Why a Female Star Wars Director Is About More Than Just Talent

By  · Published on December 7th, 2016

For Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, opportunity isn’t everything

There’s no denying that the Star Wars universe has become a bastion for diversity over the past few years. With both The Force Awakens and Rogue One featuring female leads and diverse casts, fans have come to look to Lucasfilm as a company invested in making the world we see on the screen match the world we see around us. That was part of the reason why people were so upset to hear Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy’s comments in Variety about how there were no female filmmakers ready to direct a Star Wars movie, noting that female directors shouldn’t expect to come into them “with essentially no experience.” Given how hard female directors have to work to stay ahead in the industry, Kennedy’s comments were a rejection from one of their biggest allies.

A few days later, as part of the Rogue One press conference at the Lucasfilm campus, ScreenCrush’s Erin Whitney asked Kennedy to follow-up on her question. Here’s what Kennedy had to say:

I, as you can imagine, have every intention of giving somebody an opportunity. So, if somebody actually moves through the process of making movies and wants to make a Star Wars movie, and shows that they have actually stepped into the role on that level, of course we’re going to consider a woman. That goes without saying.

Translation: Lucasfilm wants a female director, just not one they’ve had to develop. Let’s talk about this. The biggest rebuttal you see to this in various comment sections is that companies like Lucasfilm are just looking for the best talent regardless of gender. We shouldn’t be overly concerned with identity politics, the argument goes, as long as the studio hires the best possible director for the project. Of course, these people are invariably the same ones who complain when an entry level position they want requires a graduate degree and five years of experience. It would be one thing if women were routinely finalists for directorial positions and losing out to their male counterparts – presenting a new set of problems, certainly, but at least signifying measurable progress – but when organizations like the ACLU are investigating the hiring practices at every level of Hollywood, it’s clear that doors are closing within the industry long before the latest nine-figure superhero movie comes calling.

Plenty of female filmmakers have spoken out about the experience of having to be twice as qualified for half the budget. Earlier this year, IndieWire’s Kate Erbland asked several filmmakers to share their thoughts on the potential of making blockbuster movies in Hollywood. Last year, The New York Times interviewed over 100 women working in the film industry, including several who had shot action movies or films that had gone on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Both features highlight one common theme: even if these filmmakers had managed to luck into a major franchise, several of them were upfront about the idea that their success was an aberration, not a trend. (Even in the piece at the Times, Kennedy made it clear that shooting a Star Wars movie is a privilege, not a right, noting that the burden was on female directors to pick up the phone and say “‘Hey, let me tell you what Star Wars means to me and how much I could do with it.’”)

And even if you want to believe in a Hollywood that rewards hard work and advancement over acts of privilege, the concept that female filmmakers can slowly move through the tiers of movie budgets until they’ve hit the Star Wars threshold speaks to a Hollywood structure that really doesn’t exist anymore. Back in 2014, Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey dedicated an entire feature to death of mid-budget cinema, arguing that producers are now only interested in films at the budgetary extremes. Bailey also quotes Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner, saying that Hollywood had created a landscape where “nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million.” If, as Kennedy says, studios are waiting for filmmakers to prove themselves “on that level,” then many directors are quickly discovering that the ladder they hoped to climb is actually just one dude standing above them with a rope.

Female Directors in Hollywood: Are Things Getting Any Better?

As a result of this widening budgetary gap, studios have increasingly favored pulling directors from the independent ranks to shoot their blockbuster films. Colin Trevorrow followed his $750k Safety Not Guaranteed with the $160m Jurassic World; Gareth Edwards shot Monsters for $500k and was handed $160m by Warner Bros. to shoot Godzilla. Want to be charitable and raise the floor? Rian Johnson went from Looper ($30m) to Star Wars Episode VIII, a film whose budget is likely in the neighborhood of Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($245m). Taika Waititi made Hunt for the Wilderpeople — still one of the best movies of the year – for only $2.5m before tackling Thor: Ragnarok, a movie whose budget is almost certain to eclipse $150m. The point here is not to point fingers at these filmmakers or suggest they don’t have the talent to make big movies; rather, it’s to point out that there is a double standard at play when studios talk about female filmmakers. Women need to prove themselves. Men get the benefit of the doubt.

All of which is to say, if not Lucasfilm, then who? It’s fine for Kennedy and company to view themselves as a filmmaking luxury brand and require the best and the brightest to shoot their movies, but if their strategy is to just put the onus on other studios – waiting for someone else to make the first move before jumping on the diversity trend – then we’re still looking at a busted system. If we are to take Kennedy at her word that she wants to develop the next Star Wars filmmaker, then perhaps it’s time for Lucasfilm to invest a little bit into that process themselves. Many film festivals and studios allocate resources to filmmaker labs, preparing new talents for the rigors of working in the industry; even the financial institutions of the world aren’t afraid to put some money behind a talent incubator if they believe there’s something to be gained from it. With not even Star Wars: The Clone Wars or Star Wars Rebels moving the needle for female directors, it’s clear that something as Lucasfilm could stand to change. Here’s hoping the response to these comments shows Kennedy that, for all she’s accomplished, there’s still more to be done.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)