Film Schools: Bridging The Gap

May 17, 2019
With the continuing debate about gender disparity in the international film industry, Australia’s screen schools and media education institutions have been putting strategies and philosophies in place to redress the imbalance.

In May 2015, the Australian Film Television And Radio School (AFTRS) published an edition of their arts journal, LUMINA, entitled “Does Gender Matter?”, which explored the profound gap in the film and television industry when it comes to women both behind and in front of the camera. In her introduction to the edition, AFTRS’ CEO, Sandra Levy, wrote: “Who would have guessed back in the seventies, in the heady days of feminism, that in 2015 a resurgence of activism was arising from the same issues of gender inequality, and that women were again fighting to have their voices heard and their rights respected. Certainly not me; I thought that we had moved on from those early battles, and that most of them had been won.” Yet, here we are. Four decades on, and men continue to dominate creative leadership when it comes to Australian screen content, particularly feature films. The statistics paint a pretty shocking story: in 2015, only 16% of feature films were directed by women, 20% written by women, and 29% produced by women. They may have improved a little in the years since, but the gap is still clear.

These statistics stand despite the fact that, if we look at the yearly ratio of male and female students flowing into film school as a guide, the number of men and women who desire a career in the screen industry is close to equal. At AFTRS, the nation’s longest running film school, the total graduates in screenwriting, directing, and producing from 1973 to 2015 remained remarkably regarding gender, averaging out to 52% male and 48% female.

This remains the case for close to every film school that FilmInk contacted, though certain teachers noted a division in the areas that male and female students aspire to work. Trish FitzSimons, associate professor at Griffith Film School in Brisbane, reports that the ratio of male to female students is “around even numbers these days” but notes that “Camera and Directing are the two areas in particular to which more males than females gravitate.” Jennifer Ussi, the head of Film And Television at the Brisbane campus of JMC Academy, says that there is “definitely a difference between the genders in terms of career aspirations; pretty much stereotypically the camera department is male skewed, and production is female-centric.” Meanwhile, film department coordinator at SAE Institute’s Brisbane campus, Mairi Cameron, says: “While I’d like to see more female students interested in cinematography, there seems to be an even balance when it comes to all other areas of filmmaking.”

While technical areas such as cinematography still seem to attract predominantly males, all round the numbers are relatively equal when it comes to males and females signing up to film school. One can fairly make the assumption that gender does not seem to be an issue in gaining entry to film schools, where the selection is merit based. But what happens to female students after they graduate? What causes such a gender imbalance in the workforce? What are the most significant barriers for entry? And what can film schools do, if anything, to help bridge this gap and equip female students for the challenges that lay ahead?

The Babadook director Jennifer Kent

Cast a superficial glance over the current film landscape, and one may be baffled as to whether there’s even a gender issue to discuss. When it comes to our most acclaimed practitioners, many of them are female directors like Jane Campion (via New Zealand), Gillian Armstrong, Jennifer Kent, Sophie Hyde, and Cate Shortland, and producers such as Jan Chapman, Kath Shelper, Liz Watts, Rosemary Blight and Sue Maslin. However, in her title essay published in LUMINA, Lisa French, the deputy dean of the School Of Media And Communication at RMIT University, suggests: “This very success has created the impression that there are more women in the industry than there actually are, and this masks the fact that women are still in the minority in most positions in the Australian film and television industries.”

Samantha Lang, who graduated from AFTRS in 1995 and served as the school’s subject leader in Directing from 2010 to 2016, doesn’t believe that the situation has improved. “It’s actually worse than when I first came out of film school in terms of industry statistics,” Lang tells FilmInk. “There are less women going straight into directing, but more importantly, there are women who start out in directing who are extremely talented, and they don’t get the same opportunities further down the track. It’s not when they’re first out of film school, it’s often mid-career when you start to see things arising because of that very over-used term – the glass ceiling.”

Former President of Metro Screen and the producer behind such acclaimed Aussie films as Samson And Delilah, The Darkside, and Ruben Guthrie, Kath Shelper is surprised by the statistics, despite experiencing prejudice herself. “I’ve encountered plenty of bias based on my gender – often times by men who don’t even realise they’re doing it. It is so entrenched in our society. It makes me furious!” Shelper says. “I’m surprised at the stats for the number of female producers because I feel like I’m surrounded by a lot of successful working female producers. But maybe that reflects quality over quantity when it comes to female vs male producers!”

