Genuine hoorays go the way of the major studios for commissioning women to direct hugely budgeted pictures. This is no small advance. Cate Shortland, the Australian filmmaker behind the bewitching Somersault, will shortly – after Covid delays – give us her take on Marvel's Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in high-tech espionage frolics? That sounds fun. Chloé Zhao, who just won the best director Oscar for Nomadland, puts Marvel's Eternals before us at Christmas. Cathy Yan, Chinese-American brain behind Dead Pigs, made the well-reviewed Birds of Prey for DC. Nia DaCosta, director of the offbeat Little Woods, will direct The Marvels for… well, guess who?
There’s more. We just heard that Emerald Fennell, whose Promising Young Woman was nominated for best picture alongside Nomadland, is to write something called Zatanna for the DC Extended Universe.
These gigs for female directors from largely independent backgrounds follow in the wake of similar advances for funky male filmmakers such as Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) and Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man). It is easy to forget that the Russo brothers, directors of Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, began in their native Cleveland with a scruffy, post-Tarantino comedy called Welcome to Collinwood. We could go on.
Are superhero films the only high-profile prize they can offer unfairly underemployed female filmmakers?
Fair enough. These films are all efficient popular entertainments. The opportunity to play with the noisiest toys in the biggest sandpit must surely be hard to resist. Moreover, good directors can lure strong casts. Early last year, long before Nomadland even premiered, Barry Keoghan told me it was Zhao, also director of singular neo-western The Rider, who drew him towards the dotted line.
“Marvel are the biggest right now. They are smashing it at the box office – them and DC,” the Irish actor said. “But Chloé Zhao. You’ve seen The Rider? The reason I wanted to do this movie was because of her. She was on my list.”
You can sense a "but" coming down the line. When the news dropped about Emerld Fennell, it was hard to ignore a grumpy sigh at the inevitability of it all. "This is now the only career promotion American cinema has to offer," Guy Lodge, who writes for Variety and the Guardian, commented.
There is the rub. What else do the studios have left to reward up-and-coming directors? Are superhero films the only high-profile prize they can offer unfairly underemployed female filmmakers? Well, no. There are also live-action remakes of animated films. Niki Caro, acclaimed for Whale Rider in 2002, was behind the camera for last year's Mulan. Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, has signed on for the live-action The Lion King 2.
This is not how it used to be. In the days of the studio system, directors could work their way up from cheap programmers to mid-budget dramas to the year's glossiest prestige projects. Alfred Hitchcock, for example, began writing title cards in the silent era. Small hits led on to bigger hits in the British industry before David O Selznick dragged him across the Atlantic to make a film of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.
That story points to one source of advancement that survived into the era of New Hollywood. The adaptation of a “big book” has always been a tasty option for a filmmaker who has just had a modest hit. Traces remain. John Crowley’s success with Brooklyn ultimately led him to a starry, not wholly successful translation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Over the last decade and a bit, the industry clawed out its own economic torso and left itself with only a pricey head and low-budget feet
But fewer and fewer literary pavement-slabs land with the thump that greeted the sources for Oscar winners such as Gone With the Wind, How Green Was My Valley and The Godfather. Books that do catch the popular imagination are more likely to find themselves mutated into high-end television. Barry Jenkins's new, highly acclaimed take on Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad has ended up as a series, not a feature, on Amazon Prime.
The hope is that the superhero arrangements will ultimately allow these filmmakers to make “one for themselves” and “one for the studio”. We have yet to see much evidence of that. But even if such a scheme does work out – Zhao may well follow up Nomadland and The Eternals with another quiet reverie for Disney’s Searchlight Pictures – the problem remains that the “ones for the studio” all seem to be cut from the same leotard.
Over the last decade and a bit, the industry has clawed out its own economic torso and left itself with only a pricey head and low-budget feet. A relatively small number of similarly toned, hugely expensive features generate almost all the revenue. A large clutter of much cheaper films squabble for the remaining small change at the box office and, if all goes well, a modestly lucrative streaming deal.
We may hope this will change after the pandemic, but audiences can’t pay to see films that aren’t being made. For now, your offbeat success with My Camel Is Under the Yam-Yam Tree leads only to universe-splitting bombast with UltraMan Vs the Squid People. How did we get here?