Composers have been employed for 2 forthcoming blockbusters about warrior girls — “Wonder Woman 1984,” directed and co-written by Patty Jenkins, and “Mulan,” directed by Niki Caro from a screenplay by three girls.
The composers: Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. Both, plainly, dudes.
More than only a missed alternative to lend flinty feminine heroes a feminine musical voice, the bulletins had been merely the newest examples of ladies being sorely unheard in movie music. A 2018 examine by the University of Southern California revealed that for the highest 100 fictional movies on the field workplace yearly from 2007 to 2017, solely 16 feminine composers had been employed, in contrast with greater than 1,200 males.
Another report, from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, confirmed that of the highest 250 movies on the home field workplace in 2018, 94 % had been scored by males.
“The numbers are bleak, but the landscape isn’t,” stated Laura Karpman, a veteran film composer (“Paris Can Wait”) and a governor in the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “People are reaching out in a way that I’ve never seen it my whole career.”
Karpman was instrumental in expanding the diversity of her branch’s membership, which now includes the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Karpman also spearheaded the creation of a shortlist in the score category of the Academy Awards. “Had we had a voted-upon shortlist last year, I think we would have more diversity,” she said. Citing the composers behind “Get Out” and “Mudbound,” she added, “I want to see Michael Abels and Tamar-kali on Oscar shortlists.” (Karpman spoke before the shortlist was announced in December. It includes Terence Blanchard’s score for “BlacKkKlansman” — his first Oscar nomination if he moves to the next round — but, alas, no women.)
Tamar-kali is one of several new voices in a persistently white male milieu. “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees, was the Brooklyn artist’s first score, which she followed with the Netflix drama “Come Sunday.” She’s also reteaming with Rees for an adaptation of the Joan Didion novel “The Last Thing He Wanted.” As an Afro-indigenous woman in the New York punk rock scene, she said, she was already used to being “an outlier within the outliers.”
“It just kind of fuels your creativity,” she explained. “The ethos means even more to you, because you’re practicing it every moment — even in the pit, even at shows.”
Like a handful of other female artists, Tamar-kali wasn’t pursuing film composition, but was commissioned after a director heard her work. Mica Levi, a British rocker from the band formerly known as Micachu and the Shapes, was nominated for an Oscar for “Jackie,” which followed her shivering, queasy breakout score for “Under the Skin.”
The Icelandic cellist-composer Hildur Gudnadottir was hired for “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and the forthcoming “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix — two patently “macho,” big-budget features — largely because of her experimental electronic solo work.
“People approach me looking for a specific type of sound, or feeling,” Gudnadottir said. “They don’t come knocking on my door for, like, a John Williams score. So that also puts me in a really good position, because I’m normally allowed to be myself.”
“Joker” bucks the trend of high-profile superhero films going solely to male composers, as does the coming “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson. Pinar Toprak, a Turkish composer who wrote additional music for Danny Elfman on last year’s “Justice League,” is the first woman to score a Marvel film.
“Music, and art in general, it’s genderless,” Toprak told me in April, “because emotions are genderless.”
One of the few women who scored a major studio film in 2018 was Germaine Franco, with the R-rated bro comedy “Tag.” After assisting the Oscar-nominated John Powell for years, the Mexican-American composer drew attention for giving “Coco” much of its musical personality — she orchestrated Michael Giacchino’s score and wrote several of its songs, although she was not asked to compose the score. She’s currently working on the Tina Gordon Chism comedy, “Little,” starring Marsai Martin of “black-ish.”
All of this raises the question of why most studio features — even female-centric no-brainers like the “Ghostbusters” reboot and “Ocean’s 8” — still go to men.
The history of women scoring films isn’t long. The pioneer was probably Germaine Tailleferre, a French composer who co-scored a travelogue in 1926. Thirty years later, the American Bebe Barron created the avant-garde electronic sound for “Forbidden Planet” with her husband, Louis.
Wendy Carlos’s seminal synthesizer album “Switched-On Bach” led to her collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining.” Angela Morley was an Oscar-nominated composer whose credits included the 1978 animated feature “Watership Down” and the TV series “Dynasty” and “Dallas.”