In addition to the quality of work by female writers, directors and producers, the gender gap has also remained somewhat of a hidden topic because it’s one that women in the industry may be reluctant to bring up, at least initially. This was the case for Samantha Lang, whose debut film, The Well, screened in competition at The Cannes Film Festival in 1997. “I’ve talked about this with Gillian Armstrong, and Jane Campion has spoken about it, and when we all first started out, we were reluctant to talk about gender disparity because we felt that our work should be assessed on its own merits,” Lang says. “Now that we’ve been in the industry for some years, we’re all feeling that there are barriers to entry at a high level for female directors, particularly with feature films.”

Former AFTRS leader in directing, Samantha Lang

It’s also a tricky issue due to the fact that much of the bias tied to gender is unconscious. Many of the female practitioners that FilmInk spoke to were sure that they had experienced prejudice, but found it tough to articulate what forms it took. “We’re in an industry that’s highly competitive anyway, so in the beginning, it’s very hard to attribute that any imbalance is to [gender], but once you start to see patterns, you do recognise that,” Lang says. One concerning pattern that has emerged is the struggle by female filmmakers to maintain career momentum in the same way that their male counterparts do. “A lot of films directed by men have moderate success, and those directors get taken up again, whereas it doesn’t seem to be the case for women,” says Lang.

It’s true that women struggle to get films up at an executive level – where men are often the decision-makers – for all types of misguided reasons. One is the assumption that screenplays featuring female protagonists aren’t as marketable, particularly detrimental given that women are not exclusively, but primarily, interested in directing stories about women. In 2013-2014, only 21% of theatrically released Australian films had a female protagonist, though television has been ahead of the game in this regard. In Megan Simpson Huberman’s insightful LUMINA essay, “Women Directors: Missing In Action In Their Own Era”, she notes that along with the many structural issues, there are also intangible problems tied to what we believe a director looks like. “Assertiveness is valued highly in assessing directors, over and above other qualities that are in fact key to directing, such as collaboration, emotional intelligence, sensitivity, empathy, persuasion, and diplomacy,” she writes.

The lack of female writers, directors, and producers, and subsequently female stories, is also felt by graduates at drama schools, which, similar to film schools, welcome equal numbers of male and female students. Former Head of screen at the National Institute Of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Di Drew, claims that female graduates encounter more barriers in gaining work than the males. “You’ll find that the agents take at least two to three boys for every one girl. That’s reality. It’s not about the ability of the actor; it’s simply that they can find work for ten of the boys on their books for every one of the women.”

Rebecca Barry, a NIDA graduate and former head of teaching at the International Screen Academy (ISA), acknowledges that female actors also experience additional pressures. “All actors face anxieties as they navigate what can be an eclectic and uncertain career path,” she says. “But there is no question that the pressures surrounding the life of a female actor are different: there’s pressure to conform to a certain size, pressure to expose your body and embrace nudity on screen if the script demands, and pressure to ‘age well.’ To be active in an industry where your physicality and body image determines much about how you’re cast and the kind of roles that you can engage with, is sometimes difficult to swallow.”

The JMC Academy

Regardless of which side of the camera you’re working on, there’s always the possibility that careers may halt due to motherhood, an issue in every industry, but particularly felt in the film world. “The perpetual issues of family/work balance will remain for as long as the family unit remains,” the JMC Academy’s Jennifer Ussi says, “and it’s always been assumed that the female partner will sacrifice her career to bring up the family. As unfair and archaic as this is, it’s not going to go anywhere anytime soon, and certainly child care facilities built into production budgets will go a long way to alleviate the problem.”

Adds Kath Shelper: “[Filmmaker and journalist] Monica Davidson identifies that the gender gap is most evident for women in their mid-career, between 30-45 years. One of the main problems is that many people in decision-making positions believe that there isn’t a gender issue, so programmes that used to be in place to support women at the mid-career levels are no longer there. The current figures show that we may need to reintroduce pro-active programs if we want to see change.”

Ultimately for Samantha Lang, “consciousness-raising” is important, but the answer lay with policy changes. “The thing that is going to change the outcomes will be when we introduce, like the Swedish film industry, quotas to government funding agencies that accommodate an equitable apportioning of development funding and production funding to female directors and producers, and then eventually to female protagonists on screen. If there is a policy whereby government spend has to be 50% to women and men, that’s where there’s going to be significant change.”

So with the gender gap requiring attention at an industry, policy-making level, where does film education fit into the picture? To what extent can film and drama schools help? SAE’s Mairi Cameron puts it well when she suggests: “Film and creative industry schools aren’t the problem, but we do have the power to make a difference.” For starters, it’s where attitudes are often developed and refined. “Education that advocates for gender equality is vital in all levels of education,” RMIT’s Lisa French asserts. “In film schools and media courses, the people who will make the stories of our culture are coming through, so it is very important that they do have a commitment to and respect for equality, and that they understand how they are conveying messages about gender and their part in creating the future industry, which is hopefully more diverse.”

