CinemaCon Panel Decries Hollywood’s Underserving Women, Chasing Young Males

CinemaCon Panel Decries Hollywood's Underserving Women, Chasing Young Males

At CinemaCon, The Hollywood Reporter editorial director Janice Min assembled and moderated a terrific panel, “Driving Financial Success: Women + Movies = Bigger Box Office,” including Geena Davis (see her video address below), who runs the influential Institute on Gender and Media, director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat”), Nina Jacobson (“The Hunger Games”), Amy Miles (CEO Regal Entertainment Group), and Vanessa Morrison (President, Fox Animation Studios), addressing the myriad issues women have with Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera.

Clearly, despite all the evidence over the years showing how big hits
aimed at women often are, from “Thelma and Louise” to “Sex and the
City,” the Hollywood studios would rather chase after distracted young
men with violent VFX than continue to make modest-budgeted hits aimed at
the underserved women’s audience.

Min started off by asking why the media likes to hate Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow so much.

JM: It’s a sport…I think there is a degree to which the media should take more responsibility for fueling the frivolity of this. It does none of us any favors.

Paul Feig: I deal with the comedy world. Women’s roles, when you look in the 30s and 40s, even in the code era, women were represented as equals. I see in my business what has happened over the last twenty years. It’s a little boy’s vision of women. The overbearing wife who ruins the fun, the bitchy girlfriend who the guys escape: clearly I would rather have a beer than be with the lovely wife. They’re always trading them off. We need more female comedy stars, but it’s also about trying to get men past that thing they’ve been programmed with. We need to break it up slowly.

JM: I looked at some of the headlines written about your movie before it came out. One was, “‘Bridesmaids’: Do rom-coms about weddings have to suck?” Another was, “Why ‘Bridesmaids’ won’t save the chick flick.” “Bridesmaids” was covered, almost as a referendum, like, “if this doesn’t work it’s all over for any female-driven movie.” It was considered to be a monumental point in entertainment.

PF: It was in my head when I was making the movie. It was always shut down so quickly. It was so set up from the get-go. I was terrified making it, because if I screwed this up, no women are ever going to get to start in movies. And then a writer friend of mine had a project and they were all completely on hold because the studio said we need to see how “Bridesmaids” does. The pressure was enormous. Thank god it worked. I just think the whole “chick flick” thing is a problem. It’s breaking it down, saying, “men likes this, women like that.”

JM: I saw Geena shuddering when you said “chick flick.” There was a lot of discussion after “Bridesmaids” was successful, everyone was so excited there were a lot of stories about the “Bridesmaids” Effect. Did that happen?

Geena Davis: It happened to me twice, once was “Thelma and Louise” and then “League of Their Own” and there have been no female sports films. It happened with “First Wives Club.” It just happens over and over. The summer that “Mamma Mia!” and Sex and the City” both came out and were monster hits, nothing happened as a result of that. And I read about that reaction to “Bridesmaids” and wished it could be true and everybody reverts then again: “Maybe it was a one-off.” I just don’t trust it. There is an overwhelming belief in Hollywood that women will watch men but men won’t watch women, which is like The Bible or something. You cannot go against it. It’s a myth that keeps getting propagated but it’s just not true.

Amy Miles: When you think about it from a box office success, our customers were wildly excited about “Bridesmaids.” We had a lot of positive feedback and the customer response was there and I think it’s going to be there for “The Heat.” It’s hard to figure out how to solve the problem when these films are generating adequate box office.

JM: Elizabeth Gabler did “Life of Pi” and on paper that sounds
terrible and it ended up being a monster hit. How does script development work at Fox?

Vanessa Morrison: All the film divisions have a female head, which is a wonderful thing. I grew up at Fox. I was an intern. We’ve always had female mentors to look up to. Jim Gianopulos is not afraid of women and we always have been encouraged to be at the table. But we’re an important part of the table and that is the way that you see stories change in an organic way. Women are hardworking people. No woman is out in the world and not a consumer, and because we raise kids and we’re moms, we go to work every day, it gives a universal perspective when you have women as part of the process.

