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Meet the Women Composers Fighting for Equality in Hollywood

When it comes to scoring blockbusters, the film industry is anything but fair to women.
Ben Ruby

Artwork by Ben Ruby This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.

On Sunday night, British composer, producer, and singer-songwriter Mica Levi lost the Oscar for Best Original Score to Justin Hurwitz's La La Land score. While few Vegas oddsmakers would have picked the former's (arguably more adventurous) music for the 2016 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis biopic, Jackie, to take home the golden statue, her nomination was remarkable given the category's history.


In the Academy's 81-year history, female composers have been nominated for Best Original Score eight times. Three of those nominations went to Rachel Portman for her soundtracks to Emma (1997), The Cider House Rules (2000), and Chocolat (2001). The last time that a woman actually won the category was Anne Dudley in 1998 for The Full Monty. Of the past 250 top-grossing US domestic films of 2016, only three percent were scored by women, according to a study conducted by the Center for Study of Women in Television & Film. The findings of last year's report—which examines women's on-screen representation and behind-the-scenes employment in the film industry, including directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors—presents a particularly bleak picture of a male-dominated Hollywood.

While these numbers seem to suggest that women haven't scored blockbusters, history proves otherwise. American composer and Switched on Bach creator Wendy Carlos was responsible for the music of Stanley Kubrick cult classics, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, as well as Walt Disney's Tron. All three were box office smashes at the time. More recently, there's Boston composer, string arranger, and producer Deborah Lurie, whose credits include 2011's Footloose and 2010's Dear John. The latter of the two notably unseated James Cameron's Avatar at the box office during its opening weekend and grossed $114 million [USD] worldwide. Although Canadian composer Lesley Barber's score for Manchester by the Sea was snubbed for an Oscar, the film reaped $60 million [USD]. Considering these tremendous efforts, it's clear that a lack of interest or activity isn't the root of the problem.


We spoke to some of the composers, music supervisors, and executive members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pushing to restore gender equality in the film industry to find out what's creating this celluloid ceiling and what can be done to break it.

"We're still the exception, and not the rule."

Ten years ago, American composer Suzanne Ciani met with a Hollywood talent agent about potential movie scoring opportunities, but was taken aback by the man's sexist advances. At that point in her career, the classically-trained pianist had long established herself in history as a pioneer of the modular synthesizer. No stranger to the film industry, she had previously composed the 1976 Columbia Pictures theme jingle and the soundtrack to 1981 sci-film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, amongst other achievements.

"He actually propositioned me with the condition that if I slept with him, I could get his attention for film scoring. I laughed. I thought, 'Is this still going on?'" she recalls to THUMP. "This kind of stuff, this sexual innuendo stuff, it makes women so uncomfortable, because you are de-legitimized. It cuts you down into a non-entity."

With few women holding executive decision-making power in Hollywood's studio system, it effectively rules women out of potential opportunities altogether—regardless of the stage of their career that they're in.

"When you work at a studio, the person there who runs the film music department isn't the final answer. As we know, there are movies that have high financial risk," says Tracy McKnight, an independent music supervisor and former head of film music for Lionsgate. "When you're operating into bigger movies, there's lots of people who make those decisions, and what we want to see is more women to be amongst those decision makers to give [other women] the opportunities."


Laura Karpman, a composer who was the president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, left the position recently to become the governor of the music branch in the Academy. She's the first woman to hold the title. While McKnight calls this a step in the right direction, she points out the films that female composers are scoring are "probably in $15 million [budget] and below categories."

"The opportunities that occur for women are so precious and limited and don't possibly connote a trend," adds Ciani. "We're still the exception, and not the rule."

"If you go out and you just take a survey, most people associate film composing with men."

When it comes to composers, males are rewarded with bigger budget slots more often than women. Since the latter aren't typically associated with heavy-grossing genres like action or horror, they're not considered in the conversation altogether, and end up being treated like a risk rather than an asset.

Deborah Lurie believes the greatest challenge facing today's female composers is breaking into the arena of top dollar mainstream flicks. "Although women composers may be in the mix of candidates for those movies during the early stages of the project, by the time they get to music, a studio has already faced budget and schedule concerns that deter them from wanting to take risks," she tells THUMP. "The outcome often seems like the safe choice to me."


If we're resorting to stereotypes, it's interesting that women—who are frequently associated with emotionality—are now being excluded from a role that could actually benefit from this intuitiveness.

"If you go out and you just take a survey, most people associate film composing with men. Men are action heroes, and we think of them in a masculine term, and we gravitate women towards comedies, romantic comedies, dramas, things like that," observes McKnight. "When you're looking at horror or action, women are not thought of in those terms."

But Karpman reminds how women can offer a unique perspective that is distinct from that of their male counterparts. "It's good to hire someone with a different aperture, a different viewpoint. One of the things that we learn how to do is learn how to be a good composer and write into a multiplicity of genres."

Ciani notes how women often don't receive attention for their accomplishments. "It's always a surprise," she says. "There's a long list of things that women have contributed, but it's an anomaly, and no critical mass of consciousness has been raised there."

"We have kind of locked arms together because you are fierce in force."

Despite Levi's loss this past weekend and the uneven numbers reported in studies, Hollywood's slowly making strides when it comes to gender diversity. In the Academy's 2016 list of 638 new members, a record 46 per cent were female.

On top of that, last year—and for the first time ever—there was gender parity in the Sundance Composers Lab, an application-based fellowship for young composers which pairs them with emerging directors. The program features concerts, panels, and other events, and offers mentorship from creative advisors like McKnight, blockbuster veteran George S. Clinton, and designers from George Lucas' Skywalker Sound.


2016 participants included M83 collaborator Morgan Kibby (who performs under the moniker White Sea), FX TV series Legion lead orchestrator Amie Doherty, Canadian-Indian multi-instrumentalist Amritha Vaz (who's worked on music for 500 Days Of Summer, Pomegranates and Myrrh, and Cooking With Stella, among others), and more.

Elsewhere, international non-profit organizations like the Alliance for Woman Female Composers and Women in Film & TV are advocating for the talented women that are active in the industry and seeking visibility. At the end of the day says Ciani, women should take matters into their own hands rather than trying to invade the boy's club.

"We just need to make our own clubs, where we have the power and the leverage to do our projects," she says. "Then the men will look at us and will relate to us respectfully I'm sure, because we're going to be something to reckon with."

"We have kind of locked arms together because you are fierce in force," adds McKnight. "Collectively, the more voices coming together make a difference."

Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.