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How Hollywood Can Put More Women Behind the Camera

The inclusion rider can help move Hollywood from conversation to action.
Frances McDormand Oscars inclusion rider

In March, Rachel Morrison attended the Oscars as the first-ever woman nominated in the cinematography category for her work on Netflix's Mudbound. The week before the awards, Wired celebrated her achievement on Black Panther as the first woman to film a Marvel feature, calling Morrison a "superhero." These are real achievements, worthy of celebration. They're also suddenly almost dispiriting.

With ongoing social and political momentum toward a more inclusive entertainment industry, on both sides of the camera, we need to stop paying lip-service to diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, and start taking real steps. One practical and easily implemented solution is the inclusion rider.

The inclusion rider—an idea first formulated in 2014 by social scientist Stacy L. Smith and introduced to the public during Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech—is a clause added to an actor's contract that requires a specific quota for a diverse cast and crew. But as of yet, no studio has (publicly) adopted the solution.

As in most parts of the entertainment industry, women have long been on the sidelines of camera departments. The first woman admitted to the American Society of Cinematographers was Brianne Murphy in 1980, 61 years after the society was founded. Murphy is also said to have been the first woman hired as a cinematographer on a Hollywood studio film, as opposed to an independent film: 1980's Fatso, directed by Anne Bancroft. Today, women still constitute less than 5 percent of the ASC's membership, 2017 was the first time they gave their president's award to a woman (Nancy Schreiber), and 2018 was the first time the ASC ever nominated a woman in the features category (Morrison).

While the ASC is doing its part now—with Schreiber heading up the Vision Committee, an initiative to promote greater diversity in cinematography—Hollywood is still a place where the successes of women and minorities in the field are considered one-offs and the failures are seen as conclusive.

For instance, when Paul Feig's Ghostbusters remake didn't do as well as expected at the box office, the men's-rights community was only too pleased to blame the all-female ensemble. More recently, Black Panther was praised across the board as a must-see movie. But one writer at the Guardian pointedly recalls a radio show caller who found it "a bit boring, and hoped that its shortcomings did not remove Hollywood's appetite for films with a black superhero." Now think back to 2016—the same year Ghostbusters came out—when no one questioned whether the critically panned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would undermine the future of films with its flat jokes and patriarchal, white-savior storylines.

When you watch a film, you're watching it through the eyes of its director and cinematographer. Quite literally, you're seeing the world as they frame it through their lens. Watching the world through a woman's lens can reframe the world visually, simply because her worldview has been born of a wholly different experience than that of a man. While a white male can shoot a beautiful narrative story, there's been a century's worth of beautifully shot films by white men. And to viewing audiences more politically attuned and widely networked than ever before—via Twitter, where one can laud or decry a film's creator directly—it should no longer be acceptable to have a crew of all white people or all men.

If you can't put a minority character on screen who's complex and not a trope or the butt of a joke, then it's the producer's job to hire better writers who can make that character reflective of an authentic minority. The same goes for putting women behind the camera. It matters whose lens we are looking through because it shapes the visual story we are being told. As of 2017, female cinematographers made up only 2 percent of the 100 top grossing movies (it jumps to merely 6 percent in the top 500), which means that we're watching 94 to 98 percent of those stories through men's eyes.

The math is simple: Adding an inclusion rider to all actor contracts means more women in cinematography jobs, which means more of those projects can be nominated for awards, which means that there will be fewer firsts. It's a step toward a media industry actually reflecting the world at large. Next up: eliminating "women" before "cinematographer."

In the spirit of rebalancing the scales, you can start by paying attention to cinematographers like Polly Morgan, who shot Legion and who, in a further win for diversity momentum, has just been hired for her first studio feature, Pale Blue Dot, directed by Noah Hawley and starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm. Or you could check out Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, who has been shooting the quirky and critically acclaimed HBO show High Maintenance since 2014, when the show was still with Vimeo. (Weaver-Madsen says that the producers were recently passing her new baby around the office as they geared up for season three.) There's Jannicke Mikkelsen, who's doing innovative work in the burgeoning virtual reality space; last year, she custom-designed a camera rig with 20 GoPros to capture a live Queen and Adam Lambert concert in VR, 360, and 3-D. Or Charlotte Bruun Christensen, who filmed John Krasinski's A Quiet Place and Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game last year. Hillary Fyfe Spera has two films premiering at Tribeca Film Festival this week, including a documentary called Sidelined about professional cheerleaders who posed for Playboy in the 1970s and were kicked off their squads as a result. Then there’s Autumn Duralde, who shot Untogether, which releases next week. And Michelle Lawler is currently shooting Feig's latest pilot, Girls Code, and also worked on Rust Creek, which is making its rounds on the festival circuit right now.

While this is hardly an exhaustive list of all the up-and-coming cinematographers who happen to be women, it's a start. If we keep paying attention to who is and isn't allowed to do the work, we can improve the current scenario—and move beyond lip service.