JM: When you think about the overall purchasing power of females in the US, it’s common sense to figure out how to tap into those dollars, 80% of the purchases coming from females, there’s purchasing power. Anecdotally, I have a six-year-old niece and nephew and the studios send us products and so many times I feel like I’m taking my nephew something and rarely do I have something to take home to my niece, and he’s way more excited about movies because a lot of films out there for their age group are things he would be more inclined to be excited about. We need to build this affinity of women for movies at a young age.

VM: Especially family movies. I find just having women’s voices at the table, thinking about those things for their own kids or nieces or people in their family, they’re very conscious of it and that informs our decisions. “Epic” has a fantastic teenage girl protagonist who’s at the center of the movie and in “Ice Age,” there’s no stronger female voice than Queen Latifah. People need to have an awareness, they just need to think about things as if they were a parent, with their own kids.

GD: We should keep in mind that we’re not necessarily talking about movies that star women and movies that star men. When I present our research what we say is, “Whatever you’re gonna make, just put female characters in it. Fill up the crowd scenes with more women. Put more women in there.”

JM: I was thinking about mothers’ having decision making. When you think about these films, is it worth the money, is it worth the two hours of time? Why aren’t women not exhibiting that same enthusiasm for movies overall as they do for children’s movies? When I think about the violence debate, the movies look great but “oh my god they are so violent!” Women are the larger consumers and participants in social media. There was a story that got a lot of attention about “Evil Dead.” It was going concurrent to the Steubenville rape trial, and in “Evil Dead” there’s a scene where a teenage girl is raped by a tree. This is entertainment! I saw a story percolating online about the age of Tom Cruise’s love interest in “Oblivion.” That’s accepted across the board now. Are we actually just creating a system where women have negative perceptions of movies overall where they feel the moviegoing experience can be so negative they couldn’t recommend it for their friends or their kids? People go to violent movies, that’s a given. Is there enough variety out there to make women feel like movies are a place for them?

Nina Jacobson: There’s a need for Hollywood to be mindful that the franchise is just another way of talking about a movie that a lot of people want to see, and people want to see more of it, and yet there’s this sort of franchise fever in Hollywood that has squeezed out a lot of variety. When I was at Disney we consistently made movies, you would make a “Freaky Friday” or a “Princess Diaries,” we could also make “The Miracle” or “Remember the Titans” and ironically those sports movies used to test higher with women than anybody else, but there was a variety in the movies being made that allowed you to not be desperately chasing all four quadrants all the time.

And then there was also this pursuit of the young male, the most distracted demographic between video games, sports, girls. And women on the other hand who have shown both as moms a commitment to family movies and as a mom, I wish there was something to see and there isn’t. The de facto family movie has crowded out the action family movie. So I think that there’s a lack of diversity overall which excludes many people and as we obsessively pursue a demographic that’s the most elusive of them all, and there’s room for franchises to be made of many different sizes, it does not have to be a $200 million dollar movie where a lot of things blow up. The remedy for a lot of the issues that afflict female representation in movies is also the same remedy for the marketplace.

PF: The only way to carry it is to have more product for women. There’s more women who go to horror movies than men but you also go like if there’s more product for women they start to say “Oh I want more of that.” It’s there, so what do we pick? I think we need more of a reeducation and a choice.

JM: Do you hear from families/mothers? I imagine you might hear from theater owners, you see families come up they look at the lineup and walk away.

AM: If you think about the first quarter of this year where the majority of the product was R-rated films, if you were a family and you wanted to get out to our theaters, it was difficult for you to find options and choice. We go back and look at our numbers and you look at the years where we’re most successful from a box office perspective, those are the years where you have a lot of choices. It’s not a year where 40% is action and 10% is family. The last fourth quarter was very successful. Year after year if we can bring that choice to the film slate we can have a successful box office.

JM: Vanessa when you look at Oscar season you have major studios putting up these big movies that make $100 million and you had adults and grown ups excited about the movies. Do you feel Hollywood has the institutional memory to say let’s do that again?

