It’s been three years since Captain Marvel became the highest-grossing film ever to have been written by a woman, Pinar Toprak, with worldwide grossing of $1.1 billion.
Toprak, who also wrote the music for this year’s Netflix adventure Slumberland, is one of four composers to be spoken about for the 2022 awards. Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir did “Tár” and “Women Talking”, American Chanda Dancy “Devotion” and French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch “Living”.
At least nine other women have made notable films this year, including Aska Matsumiya (“After Yang”), Isabella Summers (“The Lover of Lady Chatterley”), Amelia Warner (“Mr. Malcolm’s List”), Sharon Farber (“Brainwashed: Sex Camera Power”), Laura Karpman (“The Tree of Life”), Amanda Jones (“Art & Krimes by Krimes”), Anna Drubich (“Navalny”), Camille (“Corsage”) and Tanerélle (“Nanny”) .
For a long time, film music was exclusively a male thing. When Dancy graduated from USC’s prestigious film music program in 2004, she couldn’t even get a job as an assistant composer — and was actually told that was because she was female.
“Early on in my career, I struggled just to find a place for myself,” says Dancy. “The expectation was, oh, are you a songwriter? A singer? I’m a thematic orchestral composer, but I don’t look like Beethoven. Or John Williams.”
That’s not happening now, she says. “People hire me for big, 100-piece orchestral scores. That really only happened in the last three or four years.”
Academy Awards for music have been awarded since 1934, but in all that time only six women have been nominated for composing original scores. Three have won (Rachel Portman for “Emma” in 1996, Anne Dudley for “The Full Monty” in 1997 and Guðnadóttir for “Joker” in 2019).
Last year’s nomination of “Encanto” composer Germaine Franco, the first Latina composer to be recognized by an Oscar, was seen as another breakthrough for women. Two – Guðnadóttir and Dancy – made the shortlist of the 15 Oscars for composers this year.
Toprak, who broke that glass ceiling with a hugely successful Marvel film score, concedes that the situation “is nowhere near where it should be. But we’ve made tremendous progress. It’s all about the opportunity. We’re more in the room, we’re more in the conversations, and that’s all we can ask for.”
London-based Levienaise-Farrouch says she’s seen a change in the type of films she’s been offered. “Originally I was mainly approached when they needed ‘female contact’ and it was mainly about working with female directors. [But] everyone’s attitude changes. They are no longer really confronted with sexism; everything feels like it’s progressing.”
What discourages them are the statistics. “It’s difficult to stay completely optimistic when your bubble bursts every time the data comes out.”
The latest Celluloid Ceiling study, produced by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, shows that women made up just 7% of the composers who worked on the top 250 films of 2021. That’s an increase of 5% in 2020, and 6% in 2019 and 2018.
A closer look, however, reveals a more depressing statistic: women made up just 3% of composers working on the top 100 films of 2021, down from 5% in 2020.
dr Martha Lauzen, founder and managing director of the center and keeper of these statistics, reports: “If we compare 2013 with 2021, the share of female composers in the top 250 films increased by 5 percentage points. Even though the percentage has more than tripled, 7% is still an absurdly low number. This roughly corresponds to the representation of women as camerawomen.
“If more women are nominated for an Oscar this year, it can be attributed to their outperformance relative to their representation, or attributed to an unusually good year for women composers.
“Cameramen and composers are strongly male-identified roles,” notes Lauzen. “It has taken an enormous amount of work and research over the last two decades to change the image of film directors. It will take a similar amount of effort to change our images from cinematographers and composers.”
Patty Macmillan, whose Allegro Talent Group represents such high-profile women composers as Guðnadóttir and “Loki” composer Natalie Holt, says nurturing her clients is a lot easier than it was a decade ago when she started.
“Studio scores were stereotypically male-dominated jobs, and that really needed to change,” she says. “There were very few female pioneers in this field, so gaining the trust of studios and filmmakers was not easy… although when a powerful director was interested in a female composer and fought for her, the path was easier.
“That happened with Hildur,” she recalls. “Todd Phillips heard her score for ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado,’ thought her musical style would be perfect for ‘Joker,’ and gave her a chance to shine. Unbeknownst to him, he paved the way for more women to achieve what had become so normal for male composers: a seat at the table.”
Guðnadóttir’s Oscar win made a difference, Macmillan believes. Calls came in asking specifically about women. Holt was the first woman to score a “Star Wars” project (“Obi-Wan Kenobi”); M. Night Shyamalan heard Herdis Stefánsdóttir’s reel and hired her for his upcoming Knock at the Cabin; Tamar-kali (“Mudbound”) now sings MGM’s “Flint Strong”.
Female filmmakers are more likely to hire female composers, she says, “because they can identify with the struggle for recognition and really want to support other women.” Similarly, younger filmmakers are less likely to discriminate against women, “because they work in a more open and inclusive environment grew up without the dogma of the older filmmakers”.
The Alliance for Women Film Composers, founded in 2014, now has an estimated 600 members from all over the world. President Catherine Joy is delighted with the number of women composers nominated for awards this season and says “we’re seeing a lot of forays into the world of documentary and indie film music and certainly television this year,” including Holts “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and Laura Karpman’s “Ms. Wonder.”
But she agrees with Lauzen that the proportion of female composers among the highest-grossing films is disappointingly small. “It needs to be pushed consistently to open the doors to more people and really change this landscape.”
The AWFC speaks to studio executives and indie filmmakers about enhanced opportunities for women composers. “So progress needs to be celebrated, but the work is far from done, both in the area of gender parity and inclusion in general,” says Joy. “There’s just so much to do.”
Levienaise-Farrouch adds: “I hope with a new generation the mindset will change and as the years go by more women will make film scores – the same people who go and watch the films and live the stories that are about we speak in these films.”
https://variety.com/2022/music/awards/women-composers-slow-progress-1235467144/ Female composers discuss slow but steady progress