The current era of cinema is one of “worst in hollywood history”, declared the legendary director Quentin Tarantino in a podcast. In the past week. It doubled on Monday in another podcastdeclaring that “there are no more movie stars” due to the “marvelization of Hollywood”.
Tarantino isn’t the first big-name Hollywood auteur to throw himself into the current status quo of movie-making and its penchant for super spectacle. In 2019, Martin Scorsese said that Marvel movies “were not cinema” and that concerned cinema was being “invaded” by them. Francis Ford Coppola added that the Marvel movies were “despicable.”
It’s hard to overstate the massive change that cinema has undergone in the last decade, or even in the last five years.
As it happens, I’m not a fan of Marvel movies either. “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021) were marginally better than this year’s blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick,” but that’s a pretty low bar. However, even to a Marvel skeptic like me, claiming this era of cinema is the worst in history and using the language of invasion makes these directors sound like aging wackos yelling at kids to get up off the lawn.
It also makes them sound, unfortunately, like they’re yelling at women to get off their screens.
For almost the entire history of movies, women have not had access to the capital needed to make them. Male producers and funders, like Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted of two counts of sexual assault in 2020, decided who to fund. And people like Weinstein overwhelmingly greenlit movies by male directors like (ahem) Quentin Tarantino.
From the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, only two directors had careers in Hollywood: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Things improved marginally between 1966 and 1980. There were at least 15 women directors in the commercial film industry during that time. One was Elaine May, who directed the brilliant 1972 “The Heartbreak Kid,” the 1987 flop “Ishtar,” and that was it. Her career in foreshortening of her was typical. Women directed only 0.19% of feature films between 1949 and 1979.
The numbers weren’t much better 11 years ago in 2011, when only 4.1% of all films in the United States were directed by women. But a few years later, the numbers began to change dramatically: 7.7% in 2015; 12.6% in 2017; 15.1% in 2019. By 2021, 21.8% of films were directed by women, five times more than just a decade earlier.
It’s hard to overstate the massive change that cinema has undergone in the last decade, or even in the last five years. Films like Euzhan Palcy’s apartheid drama “A Dry White Season” in 1989, Amy Heckerling’s romantic comedy “Clueless” in 1995 and Karyn Kusama’s feminist horror film “Jennifer’s Body” in 2009 were not alone. But they were remarkably unrepresentative. If you went into a new release without knowing the director, you could be almost certain that the director was a man. Now, women’s movies are pretty gloriously inescapable.
Those include indie arthouse films like Claire Denis’ “Stars At Noon” and Sophie Hyde’s “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” They include streaming movies like Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Anna Foerster’s “Lou.” They include niche horror like Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” and Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks’ “Alone With You.” They include animated features like “Turning Red” by Domee Shi. And it includes big-budget Hollywood hits like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” and Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling.”
Marvel has also produced more female-led movies recently: Chloé Zhao directed “Eternals” in 2021 and Anna Boden co-directed “Captain Marvel” in 2019. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has led the way here. . But I do believe that the dynamic that the MCU created, and that Tarantino and Scorsese denigrate, has been essential for women to access the director’s chair.
Tarantino and Scorsese and many moviegoers blame Marvel for invading the theater and pulling other movies off the big screen. But Marvel’s movie-as-theme-park-event formula seems more like a symptom than a cause.
The real culprit is the streaming explosion. People can watch thousands of movies from the comfort of their home and their laptop now. There has to be a special reason to go to the movies, and the MCU, with its giant explosions and CGI and ongoing serialized narrative hurtling toward the next plot twist, gets butts in the seats. Everything else is pushed onto the small screen.
That can infuriate directors (almost entirely male) who made their careers watching their larger-than-life work. But I think it’s been a great help to the women. Television requires less capital investment than film, which is perhaps why it has always been at least a little more accessible to female directors.
In 1997-98, women made up 8% of directors on broadcast television. That’s unfortunate, but more than double the number of female film directors at the same time. In 2017-18, women made up 19% of directors on broadcast television, again significantly higher than the number of movies. In 2021-22, the number was still just 18%. But in streaming, women added 29% of directors.
Streaming has blurred the line between television and film work. Like actors, directors now go back and forth between the two mediums. Scorsese can squeak his teeth because “The Irishman” ended up on Netflix. But the fact that the walls between platforms have been lowered is undoubtedly part of what has allowed so many women to build connections and resumes that allow them to jump over what were, not long ago, insurmountable barriers for half of the humanity.
Movies change, and each era has supporters and detractors, strengths and weaknesses. But the simple fact is that the unprecedented transformation of cinema right now has nothing to do with whether Marvel star Chris Evans counts as a movie star, and very little to do with the ego of Tarantino or any other movie director. male cinema who spent most of their careers indifferent to the rampant sexism of their industry. We live in the Golden Age of women’s cinema. All you have to do to see it is open your eyes.