LOS ANGELES—Last month, the American Society of Cinematographers’ annual “meet the nominees” day saw a sudden surge in interest. More than 1,300 people turned out to chat and network with the professionals shortlisted for the group’s film and television prizes, an increase of nearly 30 percent from previous years.
Many of the new attendees were women who came to meet Rachel Morrison, the 39-year-old cinematographer of “Mudbound” and “Black Panther,” according to Kees Van Oostrum, the president of the ASC. Weeks earlier, Morrison had become the first woman ever nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography for her work on “Mudbound,” Netflix’s historical race drama.
“It was remarkable—so many young women who either hoped to be cinematographers or who were already working in the profession just wanted to meet Rachel,” said Van Oostrum. “She’s had this incredible effect on showing people a goal is reachable.”
A cinematographer—also known as a DP, for director of photography—dictates the movement and gaze of a camera, hugely influencing a movie’s feel. For years, women have been shut out of having that influence. Men vastly dominate its ranks, meaning that movies have been quite literally subject to the male gaze in a way audience members may not even be aware.
The percentage of female cinematographers on the box office top 250 sits at only 4 percent, the lowest of all the major film jobs, according to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. By contrast, female representation among directors is 11 percent, and 25 percent among producers. Cinematography straddles the line between the technical and the creative—but its dearth of women is similar to other technical areas such as sound and visual effects with similarly low representation.
Still, the cinematography number represents at least a small uptick: female representation has doubled from 2 percent since 2013, statistics show.
“There are a lot of barriers that should have fallen down a long time ago, and cinematography is a big one,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer. “I hope we’ll soon see a lot more women getting behind the camera.”
Cinematography’s statistics distill the film industry’s inequities—and its small signs of progress.
Membership in the ASC, which confers the cachet that attracts employers, has grown painfully slowly for women. The first woman joined in the 1980s—more than 60 years after the group was founded—and as of 2005, the group had only five women out of some 350 members. Today there are 18, still a fraction of the roughly 375 members.
Morrison represents a kind of poster child for a business struggling to vanquish its diversity devils. Cinematography was the last Oscar category to never see a female nominee.
“I’m realizing that I’ve become a role model and then that visibility is giving a lot of women the courage to keep going, or the courage to get started, or it feels like a light at the end of the tunnel,” Morrison told The Washington Post last week. Still, she didn’t win Sunday night.
The reasons cinematography is so overwhelmingly male run deep in Hollywood. Classes at films school haven’t historically gone out of their way to encourage female enrollees, said Van Oostrum, while the clubby nature of the sector has made it harder for women to break through out in the professional world.
And because of the technical aspect—the work involves lighting and lenses—hiring has also been subject to existing prejudices. “I remember when people would say a camera was too heavy for women to lift,” said Van Oostrum. “That’s how bad it was.”
Studios have also run very few of the women- and minority-centric “shadowing” programs designed to encourage new talent in cinematography—unlike directing, where such programs are common.
The International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, the union that represents many craftspeople behind the camera, has only in the past few years started to increase its efforts to recruit women, with craft seminars and a negotiating session to help younger women stand their ground for equal pay.
Steven Poster, the national president of the International Cinematographers Guild, said that he believes some the bleakness is now overstated. “Has there been exclusion by unconscious bias or even conscious bias? Yes, that has certainly existed. But we’re a society and an industry right now that’s breaking those rules, and it’s getting better all the time.”
The ASC’s male skew is in part the result of the high barrier to entry for the group. Membership is invitation-only, and three existing members must offer their sponsorship. The group also generally only chooses people with scores of credits (because they’re not involved with development or postproduction, cinematographers tend to have many credits), which makes it hard to change the demographics overnight. That limits younger women’s numbers in the ASC—which in turn further prevents them from getting hired.
Cinematography combines a unique blend of traits, which can make it vulnerable to existing biases.
“I think because it involves both technical and creative skills—what has traditionally been thought of as both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities—it can be hard for people to wrap their head around what a cinematographer does,” said Autumn Eakin, a cinematographer who has worked on projects for FX, NBC and Hulu. “So someone doing the hiring just makes an assumption of capability for men and incapability for women.”
Several years ago, Eakin started Cinematographers XX, a web-based hiring resource for directors and producers. “I think part of the problem is people saying ‘we don’t know where to find them,’” she said. “So we gave them a place to find them.”
At the Academy Awards’ Dolby Theatre on Sunday, Morrison lost to “Blade Runner 2049” cinematographer Roger Deakins, an industry legend and a kind of unofficial inspiration to Morrison when she was coming up, according to Morrison.
Deakins had been nominated 13 previous times before winning Sunday, and from the audience Morrison could be seen clapping enthusiastically at another underrecognized cinematographer finally getting his due.
As Deakins won, many Oscar guests who had taken a break from the show to gather in the Dolby’s lobby bar watched him take the stage via a closed-circuit monitor. Toward the back of the bar a guest could be heard commenting on the Morrison reaction.
“I hope,” she said, “one day they’re clapping for her.”