Shirley Walker was a pianist who helped Carmine Coppola realize his score for “Apocalypse Now,” and went on to shape scores by Elfman and Zimmer in the 1980s and ’90s as an in-demand orchestrator. Both men, classically untrained, credit her as a teacher.
Walker, who died in 2006, also composed her own scores, notably “Batman: The Animated Series,” the “Final Destination” movies and the 2003 horror film “Willard.” Yet she could never break into the top-tier movies she was helping men with.
“I don’t think she got in the door for the same meetings that the guys would get,” said Lolita Ritmanis, a composer who was mentored by Walker. “I wouldn’t say she was bitter. She was a fighter till the end.”
The first woman to win an Oscar for best score was Rachel Portman, for “Emma” in 1996. (The only other woman to win that prize is Anne Dudley, for “The Full Monty” the next year.)
The film industry, Portman said, “tends to be quite cautious.” She added that directors feel more comfortable with composers who have “done something really similar-sounding before — which immediately makes it very difficult to break in. And also this feeling that there’s safety if someone else has hired someone before, which I think is particularly hard for women.”
She said she had worked with only two openly misogynistic directors, and noted the occasional “delicious challenge” of a filmmaker presuming she’s not capable of writing “tough music” — that is, for action scenes or anything in a mode not stereotypically feminine. “I’m like, are you kidding? And I’ll just prove to them that I can.”
The women interviewed for this article offered a variety of reasons for the longstanding inequality: institutionalized sexism; a lack of precedents and female role models to inspire girls to go into the field; and the social conditioning of women to be selfless caretakers and not seize the spotlight.
Increasingly, women are entering the profession, but are still outnumbered by men. The film scoring certificate program at the University of California, Los Angeles has produced 120 graduates since 2013, of which only 25 percent were female. Likewise, only a quarter of applicants to the film scoring graduate program at U.S.C. this year were female — although the school invited seven women to join its 20-student program.
(Portman suggested that universities pumping so many aspiring composers into such a small competitive field might itself be a problem.)
Several workshops — including the Sundance Institute Film Music Program, which has achieved gender parity the past two years, and the Ascap Film Scoring Workshop — are trying to provide more women with real-world experience and access to the industry. Universal Pictures started its Film Music Composer Initiative to find talented women and people of color. Winning candidates are writing orchestral scores — and running recording sessions at Abbey Road — for shorts created by DreamWorks Animation.
There are also new resources for support. The Alliance for Women Film Composers was founded in 2014, and now has close to 400 members. It has raised the visibility of women through concerts and advocacy work, and provides solidarity in a lonely profession with no formal union. “It’s a sisterhood, it’s a resource,” said Ritmanis, president of the alliance. “And although we are very much competitors, we are also each others’ cheerleaders.”
“I think because of the global awareness of women’s rights, and #MeToo, and Time’s Up and all these different movements,” she added, “there is an interest and a call to action” among studios and decision makers. “People call me wanting to meet and figure out what they can do, and I do think that there’s a lot more opportunity for women to be part of the big audition process” for major feature assignments.
As there should be, given their talent, said Doreen Ringer-Ross, an executive in the film music division of Broadcast Music Inc., the performing rights organization which manages the catalogs of many of Hollywood’s top composers. “The job of a composer is to be really sensitive, is to interpret the emotion of things, musically,” she said. “And women are traditionally great at doing that.”
Still, emerging composers face a double standard. Jesi Nelson has been apprenticing with several male composers as she develops her own career, and she’s dealt with potential bosses commenting about her legs or musicians assuming that she’s somebody’s personal assistant when she’s actually running a recording session.
“I do get angry, and sometimes I’m just like, what’s the point?” Nelson said. “If I’m working these ridiculous hours — seven days a week, 18-hour days — and it’s paying off for somebody to diminish everything that I’ve worked hard for in a few words based on my gender, like, why am I even doing this? But I love it way too much, so I won’t stop.”