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Coronavirus shut down Hollywood, but there may be a silver lining

Fewer releases and changing attitudes toward streaming could lead to positive side effects for female filmmakers.

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Awkwafina starred in 2019's The Farewell, which was directed by Lulu Wang.

Casi Moss

The coronavirus pandemic has crushed the movie industry, but there may be a silver-screen lining for female directors.

Last month the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that, at least for next year's Oscars ceremony, movies no longer need to fulfill a one-week run in a Los Angeles theater to be eligible for best picture. As long as a film had a scheduled theatrical release, it qualifies for a chance at an Oscar nomination.

Out of the few films trickling out during the pandemic, several of the standouts were directed by women. These films could bring long-overdue recognition for female directors at the next Oscars, where women have historically missed out on nominations in the best director category.

"In 2021, I see female directors being recognized after long years of their contributions being overlooked," says Toija Cinque, senior lecturer in screen and design at Deakin University, in Melbourne.

At the Oscars in February, actress Natalie Portman wore a Dior cape embroidered with the names of female directors.

Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty

It's been a long time coming. Take this uncomfortable Oscars' fact: Only five women have been nominated for best director since the first ceremony 92 years ago and only one has ever won -- Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010.

Female directors were the talk of this year's Oscars, but not because they won awards. Actress Natalie Portman's now famous Dior cape, embroidered with the names of female directors, recognized those such as Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Mati Diop (Atlantics), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), Alma Har'el (Honey Boy), Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell), who were left out of 2020's all-male best director category.

One of next year's possible frontrunners, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, directed by Eliza Hittman, raked in awards at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. The film, about two teenagers who have to make their way to New York City for help with an unintended pregnancy, was in the middle of its first week in theaters before the quarantine forced cinemas to close.

"An unintended side effect of the recent changes in eligibility rules could make the 2021 Oscars more accessible to female directors and underrepresented filmmakers and those with fewer resources," Cinque says.

Thanks to the new eligibility rules, Never Rarely Sometimes Always could be a best picture contender and see Hittman up for best director. And it's not the only film directed by a woman making a case for nominations.

Before March saw a swath of summer films push their releases to next year, several lauded gems directed by women squeezed into the movie calendar. With the smaller pool of films to compete with this year, they stand a better chance at winning Oscars.

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Julia Garner in The Assistant.

Bleecker Street

Kelly Reichardt's 19th-century drama First Cow has notched up a 90% Metacritic score since its release earlier this year. The Assistant, a drama directed by Kitty Green and featuring a powerhouse performance by Ozark's Julia Garner, currently has a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

In a possible hitch, however, the Oscars said this week they may push the next ceremony beyond its current February scheduled date, potentially incorporating films released across two years -- 2020 and 2021 -- for the first time since the very first Oscars ceremony.

Nevertheless, if the current frontrunners and their female directors are successful on Oscar night, "this would mark the first time in Oscar history that multiple female directors have been nominated and won," Cinque says.

For greater systemic change, however, there needs to be a cultural and corporate shift.

"Steps to further diversify the Academy and having studios make sure they support films by women and people of color from the beginning through the entire awards season would go far," Cinque says.

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Alfonso Cuaron's 2018 Roma.

Carlos Somonte

Netflix may get a boost

The next Oscars may also see films produced by streaming services shed the stigma that hampered their chances at winning best picture in the past. Notably, streamers like Netflix have a high percentage of female directors creating their films.

Netflix and Amazon have had successful Oscars campaigns in the past, but neither has seen their films take home best picture, with previous contenders The Irishman, Roma and Manchester by the Sea all missing out.

It's not a stretch to suggest this had something to do with the criticism aimed at streaming services for subverting the "immersive" experience of traditional cinema. Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, a "Netflix movie," felt the consequences of that stigma: In 2019, Roma lost out to Green Book for best picture.

"[Steven] Spielberg and others have come out condemning Netflix and films shown on streamers -- that they shouldn't be accepted into the Oscars," says Daryl Sparkes, senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia.

But with the rapid growth of services like Disney Plus, HBO Now and the soon to come HBO Max, there's no stopping the dramatic transformation of how we watch movies.

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Martin Scorsese took The Irishman to Netflix for funding reasons.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Unlike Spielberg, many auteurs have embraced streaming, from Steven Soderbergh (who created interactive series Mosaic) to Martin Scorsese with The Irishman on Netflix, although the great advocate of cinema didn't make the decision to work with the company lightly.

"We needed to make an expensive picture," Scorsese said. "The movie business is changing hour by hour -- not necessarily for the better -- and many of the places we would have gone to for funding in the past were no longer viable. Then we started talking to Netflix."

Streaming services have provided opportunities for female filmmakers as well.

In 2019, a University of Southern California study found that 20% of films streamed by Netflix were directed by women, including Jennifer Kaytin Robinson's rom-com Someone Great, Amy Poehler's Wine Country and the Ali Wong-starring Always Be My Maybe. This year, Netflix has announced 33 films directed by women so far.

By comparison, the number of women working with traditional studios is about half. A study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that, in 2019, women comprised 12% of directors working on the top 100 grossing films and 14% of directors working on the top 500 films, a drop of 1% from 2018.

While female filmmakers are finding more resources and platforms to make their films, there's still a long way to go for their indelible mark on cinema to be reflected at the biggest awards ceremony.

But now, as Oscars voters find more and more streaming movies demanding their attention, as well as having to stream best picture contenders from the Academy site, attitudes toward streamers may begin to change. This boost to streaming services' films could give female directors a leg up too, bringing both greater female participation in film and the recognition to match the greatness of their achievements.

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