VM: No. Right now there is a lot of fear in the marketplace based on high cost of movies and marketing and the transitional nature of the home entertainment market. I think we’re seeing a major shift from DVD sell-through to the rental market for $2.99 a pop and it really does change the economics and so the answer has been towards these seemingly safe choices but they’re not actually all that safe because ultimately the answer is always the same: Make good movies and people go, make bad movies and people stay home. Offering up choice is a cycle I hope will come back into fashion but it doesn’t feel to me based on the array of films being made now that diversity is considered to be a desirable goal in most studio slates even though it’s rewarded time and again in the marketplace.

NJ: I’ll speak to the positive. I do feel there’s a hunger for originality out there. As a new generation of filmmakers come up, we’re gonna feel that even more movies should appeal to women. I think we have to look at that audience as not just a single voice, but as a group that wants to see many different kinds of movies that are original. “The Heat” is such a fantastic thing.

PF: I feel like everything’s always based on economics in our business and I’ve been lectured in recent years that there’s no international female stars that mean anything in international markets. I’m desperate to figure out how to change that. Where other countries get over that, it’s clearly a prejudice against seeing movies with women. I can stop hearing reasons why I can’t do something because I can’t argue with economic reasons.

JM: I would like to hear you explain Melissa McCarthy. No studio exec would ever say let’s group her through the system and make her a star. Why is she a star? Why do people love her?

PF: She’s funny and men and women love her equally…She has the possibility to be an international star. I feel I’m not a big fan of romantic comedy because I feel it feels like it’s pandering to, “Oh ladies like this.” And that’s what we tried to break with “Bridesmaids” and now “The Heat.” Breaking genres, that to me is the goal. Let’s replace the characters with women, not making it with women acting like guys. They do that with raunchy female comedies, so it’s just continually adjusting them. There need to be more female stars. There aren’t enough. It’s a self-perpetuating problem, there should be more female stars. Like Kristen, Kristen was not known as a movie star. Show off her wares and then she became a bigger star and so did Melissa. So we need to create films where that can happen.

AM: I think she’s very good at what she does. From a female perspective, she’s real life. When you look at her she’s a lot more representative of the rest of the population and that’s important.

JM: And she’s over 40. There was a story we thought about doing in THR that we never did after the presidential election. The morning after the election there was all this analysis and the GOP woke up stunned and their core audience was much smaller than they thought, and they had Obama win 90% of the black vote, 70% of the Latino vote. Now you see the GOP have done a lot of soul searching and they’re trying to figure out how to broaden their message. They’ve cornered themselves and they need to get out of the corner. The story we wanted to do was Hollywood’s lessons from the election. In some ways Hollywood is in the same situation, you’ve had many of the same people in power for 20 years if not longer, it is pretty homogeneous and to me it seems there is money being left on the table everywhere if you are making a product that does not appeal to all those people who say voted for Obama or for whom the GOP was not a candidate. Do you agree? Everyone is blown away that people go to the latest Tyler Perry movie. Every time a female movie does well, “oh my god, surprise!” You find a movie over-indexed with Latinos, huge surprise. If you are Hollywood studio how are you starting to get your message across to a larger audience?

NJ: Our marketing knowledge and tools, we have far greater data available to us than we use because nobody’s willing to make their movie the guinea pig for what would happen if we tried a more targeted approach, no filmmaker wants to have a movie where they decide to forgo a large TV audience to prove they are the audience for this. After you’ve killed yourself on a movie you don’t want to be the guinea pig. If we start to do what you see on the web all the time, which is being able to spread the niche to find an audience, if we begin to look for an audience through a narrower and more efficient form of marketing, it would reduce the cost of marketing the movie and the barrier of entry for some of the movies that might cost as much but which serve segments of the audience without having to try to chase the four quadrant. And I love the 4-quadrant film. The best movies will work for quite a few people regardless if its targeted toward them or not but for some of the kinds of shots you’re taking. We need a more targeted and tactical form of marketing in order to take that shot and yet no one wants to be the guinea pig.

