Last year, all it took was a hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, to re-energize an important conversation. Twelve months later, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins made history by becoming the first African-American filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director, Picture and Screenplay at the Academy Awards. And, as everyone knows, his film went on to take the Best Picture Oscar—literally—from the hands of the favorites, the makers of La La Land. Meanwhile, a similar conversation about the representation of women onscreen has been rolling on since the silent era, and in 2017, it seems crazy that the issue of gender parity in the entertainment business is still unresolved.
But what’s exciting is that the playing field is looking bigger, and we’re seeing more female-driven vehicles geared towards both sexes hitting our screens, with Wonder Woman, Tomb Raider and Atomic Blonde invading the typically male blockbuster field. At the other end of the spectrum, the biggest deal coming out of Sundance (Mudbound, which Netflix snapped up for $12.5 million) was co-written and directed by a woman (Dee Rees). Is the lack of balance finally starting to shift? These are the women who we think are leading the charge in breaking the glass ceiling.
No two women in the business are actively driving forward the gender-parity agenda more for their contemporaries in Hollywood more forcefully than Cathy Schulman and Keri Putnam (pictured above). Oscar-winning producer Schulman, who runs Welle Entertainment and is president of Women in Film, and Putnam, the Sundance Institute’s Executive Director, are the visionary architects of ReFrame, a formal project that is carving concrete change for opportunities for women in the Hollywood system.
Recalls Schulman, “When I became President of Women in Film in 2011 I gave a speech in that first year where I was talking about the flatline statistics in women in media. I thought it was pretty embarrassing to be President of an organization and change absolutely nothing, so I said, ‘This has to get changed and this has to happen while I’m here—and I’m going to make it happen no matter what.’”
So she enlisted Putnam, knowing that the Sundance Film Festival is such a respected entry point for so many, and after four years of research with USC that included finding out where the fallout points for women in the business were in these stagnant statistics, ReFrame—formerly known as the Systemic Change Project—was born. The program, which Putnam says is an “expansion of the work we are doing”, has gathered 50 Hollywood bigwigs—ranging from studio heads to agency partners to network executives—who are helping to move the needle on gender disparity.
“We gathered men and women in the business who we knew were interested in advancing the issues of perception and unconscious bias, this vicious cycle of established practices,” says Putnam. “We wanted to inspire people, tell them that there was a way to take what we know about our business and tackle the will to change.
The unique premise involves a peer-to-peer approach that will see these ReFrame ambassadors—which include the likes of actress/producer Maria Bello, Lionsgate’s Erik Feig, Warner Bros.’ Sue Kroll, UTA’s Rena Ronson, WME partner Adriana Alberghetti and producer Michael de Luca—meet with top execs and decision-makers at studios, networks and agencies and persuade them to take an active three-sided pledge to enforce change in their companies. It’s effectively connecting the supplier with the buyer and putting the gender issue right into the heart of the business conversation.
“ReFrame is essentially a leverage delivery system,” explains Schulman. “I’ve been working in the system for almost 30 years, and there’s a huge separation between the decision-makers and anyone who has diversity in mind. We needed to bring together senior individuals who can speak to these issues not in terms of activism but in terms of bottom line. We needed to find something that would convince decision-makers that their bottom line would be positively affected and that ignoring the delivery system would be damaging.”
“The reason we think it will work,” she continues, “is that relationships will break down, and people are going to say we have to do this, because otherwise, it is going to be embarrassing for those who are going to say no. It could be disruptive to their relationships on a senior level.”
They’ve identified three main missions—or three sides of the triangle, as Schulman puts it—that they want studios, financiers and networks to pledge to. The first is an evolved sponsorship-protégé program that will identify and provide high-level endorsement for top women directors poised to advance their careers. “We need them to provide mid-career support,” says Schulman, who points to the enormous seven to 10-year gap in the careers of women who create content. “That’s not sustainable. We have, maybe, 10 working female directors in the system, a fearful emerging class but no middle. This sponsorship will focus on mid-career women and will be multi-dimensional.”
