Bond and Iron Man! - but who wrote directed the sequel? Ol Parker, a man whose two previous efforts as directors were both critical and commercial flops.
Things are slowly getting better in Hollywood but the odds remain unfairly stacked against women directors and the stories of women. Every excuse is used to deny the appeal and potential of narratives aimed at primarily female audiences: They’ll alienate men; they won’t play well internationally; that trend is out-of-date, and so on. They get smaller budgets and shorter shooting times. The sneers will permeate the narrative surrounding the film before it’s even finished. And then it makes money, so of course people will listen, and their first response will be to find a way to ensure men are the dominant force of that success.
The curious reality of the film industry’s future is that there will be less movies made - at least with cinematic releases - but the opportunities offered by those handfuls of major studio properties will be vast. Everything seems to be part of a franchise or a sequel or a remake or something that a shared universe can be built upon. Producers are looking for their own sagas to tell, as loosely as the term ‘saga’ can be interpreted, and there are countless women driven stories out there calling out for the treatment. It’s not enough to let women tell their own stories: They have to be allowed to continue telling their stories once they achieve success and not have it snatched away so that a dude can reel in the profits.
By and large, we’ve reached a point where the bigwigs of entertainment understand, at the very least, that it’s good business to have women telling women-driven stories. There are exceptions - looking at you, Millennium and Bryan Singer - but enough attention is now being paid to the system by audiences to the point where such issues are noticed and commented upon with increasing volume. The biggest sign, in my opinion, that things were changing for the better was when Patty Jenkins signed on for the Wonder Woman sequel. Replacing her was not an option, and certainly not with a man, and DC knew that. The next step is to see if major studios are willing to pass franchise batons from men to women (and to not continue blocking out directors of colour, who remain noticeably absent from these tentpole properties, a few exceptions aside).
The real sign of change will be when Deadline ends up writing an opinion piece complaining about the poor male directors who keep getting replaced by women on the sequels to franchises they kick-started. For now, I’ll accept a world where a woman’s success in film isn’t treated as the springboard for a man’s.
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