PF: There needs to be more product, if there’s a way to get middle to lower budget films that aren’t arthouse films. That’s like $32.5 million so it wasn’t a giant risk, so that you’re able to make more, you’ve got to flood more of them out there to get them economically going.

NJ: We need a diverse group of people around the table who are living life in different ways and experiencing different people in different ways so those audiences that are emerging don’t sneak up on you. So Amy if you had your choice, it’s July 4th weekend and you had two giant franchises at a 12 screen multiplex would you rather have six of the movies that are going to drive huge revenue or have a third of those movies that might not do as well but will bring people to the theater?

AM: We want the movies that are going to bring the most box office for that weekend. When you think about our entire film slate and movies that are released primarily in that summer season and in the holiday season, there is a ton of opportunity for moviegoing choices and available screens when you think about a 12 month release schedule so many times we are focusing on those weekends and I understand why franchises are scheduled during those time periods. but we’re talking about availability of content. If a movie is good they’re going to go in January just like they go in June so we have a lot of screens…

JM: You’ve raised an interesting point with our film reporter. You talked about “End of Watch” which did quite well, when you saw it you thought why wasn’t this marketed to women? There’s a great storyline in there where you could have brought in all these other people.

AM: As a consumer when I watch some of the trailers or some of the marketing for End of Watch, I assumed I would go because my husband would want to see it and I would enjoy it. But there were so many aspects of that film that were appealing to an Hispanic audience a female audience, just a much broader demographic that we probably targeted in the marketing effort. It’s picking across the moviegoing public and how the films are presented and if i t were broader sometimes we could draw in a larger audience.

JM: Geena shared some discouraging statistics. In America 40% of managerial jobs are held by women by in Hollywood the numbers have stayed the same for about 20 years. In the DGA 13% are women, writers %13 and %62 of SAG roles go to men. Nina you were at Disney, what goes in in these discussions in the executive suites? How present is it in the minds of executives that women are underrepresented or is it just one of those things where it’s been the situation so long it’s not felt?

NJ: I actually think that Geena’s work has actually had an enormous effect. Part of it is just education and when I was at Disney we were the first studio that Geena and Stacy came to speak to. We were the maiden voyage and it was a mind blower: those statistics were incredible and they were not known. Part of it is you’re only 8 years into an information campaign which is enormously powerful. It is partly about just paying attention. Here’s a movie about fish or furniture and the fish or furniture are men. It’s so random and it’s just not noticed a lot of the time. Part of it is just getting people to notice and therefore do something about it, and I think part of it is having to bang people over the head with the success of movies. There have been an extraordinary number of successful movies driven by women and women’s interest, going back to “Titanic,” because women will go in groups and will see it over and over again, whether it’s a family movie which is one of the more consistently reliable genres for communal viewing, to go to a movie and see a movie with your family is still one of the true pleasures of family life and it’s still deeply felt as a different experience than watching a movie on your couch.

It is partly just having to bludgeon the system with success and the success of the “Twilight”s and the “Hunger Games.” Even the movies which are not necessarily star-oriented but which include and appeal to women. It is changing and it will continue to change. Getting information out… and success because ultimately it is the only, it is what the studios are in the business trying to claim. 10 years ago it was common for people to say with no shame, “you know how it is, girls will go and identify with the male protagonist but a boy will not identify with a female protagonist.” And that was common knowledge supposedly, we were told, “sorry that’s just the way it is.” We just have to keep proving that’s not true, which we have, and we just have to prove it some more and continue to get the information disseminated.

PF: Which is great. One of the takeaways of “Hunger Games” was this is a female protagonist. With a little reminding. It’s cool, keep doing this.

JM: Question for Geena — why are so few women interested in writing, producing, directing, what is stopping them?