Secondly, ReFrame is going to provide a customized Culture Change Toolkit, to offer resources, best practices and training to yield more balanced hiring—a sort of road map of how to change the culture within a company. And thirdly, the org will look to introduce accreditation for gender inclusiveness in the form of a ReFrame Stamp certification (fashioned after the Human Rights Campaign’s equality sticker).
“Change sometimes only really happens when it’s forced,” says Schulman. “We’re not into shaming people, and we’re not trying to embarrass people, but in a certain way, change happens when not changing is problematic. We’re trying to hit them where it hurts.”
“I don’t think that anyone should kid themselves that it’s easy to change a very established system,” says Putnam. “But these are really concrete examples to change systemic problems by looking at the culture and the business through leadership and incentivizing.” She adds: “It’s less about taking away the power from men and more about expanding the field we work in.”
Since the first X-Men movie launched the superhero genre in 2000, the business has boomed: Marvel’s mutants spawned a 10-movie franchise by itself, while Spider-Man has been rebooted three times in less than a decade. It’s astounding, then, that it’s taken until 2017 for a woman to direct a superhero movie with a female lead, but at last Patty Jenkins has broken down that barrier. After decades of watching male characters from DC and Marvel hit screens every summer, a full-length feature for Wonder Woman—arguably the most kick-ass superhero gal of all time—is being released this summer via Warner Bros., and if attendees at a recent CinemaCon panel were anything to go by, audiences will be flocking to the cinema in droves.
Fearless and forthright, Jenkins isn’t one to shy away from tough material. The last time she was in the director’s seat for a feature was for Monster in 2003, a gritty look at the life of Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was executed in Florida for killing six men in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Jenkins also wrote the script for the film, which earned Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
Called in by Warner Bros. for a general meeting the following year, Jenkins surprised everyone by announcing that she wanted to make Wonder Woman as her next project, and a script duly arrived a few years later. By that time, Jenkins was pregnant and unable to commit (“When I’m on a movie, I’m unavailable, every day for a year and a half,” she said. “You can’t do that with a little baby”). Since then, Jenkins’ career has been almost entirely in television, notably directing episodes of Entourage and The Killing, the latter of which earned her an Emmy nomination.
Jenkins had her first brush with comic-book history several years ago, when she was brought in to direct 2013’s Thor: The Dark World at star Natalie Portman’s request. She quit due to creative differences, but the experience, she says, helped her prep Wonder Woman in a way that had nothing to do with her gender. “I tried not to think about it,” Jenkins said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just making a superhero movie.’ I’m not looking at her as being any different than any other superhero. And that’s the victory. I think the reason that there wasn’t a woman superhero [movie] made for a long time is because people were assuming that it had to be a different kind of thing. Or more rarefied.”
Under Jenkins’ watch, Wonder Woman will more than hold her own against the guys. “There’s nothing different,” she said. “There’s Batman, there’s Superman, there’s Wonder Woman. She’s the full-blown real deal.”
When Bruna Papandrea met Reese Witherspoon in 2012, they found they shared a very specific aim. “All we ever wanted to do,” she said, “was put women at the center of films.” They very quickly cornered the market: co-founding LA-based production company Pacific Standard, the two saw potential in solid stories with female characters in the driver’s seat, knowing that if a story was strong enough, their projects’ bankability and attractiveness to men and women alike would follow.
Papandrea saw the wide potential of two female-centric novels and has had great success in bringing them to market. When she and Witherspoon optioned Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller Gone Girl, it became one of the hottest projects in the studio space, with 20th Century Fox closing in on a seven-figure deal for a title that eventually amassed $369.3 million at the global box office. Then there was Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about a woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike through the wilderness, which brought Oscar nominations for Witherspoon and co-star Laura Dern.
More recently, the company produced Big Little Lies, a darkly comic tale of murder based on Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name, which was one of the hottest miniseries on HBO earlier this year, with a stellar cast including Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz.
Papandrea has since left the company, but will continue to produce with Witherspoon in partnership on titles they acquired together. “I want to keep putting women at the center of stories and giving our daughters examples of what women can be,” Papandrea said last year. “Maybe I’ll make a movie about a female president for instance, just to let the world know it’s still possible.”
