Elizabeth Banks became the first female director honored as Pioneer of the Year in the 78-year history of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. The feeling in the room for an industry run largely by white men was that it seemed just the right choice in 2019 to honor a woman who does it all: produce, direct, write, act and even host a game show (she MC’d the ABC revival of Press Your Luck this summer). And for an organization that is a charity all about giving back, Banks is a philanthropist who advocates for women’s rights and health for a number of prominent groups from Planned Parenthood to Center For Reproductive Rights to Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative and many more.
The award was presented Wednesday at the organization’s annual Pioneer Awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton, the first time in a decade for the event in Los Angeles after spending several years as a staple of NATO’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas. NATO is concurrently hosting its annual fall confab in L.A.
Banks was honored before an audience of nearly 1,000 motion picture executives consisting of film studio chiefs, threatrical distribution heads, and exhibition presidents and CEOs. Busy Phillips hosted the evening that included a special performance by R&B singer Destiny Rogers. Additional appearances were made by Universal Pictures’ distribution president Jim Orr, who is currently board chairman of the Will Rogers Foundation; Paramount Pictures’ president of distribution Kyle Davies, who serves with Orr as the 2019 board president; and Adam Aron, head of AMC Theatres, whose chain served as the presenting sponsor of the dinner and who promised to match the collective individual donations by each dinner guest up to $100,000.
Even before that pledge, the dinner had already netted $1.25 million for the Pioneer Assistance Fund. Last year’s honoree Tom Cruise pulled in $1.7 million, but that event was held at the far larger Ballroom at Caesars Palace.
“I actually think the pioneers crossed the plains in less time than this dinner,” cracked another speaker, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Rothman, whose studio is releasing the latest incarnation of Charlie’s Angels on November 15 — it is written, produced, and directed by Banks, who also has a featured part in it.
Rothman had the enviable task of introducing Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska, the new trio of Angels who were there to honor their director. He pointed out that in the entire storied history of the franchise — from the TV series to the past movies — not one single scene was ever directed by a woman. “At our studio it seemed well past high time to put one of our most significant, big, commercial IPs into the hands of a gifted storyteller and force of nature, and tonight’s honoree is just that woman,” said Rothman about Banks, who also was a creative force behind Universal’s successful Pitch Perfect trilogy of films, even directing the second one.
Banks’ résumé as an actress includes significant roles in other major blockbuster franchises including as The Hunger Games and Spider-Man, so who better to receive a high honor from the people who make, distribute and show those movies?
“Sherry Lansing, Donna Langley, Kathleen Kennedy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. I am so excited to join this incredible list of past female honorees. I have had the pleasure to meet, work with, and be inspired by all of them and I am going to make a promise tonight to be worthy of their company on this stage,” said Banks as she accepted the super-cool-looking award and shared some words of Will Rogers himself about loving and believing in what you do, as well as the importance of what the Pioneers do with the money collected annually by this dinner.
“I didn’t start directing movies because I think I am the greatest director in the world. I did it because I had something I want to say. I want to change the world, and so in thinking about my status, bestowed just now by three Angels, as an industry ‘pioneer’, I wanted to say something tonight that has never been said on this stage, at this forum. I wanted to do what is a staple of my work. I wanted to say something entertaining for all, but especially meaningful to women and girls, something that I can pretty much guarantee [past honorees] Darryl F. Zanuck and Jim Gianopulos have never said. I wanted to say tampon. TAMPON. Tampon. I can only say it is probably the fear of every man in this room that you give a woman a microphone — it is all tampon talk all the time, ” she said to big laughs. She added that in going home and explaining about what she mentioned in her speech, the men in the crowd will be helping to erode the stigma and taboo that still surrounds the basic necessity of modern life for half the world’s population.
You can bet the word “tampon” has never before been uttered onstage in the 78 years of these Pioneer dinners, so it is safe to say Banks made history on a day that was also proclaimed Elizabeth Banks Day in Beverly Hills. But there was a reason as she went on to point out the sad realities for women in many parts of America and the world when it comes to access to such a basic necessity. She explained the new Charlie’s Angels has a scene involving this, and that not once did the studio ever ask to have it excised or altered in any way, offering special thanks to Rothman, whom she noted has two daughters.
As she pointed out to the crowd, “I just wanted to remind you why you gave me this Pioneer Award here tonight. It is because everything you can do, I can do bleeding.” Whereas that might have been TMI for many, it got roars of approval from this crowd.
“I think you gave this to me because I made movies using a lens that is not used enough, and because I take that responsibility seriously, and because I believe in the power of our content that we’re all creating together to improve the world that it lives in,” she said. “I use my platform, this platform, to chip away at injustices big and small, and to give hope to young women that the world can value them enough to not shame them for their basic human bodies. I stand with you as we face our changing and ever more globally conscious world together, because if we’re going to create culture then we all need to be pioneers.”
When I caught up with her shortly after the speech, she was clearly thrilled with the honor and the way the whole evening went, and all for a very good cause.