GD: That’s a huge question I’m not sure I do know the answer to that. It may be how few women there are behind the scenes but I don’t have data. What happens? Are they not getting hired? How does it happen that they aren’t getting employed in the same way? This has been fascinating to talk about, and acknowledge that this is the direction that things are going, that we have to get women onscreen. More female characters. It’s got to go really fast. Our research shows if we add female characters at the rate we have been, we will achieve parity in 700 years. I’m devoted to cutting that in half. But that’s insanity. We cannot wait. That’s the thing about movies. We don’t have to wait even another generation, we can change it right away. Movies take, 2 or 3 years, worst case 10 or 12 years, that’s soon. We’re missing women in the world of this movie and then suddenly we’ve changed it. We can’t just sit around waiting for this change to happen. It’s the only direction it’s gonna go in and it might as well happen right away.

PF: One of the reasons our movie did so well–it’s silly, but there was a big deal at the time, ladies you must support this movie, if we can make that more part of our marketing campaigns in general, even though it’s embarrassing that it has to be revolutionary to have women in movies, i think if you break through the women in the public. The same way “Passion of the Christ” was big because religious people said “I gotta go support that.” There should be more of that and it’s not up to women out there to have that epiphany, it’s up to us to kind of fan the flames of that because then that will drive women to the theaters and have them start demanding products.

NJ: You can engineer it. When we did the first “Wimpy Kid” movie, there were no significant female characters in the source material, these very popular books, and the only one who was was a love interest. When we developed from day one — and it is partly because of Geena– “we gotta have a significant female character from scratch. We’re gonna sell the movie to boys and girls and we’re stupid if we don’t develop a female character.” She became a very popular character, and even Jeff Kinney who hadn’t created the character to begin with said, “I don’t want her to be a romantic object. Just make her a character, not an object of desire.” So there are choices that can be made at a very conscious level for commercial as well as social reasons, but they have to be made.

JM: If you bring that up to a studio, there isn’t resistance — just a need to bring it up.

VM: I don’t think there’s resistance. What Geena has been so great in doing is bringing it to the forefront of people’s minds in way you wouldn’t think of. She said look at your crowds, look at the people in the backgrounds, and we hadn’t looked at the people in the backgrounds necessarily. And I think being aware of it and having a mindfulness as a studio executive or anyone in creative control of what they’re making is viable.

GD: I always feel like, if only I’d seen that before they made it.

JM: It’s not perfect, but Cable TV has done a great job of getting great female characters, employing a wide array of different looking women, women of all sorts of ages, and repeatedly we did a round table with some of the best actor contenders this year and even the guys, Denzel Washington, he said his daughter is studying acting at NYU and he said “I told her you’re a dark-skinned black woman, this is not the career for you, do not expect success.” Matt Damon said, “this is a brutal, brutal industry for women over 40. I would not recommend it.” So it’s well-acknowledged and these women are finding fantastic roles on TV. Time and again they say Cable TV has saved their career. How does film stop this talent flight to television?

PF: TV has been wonderful for women and traditionally has over the years, i don’t know if it’s a fear of getting people to come to theaters, maybe it’s the nature of TV, that it’s there.

GD: I think about this a lot because there’s companies that are movie studios and people that have cable and network television, so within their own company it’s 3 to 1. Sometimes that parity in primetime shows. What is the difference is that people dress differently in television, very much.

JM: Amy how much do you consider quality television a threat to film?

AM: Of course we would always prefer content on the big screen in our theaters, so there is competition with the cable networks so I think that exists. We’d obviously like to see everything go to the big screen first and there’s a lot of areas to improve.

NJ: I actually think that the quality of television is a great thing for film, it forces us to do better. If you make good movies, people go to see them, and there is still no substitute for the communal viewing experience but it’s on us to make movies that demand communal viewing, movies that are more enjoyable to be seen with strangers in the dark than at home on the couch. But as long as cable continues to do what it’s doing which is to tell incredible character-driven, voice-driven, well-written, well-acted, well-directed programming that you can have for free on your couch, then it’s on us to meet that challenge. I think that’s actually good news, not bad news, because it forces us to up our game and to offer as gratifying an experience as what cable television in particular and in some cases what network is providing for people.

JM: In turning a movie into an event, is that something you can manufacture or is it something that happens organically to some degree?

