Gender matters in Australian film and equality can’t come soon enough

On Monday morning, we woke up to the news that gender matters – at least to Screen Australia, which has launched a scheme of the same name dedicating $5m to developing and promoting professional opportunities for women working in the Australian film industry over the next three years.

“This is a targeted and practical plan to combat gender inequality in our industry, starting from now,” Screen Australia deputy chair Deanne Weir said.

Why only now, some might ask? Weir heads up the Gender Matters taskforce alongside a number of prominent female screen professionals including Sue Maslin, producer of The Dressmaker.

Based on the novel by Rosalie Ham and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, The Dressmaker took seven years to get financed. Even with big names Kate Winslet and Judy Davis attached, the film was considered too risky for investors – that is, until they had the male leads (including Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving) attached.

This week, The Dressmaker became one of Australia’s highest-grossing films of all time, reaching $16m at the domestic box office, proving that Australian movies made by women for women have a mass appeal. Research shows that women are more likely than men to go to the cinema or sit down and watch a DVD/Blu-ray. So how can male cast members be an accurate way of securing a film’s worth? Surely it’s time we stopped measuring things against male members, period.

Gender Matters presents a five-point plan, including sweeping reform to promote gender and cultural diversity across all Screen Australia’s funding guidelines as well as specialised, female-focused initiatives.

The Enterprise Women scheme will generate screen industry infrastructure for women practitioners. Attachments for Women presents opportunities for emerging filmmakers to gain hands-on production experience. The Matched Distribution Guarantee Support will offer up to $300,000 to enhance marketing for female-driven projects, locally and internationally.The Women’s Story Fund will offer funds specifically for female screenwriters.

“My vision for the future is a world where stories about women, told by women, are equally of interest to all audiences,” Maslin said. “I look forward to 2018 and more diversity and richness on screen.”
The optimism is necessary; the encouragement profound. Currently, only 29% of the people working in Australian film production are women. In the past 40 years, women have made up less than 50% of writer, director, producer credits on Australian feature films. Combine this with risk-averse financiers and the doubt women naturally internalise and it’s easy to see why women may have shied away from the industry.
The Dressmaker is the perfect example of the genre-blending, narrative-rich and – this bit is key – entertaining films Australian women can produce. The possibilities GenderMatters is promising for women professionally should only help strengthen our industry output and stimulate audiences for this kind of film.
Australia is not the first country to institute these kind of anti-discriminatory measures. Anna Serner, the chief executive of the Swedish Film Institute since 2012, has worked tirelessly to establish gender parity in Swedish cinema.
Since Screen NSW appointed Courtney Gibson as CEO earlier this year, all but two state screen funding bodies are led by women in the top executive role. Likewise, Sandra Levy runs the Australian Film Television and Radio School, the head of Victorian College of the Arts’ Film and TV School is Nicholette Freeman and Jennifer Bott heads up the board at the National Institute for the Dramatic Arts.

So, why did Gender Matters take so long? The Glass Ceiling, The Confidence Gap, and Imposter Syndrome might all sound like high-concept movie titles, but they’re real issues women face on a daily basis. The irony is that while we have a number of women in significant policymaking roles, they haven’t been empowered to institute change from within, to help breed confidence in the women to follow.

Australia’s population is 51% women. How much longer can we marginalise a majority? It’s refreshing to see people tweeting “Great news from Australia!”across the world and even more so to see people linking to a federal government initiative supporting an otherwise deflated arts community. But best of all, these celebrations include the hashtag #GenderMatters. Because it really does.

Originally published in The Guardian.