“Until there’s a resilient, consistent critical mass of women creators and producers with greenlight authority, the industry will continue to struggle to produce so-called female-driven vehicles,” says filmmaker Dee Rees. The Nashville director came one step closer to seeing her dream realized when her WWII southern drama Mudbound—the story of two families pitted against a barbaric social hierarchy—premiered to rave reviews in Sundance earlier this year, before being picked up by Netflix for the U.S. and other territories in a splashy $12.5 million deal.
The real battle with gender parity and racial inequality, says Rees, lies in the demographics of major guild and union membership, which she believes are far more reflective of where the business is actually moving on the equality issue. “I’d wager that the membership of those organizations is still predominantly white and predominantly male,” she says. “And I mention race here because the two are inextricable, in a way. You can’t either/or sexism and racism; you have to address them jointly.”
On Mudbound, the cinematographer, editor, line producer, composer, sound recordist and make-up department head were all women, and Rees says she would have had even more female department heads had she not lost one to another production. It’s also about paying it forward, and she tries to do that through internships on set to give newcomers access to an environment previously off-limits. “I plan to keep that going,” she says.
Rees, an openly gay African-American woman, says that her stories, like any artist’s, reflect her own point of view. Whether it be her 2007 feature debut Pariah, about a young Brooklyn African-American teenager coming to grips with her identity as a lesbian, her 2015 HBO film Bessie, about the 1920s legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, or the divide between a white family and a black family in Mississippi-set Mudbound. “It’s just not a choice. So, in that way, I think how women’s voices and representation and narratives show up in my work happens organically.”
But she cautions that cataloguing movies based on who stars in them, or the creators who made them, can be restrictive, and that can only limit a film’s reach. “I think there are only human-interest movies,” she says.
Rees is rightly frustrated by the industry’s tendency to treat films starring women and people of color as if they’ve been produced in a vacuum, with no comparables. “It’s a perpetual shock to the industry when the next film by or starring women and people of color succeeds,” she says. “And that’s why I think longevity and sustainability is key. If I burn myself out too soon [and] cease to exist, then I’m not there to hold a space for someone else.”
Prolific UK producers Alison Owen and Debra Hayward have a passionate interest in bringing female-driven vehicles to the big and small screen. The producers have long been interested in material that examines the richness of female characters, even before they formed their company, Monumental Pictures, in 2014. “The complexity of the female landscape has always interested us,” says Owen. “It’s because it’s what we are interested in and it’s what we’ve always liked to watch.”
Owen established Ruby Films in 1998, which birthed projects such as Sylvia, Brick Lane and Jane Eyre, and in 2015 she produced Suffragette, about the early feminist movement. Hayward was formerly head of films at Working Title, where she had creative responsibility for the company’s feature film slate, including the Bridget Jones franchise and Atonement.
“Up until recently it was always harder to sell a female project,” Owen insists. “Just like with a project about people of color, the assumption was that there wasn’t the audience, and also that it was a male-dominated culture. Those have always been the arguments, which have been disproven quite dramatically in the last few years. Maybe it’s to do with the slightly tenuous position the movie industry finds itself in at the moment that it’s been forced to take note of these opportunities.”
Indeed, the film and television businesses have been shaken up dramatically in the last few years, with the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Hulu flexing their muscle in the financing and distribution arena and tapping into fare that studios and other major buyers have been more risk-averse to in recent years. Hulu was the company that saw the potential in Monumental’s recent TV series Harlots, a British period drama that centers around the lives of London prostitutes. “The question is whether the moment has staying power and whether the moment is going to convert to change in the business or if it’s just this year’s soup du jour,” says Owen. “We want it to be the norm and just the way things are. This change in the business has to be sustained. Misogyny is very pernicious—you just have to go through it.”
The duo have a strong lineup on their development slate, including an untitled Ada Lovelace project, about the Victorian mathematician (and daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron) who wrote what is recognized as the first algorithm. Then there’s a big-screen version of Roe v. Wade, about the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for women to have safe abortions, as well as a trilogy based on Jackie Collins’ 10-novel Santangelo series with Universal Pictures and Working Title.