PF: If it’s a character-based film it happens more organically because you can’t rely on bombast or whatever the movie is going to have. If we do it really funny they’re just gonna want to see it. Forget all the other stuff, let’s make the funniest movie we can. Female buddy comedy sounds fun, it’s not expensive, but it’s slightly appetizing just because you haven’t seen it before. We have to weirdly eventize when people get this bigger roles just to get people to come. The problem is, as much as we can talk about it, studios aren’t in the game to not make money and I’m very sympathetic to that. For me trying to make more female-driven films, how then do I pull that off? It’s up to all of us to figure out creatively, then it will start to change.

JM: Amy what kind of innovative marketing collaborations have you seen that have turned a film into an event?

AM: One of the changes in our industry, we are starting to gather through our frequent moviegoer programs a lot more insight into the actual moviegoer. So on our side of the industry we’re doing a much better job of understanding, if you think about it: 13% of the population last year bought 57% of the tickets so it is a segmented audience. We’re trying to do more innovation in collecting that data where we can partner with our studios to gain better insight on who’s going to the movies. That’s an effective way to spray and pray that it works, but it’s a very targeted marketing effort for that actual moviegoer.

PF: From a filmmaking point of view I would love that data when developing a project, that’s really important, to know all that stuff so it always feels like there is more synergy between exhibitors and we storytellers, get us early before we’re in love with it.

AM: One thing we have found is people love to talk about movies so we can access our customer base, and they’re communicating that back to us can be a very high percentage. It’s entertainment, it’s fun, people like to talk about it and we have a lot of insight into that customer.

JM: A lot of the creative process begins in the agencies and those agencies are predominantly male, much more so than the studios. Do you feel satisfied with the material you get out of the agencies?

PF: There’s not that much good material out there is the bottom line, I don’t think it matters who it’s coming from, it’s much more what’s being developed. 99% of it doesn’t feel worth doing.

VM: For us, animation is a unique breed and a lot of stuff gets developed internally and that’s an interesting process.

JM: Vanessa what do you think Hollywood could learn from your marketing towards women and families?

VM: Respect them, to realize that the people are entrusting their children and their families and their money, which is, people don’t have a lot of money and to really think about that transaction as one that’s important and to recognize who your audience is, I think that’s really important, I think it’s important that women are around the table because women are mothers and they represent the audience. There’s no reason not to.

JM: “50 Shades of Grey,” the best or worse thing to happen to women in movies?

GD: I’m just stunned that it’s going to be a movie. I didn’t know about that.

NJ: Female desire is a very complex subject and that book is a testament to the complexity of it. I don’t know what to expect from the film that will come from it, there are many women who love that book. It is very difficult to translate to the screen in a way that lives up to people’s fantasies, for one, and it will be a movie that a lot of people will go see. I certainly expect commercially, it’s an enormous opportunity for someone. Where it falls in terms of “is it good for women or not,” I’ll leave that to another panel.

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I’m glad Janice Min name-checked Tyler Perry in the course of this discussion. No matter what one thinks of his films, they do speak to a niche that was once filled by the genre of “women’s pictures” that flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s. I tend to miss those films, having seen so many on TV when I was growing up and developing an appreciation for Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lizabeth Scott, Lana Turner, et al, even though my time in theaters tended to be spent with friends seeing John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Sean Connery, etc. Over the last couple of decades I kept wondering why we weren’t seeing new versions of the women’s melodramas with such powerhouse actresses as Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver, Geena Davis, Angela Bassett, etc. An update of IMITATION OF LIFE revised into a tale of a single yuppie mom and a Latina nanny and their daughters’ upbringing could touch on a lot of current issues while still entertaining and engaging an audience that cuts across racial lines. Or stories of black women’s lives that aren’t skewed by Tyler Perry’s somewhat narrow philosophical bent. How awesome would a remake of PAID IN FULL (1950) be, with Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence playing the roles once played by Lizabeth Scott and Diana Lynn? Or Kerry Washington and Zoe Saldana? (If you're not familiar with PAID IN FULL, I urge you to look it up.) The possibilities are endless, waiting to be realized by a class of writers who can think beyond comic books.

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