Ava DuVernay, Catherine Hardwicke respond to Hollywood gender discrimination probe

We’ve seen the grim stats, participated in the panel discussions, listened to the conversations — yet nothing seems to alter the fact that women make up a decidedly miniscule portion of Hollywood’s stable of directors, both in television and movies. And no amount of talking has been able to change the conversation. But, this week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced it is taking up the mantle on this issue after the American Civil Liberties Union spent two years looking into charges of sexism in Hollywood’s directorial hiring practices and suggested the EEOC and two other government branches investigate further.

As Deadline Hollywood first reported, some 50 female directors received letters from the EEOC asking them to participate in interviews with the organization, so they “may learn more about the gender-related issues… facing [them] in both the Film and Television Industries,” according to the letter. To many female directors, the agency’s involvement is welcome. “It’s important that this battle is fought on all fronts, and I think the [EEOC’s involvment] is one of many ways we can move for change,” says director Ava DuVernay (Selma). “Asking hasn’t gotten us anything.”

The EEOC declined to comment for this story and will only do so should charges be filed. Yet it seems that even the initial involvement in the issue has heartened many female directors in town who say they constantly feel that the odds are stacked against them.

“When I started, I never believed there was a bias against me, I was so naïve,” says director Catherine Hardwicke, whose new film Miss You Already, starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette, opens in November. “Then Twilight hit and it made $400 million, and that’s when doors slammed even harder. It’s been empowering to understand this unconscious bias and to realize it’s not just me.”

USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a report Wednesday that examined the number of female directors of short films at the top 10 film festivals worldwide. The study’s results suggest that career challenges for women begin even earlier than after they’ve completed their first feature film. According to Annenberg Professor Stacy L. Smith, “Female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers soon after making a short film,” she says. “Male and female directors are put on opposite paths as their careers progress. For males, opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.”

The drumbeat against gender inequality in Hollywood has been growing louder recently. This week, Meryl Streep took critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes to task for its uneven numbers of female and male critics that make up the site’s Tomatometer. “There are 168 women. And I thought that’s absolutely fantastic, and if there were 168 men it would be balanced. If there were 268 men it would be unfair but I would be used to it… actually there are 760 men who weigh in on the Tomatometer,” she told The Daily Beast.

The recent selection of author Seth Grahame-Smith — who has zero prior feature directing experience — to helm The Flash movie for Warner Bros. also has raised eyebrows. “You mean to tell me that there are no women who might have already made a film who might have been worth talking to for The Flash,” DuVernay says. “You’re a major studio saying, It doesn’t matter if you have experience or not, we still want him. I don’t know that guy, and he’s probably the greatest guy, but as a woman filmmaker, I have to think, what does that say about that choice? It’s always the young, cool hipster white guy. Always.”

Yet DuVernay is encouraged by some in Hollywood who have shown a true commitment to diversity including Participant Pictures, which is financing hew new film on Hurricane Katrina starring David Oyelowo. She also praised Netflix, which is working with her on a separate documentary project and partnering with her on her newly relaunched distribution venture Array, dedicated to releasing films by minority and female filmmakers. “It’s a real commitment,” she says of the two companies. “They are saying, we believe this is important.”

Whether or not the EEOC’s investigation leads to some change remains to be seen. According to Deadline Hollywood, back in 1969, the EEOC held several days of hearings in Los Angeles and concluded that women and minorities were being discriminated against in behind-the-scenes jobs. But the matter was referred to the Department of Justice, which only worked with the industry to establish “goals and timetables” to increase minority representation. No lawsuits were ever filed.

Hardwicke has a simpler solution: “This can all change. We can end this boring, repetitive conversation if every single executive, financier, distributor, producer takes this pledge — for every man that I hire, I’m going to hire a woman. For every male film I back, I’m going to back one by a woman. It’s possible,” she says. “It’s so easy, and it would be amazing.”