This morning, Universal chairman Donna Langley and Pitch Perfect 2 filmmaker Elizabeth Banks sat down at the annual Women at Sundance Brunch to talk about their breaking through in an industry dominated by men.
Langley not only rallied Universal to an industry high of $6.7 billion in 2015, but she did it on the back of an inclusive slate including the femme-targeted Pitch Perfect 2 and Trainwreck, the multicultural franchise Furious 7 and the African American box office success Straight Outta Compton. However, shepherding these films from targeted demo fare to mass-appealing films doesn’t come from “sitting down and deciding we have a quota and checking off an African American box,” said Langley. Rather, it’s more organic, and the fact that Langley, as a woman, gravitates toward projects she’d like to watch in a theater.
“It’s about coming at things at a quality standpoint. Maybe I have a sensibility toward Pitch Perfect, Mamma Mia! and Fifty Shades Of Grey, is because I want to go to the movies and see things I care about. We’re not afraid to make movies toward one or two demographics. If we build it, they will come,” said Langley. The studio chief spoke about her origins at New Line and the knack that studio had in cultivating diverse slates with African American titles such as Love And Basketball and House Party. Given how New Line worked efficiently with their budgets, Langley said that when it came to development, “If we didn’t nail the script on the second draft, we were done.”
Langley called out the Fast & Furious franchise as a multicultural series where “as the world develops, Fast & Furious becomes more popular in developing markets.”
Banks spoke about her recent segue from actor to director-producer. She spoke about the irony upon arriving in Hollywood: She was 26 years old when she came out to audition for a pilot in which the character was a 16-year old girl. After gaining momentum after her role in Wet Hot American Summer, Banks said, “I looked at my male peers in the business and how they were playing superheroes. And hey, I like making money — don’t you?…You start thinking that you don’t work hard enough or whatever excuse you want to make. But then when you look at the numbers, it’s reassuring: Only 30% of all roles go to women. That was a kick in the butt.”
Before the brunch chat, one of the first short docs from the upcoming Epix series The 4%:Film’s Gender Problem screened with such Hollywood notables as Kristen Wiig, America Ferrera and Toni Collette speaking on the topic. The doc series is based on a study conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith of the USC Annenberg Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative which found that across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1% of all directors were women. In the short today, indie producer Christine Vachon exclaimed on the 4% problem, “Instead of holding a million panels about it, let’s do something about it.”
“I like Christine’s quote,” said Banks, ” because we’re up against something that’s the entirety of human history. Woman haven’t had equality or parity in the world, not even in the great United States of America.”
As such Banks is devoted to cultivating female filmmakers through her Brownstone Productions label. Banks related a jarring quote from filmmaker actress Julie Delpy, a trend she’s vying to change. “She said that ‘No one s thinking the next great Martin Scorsese is a woman,'” said the Pitch Perfect 2 helmer.
In closing, Banks said the best virtue to have in a director is decisiveness. “It’s the key to running a set. If you’re not decisive on what you want, it will come down to what the movie is. If you can’t communicate to anyone else, you’re gonna fail.”
“You can always give the wrong answer then change your mind later,” said Banks. “That’s how you direct.”