Dec. 10, 2008 — -- It's been a good year for women at the box office. First there was the success of "Sex and the City," based on the hit television show about four female friends, followed by "Mama Mia," the Broadway musical-turned-movie in which Meryl Streep (gasp!) sings.
The recently opened "Twilight," directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is on its way to eclipsing both with a current three-week take of nearly $140 million. About half of that, the film delivered opening weekend, giving Hardwicke the biggest opener ever for a female director.
So, why, industry watchers wonder, is Hardwicke not returning to the director's chair for "New Moon," the next installment of author Stephenie Meyer's bestselling series on which the films are based?
"She's done exactly what Hollywood said we have to do as women -- delivered a successful box office movie," Melissa Silverstein, who runs the blog Women & Hollywood, told ABCNews.com. "It does not add up."
Silverstein wrote a blog about Hardwicke's departure under the headline: "What Does a $70 Million Opening Weekend Get Catherine Hardwicke? Fired."
Summit Entertainment, the film's distributor, and Hardwicke, who also directed "The Lords of Dogtown," released a statement Sunday pinning the director's departure on a timing conflict.
"I am sorry that, due to timing, I will not have the opportunity to direct 'New Moon,'" Hardwicke said. "Directing 'Twilight' has been one of the great experiences of my life, and I am grateful to the fans for their passionate support of the film."
"Catherine did an incredible job in helping us launch the 'Twilight' franchise, and we thank her for all of her efforts and we very much hope to work with her on future Summit projects," Summit production president Erik Feig said. "We, as a studio, have a mandate to bring the next installment in the franchise to the big screen in a timely fashion so that fans can get more of Edward, Bella, and all the characters that Stephenie Meyer has created."
CAA, the agency that represents Hardwicke, declined to comment for this story. Hardwicke's publicist declined to comment beyond the released statement. Summit did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"This is a movie being driven by the young star that teenage girls want to see," Jeanine Basinger, the film studies chair at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, told ABCNews.com. "On that basis, the director seems expendable. The fact that she's a woman makes it sadder for those of us who worry about how few women directors there are. The irony is the fact that she is being treated as an equal -- how a man would be."
But some industry watchers question whether Hardwicke was treated fairly. After one blog quoted a Summit insider as saying Hardwicke was "difficult" and at times "irrational," Silverstein shot back, "Why don't you just call her 'bitch?'"
The news comes as Hardwicke is in the midst of a European tour promoting the film, along with stars Kristen Stewart, who plays Bella Swan, and Robert Pattinson, who plays her vampire lover.
It also comes at a bad time for women directors. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film's annual study, "The Celluloid Ceiling," women made up only 6 percent of directors last year, down from 7 percent in 2006 and 11 percent in 2000.
Martha Lauzen, who helms the center and annual study at San Diego State University, told ABCNews.com that Hollywood is "in the midst of a multi-year decline," not just for women directors, but producers, writers and cinematographers.
"It's called prejudice, discrimination, gender stereotyping," director Martha Coolidge told ABCNews.com, stating the reason she believes there are so few women directors. "Why are there not more of them to pick from? They're not hired in the first place. We're told: 'Women are too soft; they can't take the heat; women don't really want to do this job.' It's frustrating to women like myself."
Coolidge, who, over four decades, has directed such features as "Valley Girl," "Rambling Rose" and "The Prince and Me," is heartened by the fact that people are talking about Hardwicke.
"At least a woman has directed a big hit and it's actually making news," she said during a break in shooting on her latest project, "Tribute," based on a Nora Ephron novel. "This is the situation men have been in and now we've got a woman in it, and that's good."
Shortage of Women Directors
"It's a boy's town," Silverstein said. "Directing is the ultimate job. You are the king, you tell people what to do and you're in charge. And there's a very small list of men who are on it. Here's a woman who made it on the list. She worked her butt off, achieved a big box office success and has been summarily kicked off the list."
Coolidge said the thing to watch for now is Hardwicke's next project. Variety said she has two in the works with the company that produced her film "Thirteen."
"There are other situations were women did not move into opportunities that men would have," Coolidge said. "One is [Kimberly Peirce] the director of 'Boys Don't Cry.' How long did it take her to get another picture? I feel like the situation may be more fragile for a woman than a man."
One thing "Twilight" does illustrate is the findings of Lauzen's latest study "Women @ the Box Office," which showed that, contrary to popular belief, women are not "bad box office."
"If you level the playing field, if you give these films similar budgets, film made by women or with female protagonists will generate similar box office grosses as films made by men or with male protagonists," Lauzen said.
"But perception is reality," she added. "These biases are deeply ingrained. It's very difficult to change certain points of view. 2008 could really mark a sea change in perceptions, so I'm hopeful."
So is Basinger. She said two of the best films she has seen this year, "Wendy and Lucy" and "Frozen River," were made by women directors.
"When we come to the end of the year, there are going to be films that were huge at the box office that were directed by women and big at the award ceremonies that were directed by women," she said. "And that's progress."