‘It’s not just about the Weinsteins’: how do we fix the gender problem in Australian film?

After the Aacta awards brought gender issues to the fore again, women at the coalface of industry change discuss practical solutions

On the surface, Wednesday’s Aacta Awards ceremony at The Star in Sydney was business as usual for the Australian film and TV industry.

A deserving line-up of luminaries took out top awards, including legendary director Philip Noyce, the all-male judging panel of MasterChef, producer Emile Sherman, documentary trail-blazers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, and “all round top bloke”, the winsome actor-director Simon Baker.

But the long-standing elephant in the room – the woeful under-representation of women in key roles across the industry – was suddenly, shockingly visible.

Actor Nicole Kidman, receiving best supporting actress by video link, pointedly announced her latest project was directed by a woman. Producer Angie Fielder, acknowledging that her Aacta-sweeping film Lion had been made with Weinstein Company finance, called for colleagues to “stand up” against the ongoing, systemic abuse of women across the industry. Director Gillian Armstrong, handing out the award for best direction, implored the younger women present to “think about an alternative to putting on high heels and being a Victoria’s Secret model. Be a boss!”

Actor Russell Crowe’s bizarre segue from the “passion and sensitivity” of filmmaking to “sodomising Jacqueline McKenzie” on the set of Romper Stomper was met with uneasy silence, as McKenzie’s recent #metoo post and impassioned plea for a safer, more respectful workplace hung in the air.

McKenzie has since dismissed the controversy surrounding Crowe’s remark on Facebook, telling Guardian Australia the sex scene they shot was “not a #MeToo moment. It was awkward but dealt with as sensitively as possible, and we’ve joked about it for 25 years.”

Apart from Crowe and Sherman, who lauded the talent of Jane Campion, no other men specifically mentioned supporting women in film. The fact that three of the four actresses nominated in the feature category played women who were beaten and raped was resonant.

Outside the casino, agitators distributed flyers denouncing the “trial by media” of Geoffrey Rush, who, following a complaint of “inappropriate behaviour” during Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear – behaviour Rush denies – has stepped down as Aacta president. Rush has since filed defamation proceedings against the publisher of those allegations.

In the confusion and acrimony of the post-Weinstein #MeToo era, the 2017 Aactas made one thing clear: the elephant IS the room. The dominance of male decision-makers in financing, production, commissioning and distribution roles is no longer something female practitioners are prepared to grin and bear. It’s something they are calling out.

The momentum for change

The fight against gender disparity, which has underpinned the status quo for decades, has shifted from the margins to the mainstream in five short years – and now it’s driving policy.

Several powerful industry figures have helped lead this change. Producer Sue Maslin, financing the Dressmaker in 2012, refused to give up when told the film’s audience was “limited because it was heavily skewed to females.” It became the highest grossing Australian film of 2015/16, earning $20.28 million at the box office and proving “once and for all there was a business case to be made for a film by and about women, targeted to a female audience,” Maslin told Guardian Australia.

Gillian Armstrong
‘Be a boss!’: Australian director Gillian Armstrong at the 7th annual Aacta awards. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for AFI

Actor Cate Blanchett, accepting the 2014 Oscar for Blue Jasmine, reminded Hollywood that films with female protagonists “make money”. Her comment briefly ruffled the Twitter-verse, before the Geena Davis Institute backed it with proof: of the 100 top-grossing non-animation movies of 2015, those with female leads made 15.8% more money than those with male leads – despite comprising only 17% of the list. Glee producer Ryan Murphy swiftly instated his “half” rule, making 50% of directors across all his productions women, with immediately successful results.

In Australia by 2015, the climate was also shifting. A bolshy posse of female Directors Guild members, led by Gillian Armstrong, demanded Screen Australia address the fact that the number of female film directors had not risen above 12-15% in decades. Screen Australia established its Gender Matters initiative and a “three ticks” policy, aimed at ensuring that 50% of all projects backed by 2018/19 would be driven by women in at least three of the four key creative roles: producer, director, writer or lead.

In her first day on the job in 2015, Screen NSW CEO Courtney Gibson introduced the “50:50 by 2020” target across the agency’s development and production arms. According to Create NSW, the policy has since put 150 female filmmakers in contact with previously unreachable distributors, and seen female TV drama directors rise from 18% to 47% in two years.

And then in 2016, 16 young women gatecrashed the Aacta red carpet, dressed as giant Wieners. Disrupting the slickly orchestrated parade of tuxedoed heavyweights and frocked- up ingénues, the Sausagettes called for an end to the male-dominated “sausage party”.

Sausage protest at 2016’s Aacta awards.
‘We don’t need to re-shuffle the cards; we need to throw out the deck,’ says Sophie Mathisen, who co-organised the sausage protest at 2016’s Aacta awards. Photograph: Steph Harmon/The Guardian

What needs to happen next?

Twelve months since the snags stormed the Aactas, has gender inequality in the industry reached tipping point? Are female directors on track to access the finance, audiences and kudos their male colleagues enjoy? Are female programmers headed for a seat at the distribution table, where the big decisions are made about which stories we see and where we see them?