AFTRS

As to whether a film education makes a difference specifically for a female writer, director, or producer, French believes that it does. “It’s a place where you develop confidence, including to know the quality of your own work, and being able to put it out there. Gender is more on the agenda in a film or media course than it is in the industry itself, so women learn strategies and insights in relation to being female in the industry. They also get opportunities to experiment and make the projects that are true to their own interests – often films with central female protagonists and female centred interests.”

Likewise, Samantha Lang believes that it’s so valuable because of the relationships that you can potentially build. After graduating from AFTRS, Lang was mentored by Sandra Levy and Bridget Ikin, and secured a director’s attachment with both on various projects. Lang says that these relationships were crucial in her own transitioning to feature filmmaking. “Half of your job is having those connections, and that is increasingly so,” Lang says. “If you want to work in this industry, you have to have creative relationships. It’s important for anyone to have a network, and a film school can provide that, but it’s crucial for women to have those networks.”

Kath Shelper, who bypassed film school, also stresses the importance of key contacts and mentors when she was starting out. With this in mind, the Sydney-based Metro Screen, which largely attracts post-grad students looking for opportunities to bridge into paid screen employment, holds regular networking sessions for those wanting to strengthen their industry connections. “It’s important that women believe in themselves and not be put off by gender inequality. It’s not because guys are better at filmmaking, but the evidence seems to suggest that they might be better at using their networks,” Shelper says. “There are a number of women in the industry who understand the difficulties of making their own way up the ladder who would be happy to help. But it’s not just women – there are many men who can take on the role of mentor as well – you just need to get the right fit.”

With women making up a mere 6% of DOPs in this country, Hemma Kearney, who graduated from Bond University on The Gold Coast and is currently a cinematography tutor within the film and television department there, found her mentor to be crucial in cracking such a male-heavy industry. “I was always the only girl in the camera department, so [the challenge has been] breaking down that boys’ club, but I’ve always felt included. I worked extremely hard though, so my work didn’t go unnoticed,” Kearney says. “It was a blessing to have an incredibly encouraging and supportive mentor in cinematographer, John Stokes, who I met on my first film set. I’m part of the Australian Cinematographers Society QLD committee, and I would have never joined the male dominated committee had it not been for John’s encouragement.”

Hemma Kearney

That industry gender imbalance, combined with her own lifestyle choices, saw Kearney start up her own production company, Show And Tell Productions, and she has since netted some major clients. But she has also encountered struggles as a business owner. “I’ve felt more of a struggle as a young female with a business than I did within the feature film industry as a female in the camera department. To be taken seriously and for businesses to trust you, you have to prove yourself much more than a guy would. That’s where I’ve felt the gender divide most.” But it’s proven an incredibly rewarding venture for Kearney. “I never thought that I would be running my own production company, servicing businesses when I was at university, but I couldn’t think of anything more suited to me. I just love it!”

For SAE’s Mairi Cameron, it’s stories like Kearney’s that leave her feeling optimistic. “It’s a great time for female graduates with new technologies democratising the industry,” she says. “In the past, high level, mostly male, executives hired and fired, and graduates would start at the bottom and slowly make their way up the hierarchy. Now clients want more content for less money, and they’re coming straight to the production companies – to small teams who can produce, write, direct, shoot, and edit.”

In line with this ethos, SAE Institute, an expansive film school with bases all over the world, equips students with all the technical skills they may need to tap into. “Understanding the technical fundamentals and being able to speak the language are crucial to having the confidence to take the reins as a producer or director,” Cameron says. “This not only ensures more employable, well-rounded graduates, but is empowering for emerging creatives, particularly women. As a director myself, I have sometimes felt intimidated by high level technical processes or working with male technicians who have been in the industry for decades.”

As for directly addressing the issue in terms of class content, Lisa French says that “the study of, and commentary about, gender is less visible now than in the past in film schools and universities” as “feminism has a bad image.” For Griffith Film School’s Trish FitzSimons (a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary, Snakes And Ladders: A Film About Women, Education and History), exploring content with an eye to gender is crucial. “It’s vital to teach students to critique films through the prism of gender as from other perspectives: race, class, ethnicity. We try to make non-sexist language the rule, and to make it okay to talk about gender and the ongoing struggle for gender equality and inclusion.”