UK producer Elizabeth Karlsen is one of the most respected figures in the European indie world. She’s coming off of the back of a banner year after producing last year’s Oscar-nominated period love story Carol (a project that took her more than a decade to bring to the big screen), and her upcoming slate includes an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach, starring Saoirse Ronan, as well as Colette, which sees Keira Knightley play the French novelist who wrote Gigi and Cheri.
One half of Number 9 Films—the production banner she set up in 2002 with her producer husband Stephen Woolley, an industry fixture since the ’80s—Karlsen has enjoyed a long career that has seen her bring a wealth of female voices to the screen. And now, she says, it does finally feel that there’s been a progression in the way female-driven narratives are being received.
“It sort of seems to be two steps forward and one step back,” she admits, “but the laws of physics dictate that we’re slowly progressing forward in the business.”
She credits the progression of women becoming increasingly represented in all lines of work—not just the movie business—as helping female-represented stories become more prevalent. “I do think there’s a forward motion as women gain traction in the workplace—politics, medicine and all of those other professions,” she says. “It’s the representations of women across the gamut of professional fields that is going to be what changes things long term. And when the financial return on female-driven narratives isn’t ignored any longer, then, yes, inevitably we will get closer to that 50/50 representation. Definitely.”
Karlsen’s sheer list of credits at Number 9 speaks for itself, in terms of her and her company’s view on telling female stories: it’s part of their DNA. Since it was formed, there’s been Ladies in Lavender (2004), a period drama pairing Judi Dench and Maggie Smith; Made In Dagenham (2010), based on the 1968 strike at a Ford car plant by female workers, and 2012’s female-vampire horror Byzantium.
“For me,” says Karlsen, “it’s really simple as to why I’m drawn to these stories: I’m a woman of a certain age, I like storytelling that represents women, I have three daughters, and those are the stories that resonate with me. I’m a feminist, and women’s stories should be told.”
When Lynn Harris left the executive suites at Warner Bros. a few years ago to launch her own company—Weimaraner Republic Pictures—with her husband Matti Leshem, one of the reasons she wanted to become entirely independent was the freedom to drive her own female-facing vehicles.
She recalls, “We saw this moment in time in the business, which is now becoming the future of the business, that understands that female-facing movies have enormous value in the marketplace. As studios are driving narrower and narrower reins, we wanted to have the freedom to go elsewhere, and driving female-led movies has really been a gigantic focus of our business.”
Since its inception, the couple’s company has produced shark-vs-girl thriller The Shallows, starring Blake Lively, which was picked up by Sony and generated $119 million worldwide, and sold female action thriller Highway One to DreamWorks on a spec script in a near seven-figure deal. They also are in development on Keeper of the Diary, the story of Anne Frank’s father, which sold to Fox Searchlight on spec, as well as female-driven action spec Ruthless for Amblin.
“For us,” she explains, “it was purely a business decision as much as a socially responsible move. I’m a woman and I do feel a sense of responsibility, but also it’s purely mercenary—women are the easiest to market to and will come out with their kids, husbands, moms, sisters and friends to get out of the house and have a movie experience.”
Harris says the types of female-led projects that are hitting a sweet spot in the marketplace don’t match the stereotypes that marketers have placed upon them for years. “One of the places we’ve had real success so far is in the low- to mid-range budgeted elevated genre titles,” she notes, pointing to Highway One and The Shallows. “We know that women like to go to the movie theatre and they can go with their boyfriends and be scared together—just look at Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train—those are collective-experience movies.” The other genre, she says, is comedy, which really sits across genders. Indeed, STX’s R-rated Bad Moms earned a whopping $113.3 million domestically last year.
“We still have this conversation, and it still feels like an anomaly when a female-driven or female audience appeal movie succeeds in the marketplace,” she says. “It’s pretty shocking. If one female-driven movie doesn’t work, it gets pointed as the reason not to make these kinds of movies. So we have to root for each and every one, until the playing field has leveled and studio heads and financiers and marketers realize that women are the easiest to target and to market to.”