The current era of film is one of “the worst in Hollywood history,” legendary director Quentin Tarantino declared on a podcast last week. He doubled down Monday on yet another podcast, declaring that “there are no more movie stars” because of the “Marvel-ization of Hollywood.”
Tarantino isn’t the first big name Hollywood auteur to dump on the current movie-making status quo and its penchant for super-spectacle. In 2019, Martin Scorsese said that Marvel movies were “not cinema” and worried cinema was being “invaded” by them. Francis Ford Coppola added that Marvel films were “despicable.”
It’s hard to overstate what a massive change cinema has undergone in the past decade — or even in the past five years.
As it happens, I’m not a fan of Marvel films either. “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021) were marginally better than this year’s blockbuster, “Top Gun: Maverick,” but that’s a very low bar. Nonetheless, even to a Marvel skeptic like me, claiming that this era of film is the worst in history, and using the language of invasion, makes these directors sound like aging cranks yelling at the kids to get off their grass.
It also makes them sound, unfortunately, like they’re yelling at women to get off their screens.
For almost the entire history of movies, women haven’t had access to the capital required to make them. Male producers and funders, like Harvey Weinstein — who was convicted on two counts of sexual assault in 2020 — decided who to fund. And people like Weinstein overwhelmingly greenlit movies by male directors like (ahem) Quentin Tarantino.
From the mid-1930s until the mid-1960s, only two female directors had careers in Hollywood: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Things improved marginally between 1966 and 1980. There were at least 15 women directors in the commercial film industry during that time. One was Elaine May — who directed 1972’s brilliant “The Heartbreak Kid,” the 1987 flop “Ishtar” and that was about it. Her foreshortened career was typical. Women directed only 0.19% of feature films between 1949 and 1979.
The numbers weren’t that much better 11 years ago in 2011, when only 4.1% of all movies in the United States were directed by women. But a few years later, the numbers started to change dramatically: 7.7% in 2015; 12.6% in 2017; 15.1% in 2019. By 2021, 21.8% of movies were directed by women — five times as many as only a decade before.
It’s hard to overstate what a massive change cinema has undergone in the past decade — or even in the past five years. Films like Euzhan Palcy’s apartheid drama “A Dry White Season” in 1989, Amy Heckerling’s rom-com “Clueless” in 1995 and Karyn Kusama’s feminist horror film “Jennifer’s Body” in 2009 weren’t alone. But they were notably unrepresentative. If you walked into a new release without knowing the director, you could be almost certain the director was a man. Now, women’s movies are rather gloriously inescapable.
Those include indie art films like Claire Denis’ “Stars At Noon” and Sophie Hyde’s “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” They include streaming movies like Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Anna Foerster’s “Lou.” They include niche horror like Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” and Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks’ “Alone With You.” They include animated features like Domee Shi’s “Turning Red.” And it includes successful big-budget Hollywood fare like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” and Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling.”
Marvel has also produced more women-directed films recently: Chloé Zhao directed “Eternals” in 2021 and Anna Boden co-directed “Captain Marvel” in 2019. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has led the way here. But I do think that the dynamics that created the MCU, and that Tarantino and Scorsese denigrate, have been essential to giving women access to the director’s chair.
Tarantino and Scorsese and many film buffs blame Marvel for overrunning cinema and pushing other films off the big screen. But Marvel’s formula of cinema-as-theme-park-event seems more a symptom than a cause.
The real culprit is the explosion of streaming. People can see thousands of movies from the comfort of their home and laptop now. There has to be a special reason to go to the theater — and the MCU, with its giant explosions and computer graphics and ongoing serialized narrative rushing to the next plot twist, gets butts in seats. Everything else gets pushed toward the little screen.
That may enrage (almost entirely male) directors who made their careers seeing their work bigger than life. But I think it’s been a huge boon for women. Television requires less capital investment than film, and perhaps for that reason it’s always been at least a little more accessible to women directors.
In 1997-98, women comprised 8% of directors in broadcast television. That’s dismal but more than twice as high as the number of female film directors of the same era. In 2017-18, women made up 19% of directors on broadcast television — again, significantly higher than film numbers. In 2021-22, the number was still only 18%. But in streaming, women totaled 29% of directors.
Streaming has blurred the line between television and film work. Like actors, directors now go back and forth between the two mediums. Scorsese may gnash his teeth because “The Irishman” ended up on Netflix. But the fact that the walls between platforms have been lowered is no doubt part of what’s enabled so many women to build connections and resumés that allow them to vault over what were, not so long ago, impassable barriers for half of humanity.
Movies change, and every era has fans and detractors, strengths and weaknesses. But the simple fact is that the unprecedented transformation of cinema right now has nothing to do with whether Marvel star Chris Evans counts as a movie star, and precious little to do with the ego of Tarantino or any other male film director who spent the bulk of their careers indifferent to the rampant sexism of their industry. We are living in the Golden Age of women’s cinema. All you have to do to see it is open your eyes.