Griffith Film School’s Trish Fitzsimons

For FitzSimons, addressing the issue is also about noting trends and empowering female students in fair, pro-active ways. “Every year, all students are encouraged to put forward their scripts for readings and pitching and then voting on by the class and by lecturers,” FitzSimons says, “and I notice that not as many young women put their scripts forward. It is hard to say why this happens, but probably for all the reasons that we would suspect. One way we respond to this is to look for opportunities for affirmative action that don’t feel offensive to the males in the class or patronising to the women. One recent example is organising a masterclass with Kim Farrant, director of Strangerland. It was mostly for postgraduate students, but we also extended invitations to all the female directors of the undergraduate cohort. Staff are also routinely asked to put students forward for various opportunities, and in this context it is important to think about gender, whilst also promoting people on merit.”

For NIDA, addressing the gender imbalance begins from the earliest stage of selecting who earns a place at the drama school. “The directive from our director/CEO in terms of auditions is that the diversity of gender and race is absolutely imperative,” Di Drew told FilmInk in 2015. “If NIDA can hold up a mirror to the community – the whole community that’s out there, not just the white Anglo community – then we’re doing the right thing. By NIDA actively promoting gender and racial diversity within our student cohort, we are helping drive change.”

All teachers agree that having female staff is imperative, but the point isn’t to exclude male voices from the conversation. “A balance of gender in the teaching staff is important so all students have access to successful women with high-level creative, academic, or technical knowledge,” SAE’s Mairi Cameron says. “But it’s not just about hiring equal numbers of women. In the Brisbane film department, we are fortunate to employ male teachers who are proactive in their support for and pursuit of gender equality. This is equally as important, and powerful in a different way. This issue is not just about teaching women to fight their way to the front, but about both genders uniting in a shared expectation of equality.”

Samantha Lang agrees. “Film school is also important for women to be connected to men. Until we get men on side with this issue, it’s not going to change. We need to value the men who make differences in any industry, but ours in particular,” Lang says, pointing to the work of John Edwards, who has championed female writers, producers, and characters in such series as Offspring, Puberty Blues, and Love My Way, as an example. “We’re way past that first wave of feminism in the seventies,” says Lang. “We should all be working together and getting the best out of each other.”

Former Head of screen at the National Institute Of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Di Drew

Adds former NIDA figurehead, Di Drew, whose long resume of directorial work includes television drama like Home And Away and All Saints and features including Hildegarde: “The way that work for female actors is going to be created is by having writers, directors, and producers who can recognise what they can do for women in the industry. Saying that you need females to fill these positions to create strong female roles is inverse politics for me, and will end up with an imbalance. What we need is the right person creatively driving a vision for a project who is willing to say to their writer – male or female – ‘Rewrite that character for a woman.’ That’s where we need to be going.”

For each of these teachers and leaders, one of the central challenges is ensuring that their students are aware of the issues while not discouraging them. “Our students are certainly conscious that there is a gender imbalance in the industry,” Rebecca Barry remarks of the Sydney-based ISA, who opened their doors in 2013, and ensures that its acting students are trained in all aspects of screen production. “Their awareness of this, and the fact that they are actively preparing themselves by training hard and developing their own ideas, goes a long way towards feeling empowered rather than despondent.”

Jennifer Ussi of The JMC Academy, which has campus locations in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, and offers an extensive selection of industry courses, believes the key is to keep students passionate. “Let’s face it, the industry revolves around networks and, dare I say it, ‘boys’ clubs’ more often than not. Funding is often given to the same few people again and again – do I teach my students this? Or do I teach them that resilience, determination, and discipline will eventually pay off? I would rather keep cynicism out of my students, and let them find their path in pursuing their passion.”

Students at work at AFTRS

Samantha Lang feels that students at film school are too full of confidence and ambition to be discouraged, and that’s a positive. “When I was at film school, I was always surrounded by boys who said, ‘You’re not even competition. You’re a chick!’ I was never discouraged by that; I just thought that it was a joke,” she recalls with a laugh. “When you’re young, you’ve got all that bravado and enthusiasm and creative curiosity, and I certainly didn’t think at that stage that being a woman was going to be a barrier to entry for me. As I have gone through my career, I have seen at various stages when it has come into play, but now I’m more interested in making sure that there are opportunities for other women.”

While there’s significant change to be made in the industry if the gender gap is to be rectified, it’s certainly encouraging that these filmmakers and teachers are so passionate about helping the emerging generation of screen talent. “When I was growing up in the film industry, I had a lot of opportunities that don’t exist anymore, or that are a lot scarcer now,” says Kath Shelper, whose presidential role at Metro Screen is a voluntary position. “I just feel passionate about doing whatever I can to assist the emerging sector. Particularly now, with recent funding cuts, it’s an area that’s not being well looked after in any formal policy sense. Those of us working in the industry full-time, and doing well, have a responsibility to help those coming after us, and to keep the industry healthy.”

A sincere thanks to all those who shared their experiences and insight to make this article possible.

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