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Why Did It Take So Long For The Oscars To Nominate A Female Cinematographer?

At the second Academy Awards, in 1930, Josephine Lovett and Bess Meredith each received nominations for writing — the first women nominated for nonacting Oscars. It would be a few more years — the seventh Academy Awards in 1935 — until a woman was nominated for film editing (Anne Bauchens for her work on “Cleopatra”).

Eventually women were recognized in other categories too, including art direction (1941), music scoring (1945) and costume design (1948). In 1973, at the 46th Academy Awards, Julia Phillips became the first woman to be nominated for producing a best picture nominee, “The Sting.”1 A few years later, in 1976, Lina Wertmüller became the first woman nominated for best director. Women were first nominated in the 1980s and 1990s in new categories for makeup (1982) and sound editing (1984) and old categories like visual effects (1986) and sound (1995).

But before this year, cinematography held out — the last category with zero women among the nominees.2 According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences database, 238 people received nominations in cinematography for their work on 638 different films from the first through 89th Oscars. And not a single one of them was a woman.

That changed this year. Rachel Morrison, who was nominated for her work on “Mudbound” — and whom popular audiences around the world are now meeting thanks to the blockbuster “Black Panther” — has broken the last glass ceiling at the Oscars.

That achievement is massive, but what on earth is wrong with cinematography that it took so long?

The first part of the answer is easy, and we already have it: Hollywood’s gender parity behind the camera is even worse than in front of the camera. In December, a team of us at FiveThirtyEight wanted to find a new way to evaluate how diverse and inclusive movies are on gender and race — a “Bechdel Test” for the next generation — so we reached out to professionals and creators who work in the movie business to ask what they thought audiences should be looking for in films. We graded films across a whole suite of metrics — how female characters were treated or developed, how supporting casts were built, how the extras and crowds were framed, how films portrayed black women and Latinas. But no metric made Hollywood look worse than the gender composition of behind-the-scenes and on-set crew.

Here’s the test from Jen White, a director of photography:

We found that not a single one of the top 50 grossing films of 2016 had a crew that was at least 50 percent female. Not a single one had a crew that was even 30 percent female or more. And only 23 out of the 50 films could even claim to have one woman in each department as well as one female department head. It was a disaster.

So just by involving a behind-the-camera position, cinematography is drawing from an overwhelmingly male pool.

Still, women broke through in other academy categories that feature behind-the-camera work. Just how male is cinematography that it took so long? To answer that, let’s look at the cinematographers as well as the camera and lighting crews on the top 50 grossing films at the domestic box office — according to The Numbers — for each of the past 10 years (2008 through 2017).3 I classified important cinematography-related positions — more on that in a second — and used Genderize.io to estimate the gender of every first name in the data set, plus the probability that Genderize.io’s estimate is correct.

We can use this to get an estimate for how male camera departments are. The answer is extremely male.

There were 40,314 people credited in the camera and lighting departments of the 500 films in our data set. Of those, 36,604 (91 percent) had a first name that was more likely male than female and 34,263 (85 percent) had a first name that was male 90 percent of the time or more. If we strictly sum the probabilities that a given individual is male based on first name — so “Jack” would count for 0.99, “Jamie” would be 0.53, “Rebecca” as 0.0 and so on — we would estimate that just fewer than 36,600 people in the set were men, or 91 percent.

That gives us 85 percent male at our most conservative estimate and around 91 percent looking at our two more probabilistic estimates. That would make professional cinematography and its related fields more male than barbers, civil engineers, police officers, taxi drivers and clergy, according to Department of Labor statistics. This also means that the upper echelon of cinematography, major commercial studio movies, is more male than, say, the statistics we have from the Department of Labor that claim a broader world of “television, video and motion picture camera operators and editors” — while probably a government-determined subset of the field — which in 2016 was 78.6 percent male.

What’s shocking about this is that while film schools and cinematography programs are by no means balanced, they’re nowhere near as bad as 85 to 91 percent male.

I pulled the number of graduate student completions in cinematography-related fields at the top five film schools4 based on the data that schools are obligated to report annually to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System at the Department of Education. There were 7,068 people who graduated from a master’s-level program in cinematography, film, cinema and video studies from 2001 to 2016; 2,957 of them, or 42 percent, were reported as women.

Clearly one doesn’t need a master’s degree from a top film school to be a grip on a movie, but it’s not like there aren’t women capable or interested in working in these jobs. And the number of women behind the camera is seemingly diminishing through a career arc — if women are dropping from something like two-fifths of film grads to one-fifth of the U.S. camera workforce to a 10th of the department on major movies, we’d like to know why.

Well, maybe it has to do with the fact that 97 percent of the people in camera and lighting department leadership positions on those top movies were men.

Generally the department is divided into three groups overseen by the director of photography: the camera department, which does all things related to the camera; the electrics department, which handles lighting and anything that needs to be plugged in; and the grip department, the contingent that handles anything that’s not plugged in, like tripods or cranes or dollies or what have you.

The director of photography works with all of these groups but has immediate subordinates who run and staff each individual contingent: the 1st assistant camera and “A” camera operators for the cameras, the gaffer5 oversees the electrics, and the key grip oversees the grips. Each of those people have direct reports of their own; other camera operators and “best boys” and other department heads, like rigging. They’re important positions that assist people who report to the D.P.

With Jen White’s guidance, I divided camera credits into four general buckets; “tier 1” for the department head, the director of photography; “tier 2” for people who report directly to the D.P.; “tier 3” for people with important jobs that report to tier 2 personnel; and then everybody else, your day-rate or B-unit or miscellaneous grips and crew or lighting techs and camera assistants. There were 5,652 people in tiers 1, 2 and 3, a manageable enough figure to eliminate uncertainty by individually researching the gender of anyone with an ambiguous first name where we were less than 95 percent sure of their gender.

Of the 498 film department heads on those 500 movies,6 an estimated 477 of them were male, so 96 percent. Of the 2,261 gaffers, key grips, 1st assistants, and “a” camera operators, an estimated 2,187 were men, or 97 percent. And of the 2,893 best boys, “b” and other camera operators, rigging gaffers and what have you, an estimated 2,818 were men, or 97 percent.

Meanwhile, the “everyone else” bucket of 34,662 jobs — where 1,126 people remained of unknown gender — was (depending on the method of estimation) 88 to 90 percent male.

This is about as prototypical of a pipeline problem as you can get. In a gig-based job market like the ones for film crews, people who control the hiring power control who works. The people who have the power to hire and fire are, with few exceptions, primarily male. The people that they hire for big projects are overwhelmingly male. The pool of people who were able to find any work as camera operators was quite male. This is despite the fact that the contingent of people who graduate in cinematography from the best programs in the country are only slightly male.

Of course it took 90 years for a woman to get a nomination for cinematography. The cards are stacked against an entire gender behind the camera.

Footnotes

  1. And she won it too.

  2. Obviously, that’s excluding best actor and best supporting actor.

  3. I pulled full cast and crew data from IMDb, then specifically grabbed the names for the cinematographer and everyone in the camera and electrical department.

  4. As laid out by The Hollywood Reporter.

  5. Literally means “godfather,” and the gender-neutral form is something like chief lighting technician.

  6. Why not 500 department heads? Animated movies often don’t have D.P.s, and some movies have more than one.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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