Dressmaker producer Sue Maslin is wary. British, European and Israeli screen initiatives may be aggressively tackling gender disparity overseas, but “things appear to be moving a little more slowly in Australia,” she says. The appointment of the first female chair to the Australian International Movie Convention, Jo Bladen – a champion of female stories and audiences – shows the issue is “on the table”. But Maslin is concerned that Screen Australia “has flooded the pipeline with more female-led projects headed for production, which will be met with a blockage at the demand end. Unless men change at that end, nothing will.”

Sophie Mathisen, sausage-suit activist and director of the For Films Sake festival, which celebrates women in film, agrees. She unsuccessfully lobbied the Aactas to establish an award for low-budget filmmakers, frequently women, so they do not have to compete with glossy, big-budget co-pros. “The Aactas are not an inviting place for female filmmakers,” she says. “This kind of change is going to take a long time. I’ll be working on it into my 40s, 50s and 60s.”

The momentum of the #MeToo movement, now Time’s Person of the Year, gives Mathieson strength.

“For the first time in a long time, there’s a sense of female collective action. The one thing we have in common is that we’ve been sexually harassed – if we haven’t, we’re lucky. We were the generation raised on the Spice Girls, on ‘you can do anything.’ Then we hit the glass ceiling and went, ‘What the fuck is this?’ If culture is driven predominantly by men, men dictate what happens, on and off the screen.

“We don’t need to re-shuffle the cards; we need to throw out the deck. The Sausage party was the start. We were shitting ourselves, because we thought we’d be arrested. But because of #MeToo I could now call 50 women, and they’d put on the suit.”

Gibson, who left Screen NSW in January and become managing director of Jungle Entertainment in April, says, “men need to work with women, it’s as simple as that. It’s no coincidence women are standing up to harassment, discrimination and worse, at the same time as demanding equity of opportunity as key creatives, as CEOs, and on boards. We have to attack on all these fronts simultaneously to institute real change. And men need to support this, or at least lie back – if you will – and let the glass ceiling be smashed.”

Grainne Brunsdon, who is implementing Gibson’s 50:50 target “with laser focus” at the newly revamped Create NSW, says men in the industry are listening.

“It is not tenable to ignore the lack of gender parity anymore. People want to be on the right side of history, and not be seen as dinosaurs. Women buy more cinema tickets, women control the remote, female-driven films do well at the box office. I’m optimistic because there are so many talented women out there, and employing them makes business sense. The 2016 PwC report confirmed that a lack of women creatives actually drives down growth.”

Deb Verhoeven, film academic at UTS.
‘If you throw dirty rats off the side of a ship, there’s more buoyancy. How do we sink it?’ asks Deb Verhoeven, film academic at UTS. Photograph: Andrew Beveridge

Similar discussions have raged across the bars and web pages frequented by women in media and entertainment, ever since Weinstein took the fall. They’ve acquired extra heft with the work of the associate dean of engagement and innovation at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Deb Verhoeven, who has applied criminal network analysis methods used by police and counter-terrorism agencies to identify in the film industry’s “male cartels” – the “recidivist offenders who don’t work with women at all.” In a 10-year period, she found 89.

But rather than focusing on “poorly behaved men,” as the #MeToo movement does, Verhoeven’s end game is to encourage men “to behave more equitably to women. Wage inequality is massive. Google ‘auteur’ and you’ll only get images of men. It’s not just about the Harvey Weinsteins and Don Burkes; it’s about larger gender and social relationships.

“If you throw dirty rats off the side of a ship, there’s more buoyancy. How do we sink it?” she says. “We can blow it up, overload it with people of diversity, or steer it to where ships sink.”

Verhoeven’s articles are frequently flooded with comments along the lines of, “if women made better films, there’d be more of them”. She dismisses this as “the myth of the merit-based industry,” citing 30 years of data showing female film school graduates enter the industry on an equal footing with their male peers.

And at the industry coal face, screen agency initiatives are bearing fruit: in August this year, Screen Australia COO Fiona Cameron announced that between 2015/16 and 2016/17, 47% of the productions financed had female-led creative teams. Screen Queensland’s new million-dollar feature initiative has seen the Leanne Tonkes-produced, Mairi Cameron-helmed The Second secure funding in a competitive field.

But while female producers, writers and directors are gaining more work in TV and online, in feature film – the genre where the director’s vision is paramount – the percentage of female directors still hovers at a lowly 16%. Directing is “one of the worst areas” when it comes to representation of women, Gender Matters Taskforce member and RMIT Dean, Professor Lisa French, says. “Despite this, women received 25% of the nominations for best director and 40% for best film at the 2017 Aactas, so they punch above their weight.”

At the Aactas on Wednesday night, the sense that women across the film and TV industry want change was palpable. But in the four-hour ceremony, supportive male voices were absent.

Perhaps the autocue for next year’s awards will play a different script.


Anna Broinowski

The GuardianTramp

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