This week George Clooney, on the PR tour to promote his new movie Tomorrowland, reiterated to BBC radio his views on the Sony hack last December. It was “an abomination,” Clooney said — when he is asked about this topic the actor speaks with a visceral intensity, as if his own religion has been defiled — but he added a caveat.

“One good thing that’s come out of [the Sony hack] is the conversation in very liberal Hollywood that women aren’t being paid the same and … there’s something like 15 female directors in a town of directors,” he said. “I think it’s a very good conversation that they’re starting to have.”

The conversation did indeed begin anew after the world watched, collective mouths agape, as a motherload of dirty laundry came out of one of Hollywood’s largest studios. Leaked emails and documents revealed awful jokes made by Sony’s top brass about US President Barack Obama (“should I ask him if he liked Django?”), bitching about various big-name players (Angelina Jolie was “a minimally talented spoiled brat”) and exposure of celebrity aliases (Tobey Maguire checks into hotels as “Neil Deep”).

There were also revelations that weren’t in the slightest bit funny, nor presumably were they surprises to the bulk of the industry. Sony’s 17 highest-earning executives are predominantly white men. According to a leaked spreadsheet, Sony co-chair Amy Pascal was the only woman earning $1 million or more at the studio. It’s not just executives: it was revealed female actors (most famously, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle) get paid considerably less than their male counterparts.

In February, Patricia Arquette used her Oscar acceptance speech to rally for equal pay for women (she won for a film called Boyhood). Last week Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed that, at 37, she was told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old male actor.

This week the conversation took on a local element, with the release of new Screen Australia research into the Australian film industry revealed in a women-themed edition of Lumina, a screen arts and business journal published by the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

The figures are grim. In an essay written by Monica Davidson, titled “Knocking on a Locked Door: Women in Australian Feature Films”, the author reveals that of all Australian feature films made since the 1970s, a staggering 85% have been directed by men. Year on year that number has fluctuated, with gradual inclination upwards but no substantial movement. In 1971 4% of directors and 10% of producers were women. In the ’80s those numbers rose to 12% and 22% and in the ’90s, 18% and 29%.

Last year 16% of Australian feature films were directed by women. Twenty percent were written by women and 29% were produced by women.

Davidson argues that people are not only unaware of gender inequality in the Australian film industry, they also think it’s been fixed. In a 2012 survey titled “Women in the Victorian Film, Television and Related Industries” author Lisa French found that a majority of respondents thought the situation had improved for women, particularly in the last 10 years.

“In terms of creative leadership, this is simply not so,” Davidson writes. “The numbers of women directors and producers are stagnating, or declining, and the industry-wide blindness to the issue means there are no gender-based initiatives to correct the problem. If left unchecked, the numbers of women leaders could continue to creep downwards to 1970s levels. Or American levels.”

That industry-wide blindness may be in part a result of the high standard we associate with female Australian filmmakers, who continue to smash out great work — from stalwarts such as Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong to a swathe of others including Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, The Dressmaker), Rachel Ward (Beautiful Kate, Devil’s Playground), Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Mabo), Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), Catriona McKenzie (Satellite Boy), Anna Broinowski (Forbidden Lie$, Aim High in Creation) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook). Countless more have developed quality feature films in recent years and the aforementioned list consists only of directors (it doesn’t begin to compile our great female writers and producers).

Perhaps not all the industry was blind to such a low level of representation; it seems hard to believe people in key areas of influence would not have registered that the scales tilt so far in one direction. Arguably the most shocking thing about the numbers published in Lumina is that they capture a taxpayer-funded industry, therefore providing a powerful reminder that entrenched sexism in the entertainment business is not something we can relegate out of sight and out of mind to the misogynistic brats and coke-snorting yahoos in corporate Hollywood.

The question, of course, is where to go from here. Let us imagine a hypothetical situation in which a group of women respond to the shocking figures announced this week by forming a group to lobby the government. Imagine that group was city based — let’s call it, say, the Sydney Women’s Film Group — and this group successfully led to the creation of a Women’s Film Fund or a Women’s Program: an initiative to generate financial support for women-led films in addition to money for distribution, exhibition and training programs. Imagine if that program became part of the mainstream activities of a powerful organisation such as the Australian Film Commission.

Few would argue that wouldn’t be a good outcome, albeit of course far easier said than done. But here’s the thing: that’s not a hypothetical situation at all. The dire statistics about women in the Australian film industry announced in 1971 led to the creation of the Sydney Women’s Film Group, which successfully lobbied the Whitlam government to establish a Women’s Film Fund in 1976. In the ’80s the fund was brought under the auspices of the Australian Film Commission and became the Women’s Program. That program, as Davidson’s essay explains, was “quietly discontinued” in 1999.

In the entertainment industry, as they say, what’s old again is new again. But the idea that a discussion around something as fundamental as gender equality can come and go in cycles — according to the whims of media attention, perhaps, or the vagaries of public conversation — is a depressing one, not least for the talented people disadvantaged by it.

Disclosure: the author of the this article is the host of Friday on My Mind, a weekly event held at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (publisher of Lumina).

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

Peter Fray

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