By Lee Hamilton.
It’s no secret that women have, and continue to be, underrepresented in the film industry. But it may come as a surprise to discover that they’ve always been there, even from the very beginning.
The first person in the world to ever write and direct a moving picture was indeed female. Secretary to French inventor Léon Gaumont, a young visionary, Alice Guy-Blanché, was convinced that captured film could be used for so much more than just scientific or promotional purposes and in 1896 she gained permission from her boss to take a camera home over the weekend, where she filmed The Fairy of the Cabbages, thus becoming the first person in the world to ever write and direct a moving picture.
Guy-Blanché went on to become Gaumont’s head of production; literally, the first filmmaker to systematically create narrative movies and she ended her career having directed over 1000 films! A single woman in an emerging industry, Guy-Blanché was no stranger to battling social expectations. She consciously cast mixed ethnicities, ran her own studio, and was also an early pioneer in special effects and using color. Late in her life, she was presented with The Legion of Honor by the French government in recognition of her achievements in cinema, yet, her name was largely absent from the film industry’s historical records, and her legacy mostly forgotten by misogynistic male historians for decades.
Guy-Blanché wasn’t alone in being unrecognized, but during the early years of cinema, surprisingly, there were lots of opportunities for women writers as the industry was still finding its feet, there was no formal hierarchy, and many writers came from journalistic backgrounds. It wasn’t until the studio system came into place in the late 1920s that things began to go downhill. Although some studios actively sought female writers, believing that they could best write the material that would appeal to their female audiences, competition for writing contracts grew, and women writers were quickly left behind. The number of female screenwriters remained consistently low for decades, but things have slowly begun to change, not just for women in film, but women in the world as a whole.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and it’s still an uphill struggle. Considering that women make up half of all audience numbers, the percentage of working women screenwriters varies somewhere between 20-35% with some studies showing stats as low as 15%. There’s no clear-cut answer to why gender inequality is so common in the film industry, but please don’t let these statistics put you off. The momentum is and will continue to change, but only if women writers out there continue to push forward.
Take inspiration from these 6 female screenwriters currently rocking it for women writers everywhere.
Fran Walsh – Best known for co-writing The Lord of the Rings franchise with partner Peter Jackson, Walsh has also contributed to almost all of Jackson’s backlog of movies. She was already working as a screenwriter before meeting Jackson, starting her career in television, but does working as part of a team diminish her achievements as a female writer? Not in the slightest. She’s the highest-grossing female writer out there today, is a talented producer as well as writer, also co-writes with the wonderful and equally successful Philippa Boyens, and now in her sixties, she’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Mara Brock Akil – A prolific TV writer best known for The Game, Love Is_, and Being Mary Jane, Brock Akil got her opportunity to break into writing for the critically acclaimed but short-lived South Central series after taking a screenwriting course taught by writer Delle Chatman. Along with her husband, she created the superhero series, Black Lightning, and recently signed a multi-year deal with Netflix to create new original content.
Melissa Rosenberg – Working in both film and television, Rosenberg already had an impressive list of credits from working on the likes of Ally McBeal, The O.C., and Dexter before being offered the chance to adapt the best-selling novel Twilight for the big screen. An early interest in theatre & dance set her on the path to gaining a Master’s degree in film and television production, showing the value in getting the relevant education and surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals can have.
Linda Woolverton – Another graduate in Theatre Arts, Woolverton’s interest in children’s theatre came from the desire to escape from a traumatic childhood. Initially running her own theatre company, she got her break as a programming exec while working as a secretary for CBS. Penning scripts for several children’s animated series, she garnered interest from Disney, going on to write Beauty and The Beast, The Lion King, and Maleficent.
Karen McCullah & Kirsten Smith – This female writing-duo are the powerhouse behind a spree of successful chick-flicks and rom-coms. The pair first got their break by selling their spec script 10 Things I Hate About You and while also maintaining separate solo writing careers, they’re also responsible for Legally Blonde, The House Bunny, and are in the works to create the female version of The Expendables, the Expendabelles. Smith began her career as a reader, going on to become a Director of Development, and one of McCullah’s scripts just happened to be one she was writing coverage on, sparking their friendship.
Gillian Flynn – A novelist turned screenwriter; Flynn comes from a journalistic background, which also involved being a television critic. She adapted two of her novels, Gone Girl and Dark Places into movies, and her third, Sharp Objects, into a successful television series. Flynn is known for playing with genre expectations, often writing cruel, bitchy, or unflattering female characters in an attempt to resist the stereotype that women “are innately good, innately nurturing.”
More Resources To Get You Writing!
Opportunities to break into screenwriting and the wider film industry are difficult to find, no matter what your gender, color, or cultural background, but there are places out there that recognize that it’s even harder if you’re a woman. Here’s a list of helpful resources you can check out for further reading, information, opportunities, contests, and more.
- Women in Film have several programs, mentorships, and opportunities for female filmmakers worth checking out.
- Women in Film and TV are a UK-based organization that hosts various online events, awards, and mentorship programs throughout the year.
- Women in Film & Video DC provides educational and networking opportunities for screen-based media makers, celebrates women’s creative and technical achievements in media, and advocates for parity both in front of and behind the camera to ensure that all voices can be heard.
- The Writers Lab NYC was established by Meryl Street to help female screenwriters over the age of 40 get the development they deserve. The Writer’s Lab is now also operating in UK & Ireland.
- Women and Hollywood is a great place to find information on everything you could possibly need on the subject. They also work in partnership with The Athena List, which hosts various writing labs for women.
- Women in Film and Television Vancouver is a member-based organization committed to addressing the systemic barriers in front of women.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.