Local film critic Jan Lisa Huttner says she opened her Sunday New York Times one June morning five years ago and got hit in the face with an article that inspired her to start a consumer movement aimed at the film industry, WITASWAN.
"WITASWAN," Huttner says. "Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now." The group's logo is a placidly paddling bird that looks like it was lifted from a 1940s soap ad. For a group of pretty irate women, this is branding so bad it's good. (The alternative was worse, Huttner says: Coalition of Women in the Audience, or COWITA.)
The Times story, "An Impatient Sisterhood" by Dana Kennedy, was published just before the release of the movie version of Rebecca Wells's best seller The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It raised the question of why it had taken director Callie Khouri ten years after winning an Oscar for her script for Thelma and Louise to get a directing gig. And it provided a generalized answer that Huttner considered outrageous: Kennedy "concluded that women don't really want to be directors, that they're not willing to sacrifice to make it." Huttner, who'd recently left a 20-year career as an IT consultant for the health care industry, sat down and wrote the Times a response: If you want to know why prominent female directors are experiencing career frustrations, she asked, "why not try looking closer to home?
"Who reviews films on staff for the New York Times? Three men. Who reviews films for the New Yorker? Two. When the National Society of Film Critics published its recent book of 100 'essential films,' how many of the contributors were women? Answer: 4 out of 41." If more film critics were women, Huttner wrote, there might be more of the buzz that builds box office for the films that women make.
The Times published Huttner's letter later that month and, she notes, now has a female film critic, Manohla Dargis. But there's a second reason the Kennedy article sticks in Huttner's mind: it was her introduction to the research of San Diego State University professor Martha M. Lauzen. For 15 years Lauzen, a communications expert, has tracked the progress of women in mainstream media with eye-opening results. After a century or so of the women's movement, career inequities are still rampant, perhaps nowhere more so than in that supposed bastion of liberalism, the film industry. Every year Lauzen crunches the numbers, and every year they're dismaying. Her recently released stats for 2006 are worse than her stats for 2005.
Take a guess: what percentage of the 250 top moneymaking films of 2006 were directed by women? Just 7 percent. And it isn't only the top jobs that women are missing out on. When Lauzen included a range of key positions--producers, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, editors--the total rose only to 15 percent, exactly what it was in 1999. Even more striking: 22 percent of the year's most successful films employed no women at all in any of those positions. Except for documentary filmmaking (often done on a shoestring), the recent trend for women in film is downward, with declines in every job category except editing, which saw just a 1 percent increase since 1998. In 2006 women accounted for only 10 percent of the writers on the top 250 films and only 2 percent of the cinematographers.
Huttner, who runs an Internet site, films42.com ("the online guide for busy couples"), and writes for outlets including JUF News and digitalfilmmaker.com, figured since women make up half the audience for films, one way to bring about change in the industry might be through a consumer movement. A longtime member of the American Association of University Women, whose mission emphasizes workplace equity, Huttner proposed a film consumer project as an AAUW program, and WITASWAN was hatched three years ago. There are seven chapters of the organization now (including one in Hyde Park), with more forming. The groups, which are open to anyone, work like a book club: members make a commitment to see at least one woman-made film each month, then meet to discuss them and the business of making them. The larger agenda is to support women filmmakers by building a mass audience for their work.
Huttner says the question of why films made by women aren't doing well at the box office has a complex answer. One reason has to do with distribution, she says: they aren't booked into enough theaters to make them easy to find. (For example, Huttner says, "Roger [Ebert] gave Ya-Ya Sisterhood one-and-a-half stars, and didn't seem to understand who the main character was; in consequence, it was almost impossible to see Ya-Ya in Chicago.") The point she made in her letter to the Times is still relevant: success requires buzz, and critics, those mavens of buzz, are mostly men.
Of course, there are other ways to get publicity. The recently released indie Waitress appears to be benefiting from the buzz around the director's sensational murder last year: Adrienne Shelly was beat up and hung from a shower rod in her Greenwich Village office, allegedly by a construction worker after she'd complained about noise he was making. She'd threatened to call police; he reportedly feared he'd be deported. That might make a movie plot, but it's a tough way to build an audience.
You Talk, We'll Pick
Last week the mayor quietly introduced an ordinance that looks like it'll take the public out of the city's Public Art Program. Acting "at the request of the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs," according to a cover letter, Daley asked the City Council to agree to changes in the Percent for Art program that will transfer the powers and responsibilities of the Public Art Committee and the project advisory panels, both of which include citizen members, to the Cultural Affairs staff. Under the new provisions, Cultural Affairs will develop its own procedures and control the purse strings, deciding which artists are invited to participate and selecting the art. The department will be required to hold two public forums on each project but won't be obligated to act in accordance with anything said there.
Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association (which has represented attorney Scott Hodes in lawsuits against the city over its administration of the program), says, "The existing procedure is subject to the Open Meetings Act; with these changes, we'll have a very closed, top-down, bureaucratic process" that'll take away transparency. "If this goes through," Stewart says, "the name should be changed from the Public Art Program to the Government Art Program."
In a written statement acknowledging that the project advisory panels and Public Art Committee will be dumped, Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg maintains that the changes will nonetheless "provide for more community input into the process." According to Public Art Program director Greg Knight, "the Public Art staff and curatorial staff will take the lead. We want broad public participation, and that starts with the alderman's office, but we also have great confidence in the staff to work on public art projects in a very informed way." Knight says restrictions on the program had become "ridiculous," focusing on details, mandating meetings, and hampering creativity. "We're worn down by eight years of lawsuits by Scott Hodes," Knight says. "He needs to get a life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mireya Acerto.