In a lively 75-minute panel discussion about inclusion and women’s progress at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By New York conference, Jessica Chastain said that while men need to own their part of the injustice, “We need to put ourselves forward.”
Offering the caveat that her comments “might be controversial,” Chastain said, “There’s something that women can do. … We need to stop apologizing.” Citing data that show how much more likely men are to push their own career cause than are women, she said, “In any industry, a woman should feel confident.”
The sentiment was echoed at several other moments during the session, which was titled “Power to Shake It Up.” It also featured Sarah Jessica Parker and her longtime producing partner Alison Benson; Lori McCreary, PGA president and exec producer of CBS drama Madam Secretary; and Kelly Carmichael, Chastain’s partner in production company Freckle Film. The moderator was one of the leading authorities on the topics at hand, Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg.
Perhaps by design, the session avoided altogether the waves of sexual misconduct scandals engulfing The Weinstein Company and other corners of the media world. But the urgency of the mission made it clear that there was plenty else to talk about.
Parker said some decisions on inclusion are helped by the current era’s flexibility in terms of budget, when small-scale digital series or indie films can travel farther than ever and give women opportunities. Projects “don’t have to be these bloated budgets,” she said. “When the stakes feel slightly lower financially, it gives you more leverage because it’s not so terrifying when it comes to financing.”
McCreary isn’t exactly working on an indie budget with Madam Secretary, but said inclusion has become a priority, especially in terms of directors. In the show’s fourth season, it had 73% “inclusive” directors across groups, half of whom were women. After Season 1, which was a scramble after the pilot was picked up and suddenly she had to find 17 directors, inclusion has increasingly become a priority. “There are so many great new voices out there,” she said. “I love to see new voices who might not otherwise get heard, especially from other parts of the world.”
Parker offered a long reflection on her experience developing, producing and starring in Divorce, the HBO series heading into its second season. “I was stunned,” she said, when people – particularly in the press – would ask her if she was concerned that the lead character she plays, a suburban mother of two who has an affair and splits with her husband, is not likable. “I would say because she had an affair and you object? But Tony Soprano [of HBO’s The Sopranos] was a murderer and we loved him.” She added, “I like that she was unlikable, by the way, at times. I was really drawn to her prickly, withholding, exacting nature because I think that there are people that are. And they are likable. And they’re wonderful parents and they’re great people in the world professionally.”
Smith noted that her analysis has shown that just 4% of film and TV characters are divorced women.
“It’s about educating the marketplace,” Benson said about the push to have more women included. When she and Parker first set up their company, Pretty Matches, “It was the era of, dare I say, chick-lit. The office looked like Pepto Bismol, with all of the pink book covers” being submitted for their review and ardent pitches that finished with “‘At the end of the story, she finds love!'”
Benson said she started returning those books to the senders and telling the creative community, “Don’t let the destination just be, ‘She gets the guy.’” On a similar score, several panelists noted the importance of developing their own lists of potential directors and writers and actors, rather than relying on what is submitted by agencies. “Agents get paid more the more their clients get paid,” Chastain said, noting that the gender pay gap won’t close soon if it’s up to agents.
McCreary recalled her deflating experience developing a Nelson Mandela project for seven years with longtime producing partner Morgan Freeman. It wasn’t that the effort fell short — eventually they would channel their efforts into a different Mandela film, Invictus, which was a hit. It was that all of the business partners she spent years getting to know “thought I was Morgan’s assistant.” As the audience gasped, she said, “And that was on me and the way I presented myself.”
Carmichael related a story about a recent interaction with business partners that shows there is still work to be done. She was told, “My director wants you to produce. But how’s that going to work? You have kids,” she recalled, to gasps and bitter laughs. “And I’m like, ‘My husband also has the same number of kids.'”