John Green announced exciting news last week: Rebecca Thomas will be directing film adaptation of Looking for Alaska. The book, first published in 2005, was Green’s debut novel. The novel, which tells the story of a young man, Miles Halter, who meets an enigma of a young woman named Alaska Young when attending boarding school in his junior year of high school, remains one of Green’s most popular works.
Rebecca Thomas is best known for her debut feature Electrick Children (2012). Other than that feature, Thomas only has two short films under her belt, which makes this selection a big deal for female directors in Hollywood.
The Fault in Our Stars, another film based off of one of John Green’s books, is listed as one of the highest grossing films of 2014. It earned $124,872,350 domestically and over $300 million worldwide. Coupled with the popularity of John Green’s novels, it’s likely that Looking for Alaska will also follow suit, making Thomas’s hire of even more importance.
Welcome to the Boy’s Club
According to the Women Make Movies, in 2012 women accounted for only 9% of directors on the top 250 films of 2012. Meanwhile, only four female directors have ever been nominated for an Academy Award with a single winner—Kathryn Bigelow for the The Hurt Locker (2009).
In Hollywood’s current climate, it is highly unlikely to see an untested female director with few credits hired for a big film. Male directors, by contrast, have somewhat of an easier time. For example, the newest Spider-Man reboot scheduled for a 2017 release will be directed by Jon Watts, whose only credits are the 2014 film Clown and the 2015 film Cop Car. And it’s these larger credits that allow male directors to keep on getting top jobs; in this case, even if the film flops, working on a Marvel film is something that studio executives will remember.
A female director looking to land high-profile projects, however, is expected to have already made a name for herself before she can be considered a serious contender by studios at all. A 2014 New York Times article researched the problem of women in Hollywood in-depth and states that, “in September, Donna Langley, the chairwoman of Universal Pictures, said she and her team start with a list of candidates when looking for a director. “I don’t go through that with criteria of male or female,” she said, “even if it’s a big sort of action film.” The problem is who makes it onto that list. “When we start our interview process what I find is, more often than not, that the majority of candidates are male,” she said.” It feeds into a cruel cycle of rejection if that female director is never given a chance to get her foot in the door in the first place.
It is unfortunate in all too many cases, men are hired based upon promise (and with the understanding that they will be considered for future projects), but women are hired only when they’ve proven themselves to be worthy through their work other projects (with less certainty about future job prospects). And even utilizing that proven track record can be difficult. As the New York Times article states, these larger production studios, such as Universal Pictures, look for the type of movies that men appear more likely to direct (such as science fiction films). By contrast, according to Women Make Movies, female directors tend to direct more documentaries than narrative films. Thus, when it comes time to hire a director, female directors (even those with film successes – just in other genres) find themselves shut out their potential break into the high-profile directing jobs of Hollywood.
Will Thomas Change Hollywood?
Thomas’s hire is definitely an improvement; she’s a relatively untested director navigating a high-profile studio feature. And with the success of The Fault in Our Stars and the promise of the upcoming Paper Towns film adaptation, it’s highly unlikely that Looking for Alaska will be a flop. It will hopefully help to convince larger studios that female directors can make profitable movies. That said, as Diablo Cody, writer for the movies Juno and Paradise, put it, “As a woman you’re still expected to constantly prove yourself, whereas men are allowed to have flops without people blaming it on their gender.” Thomas, too, will be forced to prove herself yet again in future movies, even if Looking for Alaska does extremely well.
We can only hope that as more untested female directors are given their chance in Hollywood, the sexism that surrounds them there begins to dissipate. Until then, Thomas will join the ranks of female directors such as Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola whose filmmaking and very presences are working to do just that.
Check out the Electrick Children trailer below – and watch the film! – to support Thomas: