Gender Gap

The German Film Industry Prefers Men

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German federal film funds are one of the main sources of cash for the German film and television industry but the money doesn’t seem to be distributed fairly.

  • Facts


    • According to publicly available information, in 2015, €176.1 million was given in support of 633 films directed by men while just €42.5 million was given to support 223 films directed by women.
    • On German public-service television broadcasters only 11.9 percent of prime time shows were directed by women in 2015.
    • In 2016, “Toni Erdmann,” a film by German director, Maren Ade, became the first movie directed by a woman to win best film at the European Film awards in the ceremony’s 29-year history.
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Toni Erdmann
The "Toni Erdmann" team at the Golden Globes in 2017: Director Maren Ade (second from right) directed the Oscar-nominated tragicomedy, which grossed nearly $5 million in Germany. Source: DPA

In the middle of the summer of 2016, nobody knew that Maren Ade would be such a big winner at the European Film Awards. Her movie, “Toni Erdmann,” would become the first directed by a woman to win best film in the ceremony’s 29-year history. It also netted best acting awards for the two leads, best screenwriter and best director.

Ms. Ade’s win was greeted like a downpour in the desert, something that the director herself mentioned during her speech at the awards ceremony in Poland. “And finally some statistics: It is the first time that a film made by a woman wins this award – and it is 2016,” she pointed out.

She was battling the statistical odds, as was another female director on another film set, that same summer of 2016, in Ismaning, near Munich.

When Tagesspiegel visited the filming of German police drama “SOKO Munich,” dozens of people were silent, waiting for the cameras to roll. “And … action,” the female director called out.

In Germany 95 percent of respondents to a survey on the topic said there was discrimination against female directors locally.

Women directed 20 percent of the Munich-based “SOKO” shows – the acronym stands for Sonderkommission, or Special Police Commission in English – in 2015. It is a series shot in different locations and there were no female directors of the program when it was based in Leipzig, Stuttgart or Vienna.

In fact, only a few of the prime time shows on the German channels, ZDF and ARD, were directed by women in 2015: 11.9 percent to be exact. That this is known at all is due to several women who decided four years ago, that things could not go on this way. They started to count the number of women in the industry, providing the statistical basis for the first gender report on the German film industry which was published in 2014.

Other studies echo these findings, such as the Directors Guild of Germany, which wanted to know whether the gender imbalance in their industry was as bad as they thought it was and discovered actually, it was worse.

Germany does not fare well in a recent study by the European Women’s Audiovisual Network, or EWA, either. The results of the two-year study, which surveyed 900 film industry insiders in seven European countries, were presented at the Berlinale, Berlin’s world famous film festival, earlier this week.

Where Germany fared really badly was in the question on attitudes towards female directors. Overall almost three-quarters of respondents thought there was discrimination against female directors. In Croatia 49 percent of those surveyed believed this and in France, 68 percent felt that way. But Germany topped the list with 95 percent of respondents there saying there was discrimination against female directors.

The EWA study also found that only one in five films in the European countries surveyed – Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the U.K. – was directed by a woman; it concluded that 84 percent of film funds go to male directors. Additionally, female-headed films tended to receive less money than productions headed by men, which created a kind of vicious circle, the researchers wrote.

Clearly the issue needs discussion in Germany. Newspaper Tagesspiegel gathered all the available information on public grants to the film industry. This involved collating all publicly available information from annual reports. Any money that went to directors, whether it was used for production or preparation, was counted. Financial support for scripts or treatments were not added to the mix because often it was not possible to know which director was attached to the funded project.

There is a clear gender gap. In 2015, €176.1 million ($187.5 million) was given in support of 633 films directed by males. Only €42.5 million was given in support of 223 films directed by women.

But is it only that women are getting less funding? It seems that film critics also play a decisive role. Tagesspiegel researchers also collected information on reviews and the overall impact German movies had in local media. The numbers indicate that reviewers usually prefer male directors too.

But things are changing – at least a little. In fact, in some cases, female writers and directors are sought after. The “SOKO” police drama has even used it as a selling point, boasting that about half of the new season was written and directed by women.

Video: The trailer for the award-winning movie “Toni Erdmann.”


That includes the set in Munich today. One of the main SOKO characters, Detective Superintendent Toni Bischoff, is played by the actor Amanda da Gloria. Although she works with different directors all the time, the character must always remain believable. But, as Ms. da Gloria says, the female director she is working with today, is more daring, more willing to question the finer points of her portrayal.

Gender can still be a very sensitive subject in the film industry. For example, the trailer for the new “Ghostbusters” film, which replaced the male protagonists with women, had the dubious honor of being one of the most disliked clips on the internet site ever. That sparked a furious debate about whether viewers were upset about the revamp of the 1984 classic or whether they hated the new female roles. One of the actors left social media after a tsunami of harassment and online bullying.

Indeed, a German female director who had initially agreed to speak to Tagesspiegel about females in film changed her mind. She thought it might be “bad for business” if her professional life were to be characterized as feminist lobbying.

This is the same reasoning behind the fact that another female director would not go on the record saying she had applied to work on a certain crime series for 15 years, with no success. It’s also why one hears things like: “The women who make it to the top are often so grateful, they will work for lower fees.” Or: “You can’t take this kind of thing personally.” Producers often prefer to spend their multi-million euro budgets on people they know and trust, which can often mean people they have always worked with together in the past. That is, people who are men – even if that results in homogeneous television.

Statistics help given the fact that so many women are reluctant to talk openly, for fear of inviting professional distrust or criticism.

Working along those lines, German actress Belinde Ruth Stieve has developed a tool to help count the female faces in front of the camera too. For a while she counted what may best be described as gender-neutral roles manually, for example, a mailman, a pharmacist, a baker or a person running a kiosk. These could be played by either men or women. But, as Ms. Stieve found, they are most often men.

So Ms. Stieve developed a tool she calls Neropa – short for Neutral Role Parity – that is used to identify all the roles in a script that could be any gender before suggesting a more even casting.

“More women’s roles mean more diversity, more potential to identify [with the character onscreen] and more interesting television. For women and for men,” Ms. Stieve said. She had colored cards printed to promote her website and the Neropa model.

Occasionally, Christine Berg, the deputy head of the German Federal Film Board, will pass one of those cards on to the producers and directors seeking grants from her organization, which, along with the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, is one of the most important financial supporters of local film. The board has an annual funding budget of around €76 million.

She has already financed a pornographic film because it gave a female perspective on lust.

The tone of the discussion in Germany has changed since the first gender diversity report on the local film industry came out in 2014. Everybody is interested in the statistics, Ms. Berg said, and they want a wider variety of perspectives onscreen. Thanks in part to a female-director-founded initiative called Pro Quote Regie, there are now reliable numbers on how many women are directing, although there are still no hard figures on female script writers or editors.

“Have you considered a woman for that script?” Ms. Berg sometimes asks producers. Some are astounded and say they had never considered it and where would they find such a woman? Ms. Berg then pulls out a long list of promising contacts. She is not in favor of a quota but she is in favor of equality. “Women should have it just as easy, or just as hard, as men,” she argues.

Film subsidies account for a major part of German filmmakers’ budgets. In total, the Federal Film Board, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and many other smaller state-based funding initiatives give out more than €300 million annually. In the summer of 2016, the Film Board discovered something worthy of a press release: Half of its grants for the coming 12 months were going to females.

But perhaps gender sensitivity needs to start earlier than this?

Bridging the gender gap: Susanne Foidl is the equal opportunities officer at the Film University Babelsberg, in Potsdam. Source: Tagesspiegel / Hendrik Lehmann

Susanne Foidl has been the equal opportunities officer at the Film University Babelsberg in Potsdam since 2013. It is a job nobody ever fought to do because you get caught in the middle, she says. Nonetheless Ms. Foidl sees part of her job as bringing “humor to a humorless debate.”

But the problem goes deeper than just pink and blue, she said. Traditional gender roles are entrenched in our culture and society and these are reflected in film. Movies that focus on those roles only reinforce the entrenched traditions further, Ms. Foidl said.

For example, women are seldom alone in a film. “Usually there is also a man in the shot,” Ms. Foidl said. When two women talk, it is often about men. If there is only one female role in a film, this female is seen as representing all women. And maybe that’s why some people believe the gender gap in the movies has already been bridged, simply because of people like the award-winning Maren Ade or Dorries Dörrie, another respected German director and producer.

Ms. Foidl is a qualified editor and one of her workshops is called “Editing Gender.” In it, she teaches students how an editor can give multiple meanings to a female or male role. The editor has power: During the brief moments the audience waits to hear whether an offhand comment will be taken seriously or treated as a joke. In the seconds, when a flirtatious female in a thriller is seen as confident, or bound for victimhood.

Changing that will doubtless take generations. But at least Ms. Foidl has some power in the form of funds at her disposal: 7 percent of her budget. After the money became available, men also applied to use it. One student director asked for funding because, as he explained, his cast was all female. She told him this alone was not enough. When women work for a male director, there is the possibility they will end up back in more traditional roles.

Before she gives out the cash, Ms. Foidl says she wants to go deeper, get the details and understand what message the film will send. For example, she has already financed a pornographic film because it gave a female perspective on lust, something that had been missing before.

In her lectures on editing, she often sets her students a task: Look at the funny side, that’s one way of playing with gender roles. And don’t worry about the audience, they will catch on all by themselves – eventually.


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: The story was prepared by Tagesspiegel reporters and researchers: Deike Diening, Hendrik Lehmann, Fabian Altenried, Rebecca Ciesielski, Julia Gabel and Sonja Rückert. 

The original report of the collated German film funding, prepared by Tagesspiegel staff, can be found here, find the report on audience numbers and reviews here.

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