With staggeringly low statistics for women and racial minorities behind and in front of the camera in Hollywood, it’s easy to lose hope that the tables will ever turn. Yet there seems to be a change of attitude in the public discourse. An increasing number of stars, like Emma Watson, Salma Hayek, Kristen Stewart and, most recently, Michael Moore, have spoken out about sexism in Hollywood.
The subject is getting a great deal of media attention as well. To contribute to that debate, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a panel called "New Hollywood?" at the New York Film Festival on Sunday night. The panelists debating if the tides are indeed changing were producer Effie Brown *currently on HBO’s documentary series "Project Greenlight"), producer and Columbia University professor Ira Deutchman, journalist Mark Harris, AK Worldwide executive Susan Lewis, Gamechanger Films producer Mynette Louie, actress Rose McGowan and producer Lydia Dean Pilcher.
Moderator Eugene Hernandez, Deputy Director of the FSLC, kicked off the debate by asking Brown to discuss the controversial "Project Greenlight" scene in which she expressed her discomfort about a group of white men directing a movie about a black prostitute. (She preferred a directing team with a Vietnamese man and a white woman.) Matt Damon, her fellow consultant on the show, cut her off to manexplain/whitesplain (Mattsplain?) that "when you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show.” To which a shocked Brown simply responded, "Wow, OK."
"That was the nice cut," said Brown about the clip that went viral and caused Damon to publicly apologize. "I couldn’t go head on against the biggest movie star in the world — I want to work again. This is a thing we all have to think about. I’m a ballsy chick, but he has a number one movie and an Oscar. I’m trying to pay my mortgage," she continued. "What was brilliant is that on social media, there was an immediate call and response. People tweeted and were on Facebook. This is clearly no longer OK."
"I think social media is giving women of color a voice, and we’re really loud," said Louie. and Lydia Dean Pilcher added: "I think it’s great that it happened, because what he said exhibits a wider understanding of diversity in Hollywood, and it’s the kind of thing that gets said all the time behind the scene."
Lewis provided an example: A studio head didn’t like a black woman director because she was being "too polite" and asked for her to be "a little messier." "If she’d come in and cursed, it would have been the opposite: the angry woman," said Lewis.
McGowan, who was fired from her agency for tweeting about sexist wardrobe demands, contributed to the horror stories, recounting how she just walked out of a meeting at Paramount because she was told about a practice where a caster would make actresses come in wearing bikinis to make sure the male decision-makers would be in the room. "I’m sick of it," she said. "There’s a deep problem with disrespect."
In a lot of cases, however, the issue is ignorance rather than conscious discrimination, said Brown.
"I don’t want to be bashing the dude," she said, referring to Damon, whom she later called "very intelligent and very thoughtful." "Because I do feel that his view, in his mind it made sense, and I do think it’s the view of quite a few people, because it made it on [the show]. And I don’t feel that he’s a malicious person, and I don’t feel they’re malicious…. They just don’t think about it."
"I feel like I have to be a teacher to some people," added Lewis. "I have to explain why your pitch may be really offensive because it’s about a magical Negro. … But maybe I can make an impact. Maybe they can be like, ‘Oh, you’re making a good point.’"
"Most aren’t these terrible men; it just hasn’t occurred to them," added McGowan. "When it occurs to them, sometimes great things happen."
And changes are underway in Hollywood, argued Ira Deutchman. He believes that the studios’ failure to reach mass audiences –which in Hollywood’s mind equals young men — may motivate them to rethink their repertoires from a purely economic perspective.
"For every big superhero movie that makes hundreds of millions of dollars, there are two or three that are failing at the moment," he said. "When Donna Langley from Universal says, ‘We’re not going to deal with $200 million superhero movies that I don’t know has franchise potential or not. Let me just take some smaller bets on other audiences and see what happens,’ then you end up with the biggest summer of any studio…. It does give me hope that maybe it’s not one of those things that gets cycled back around again, where everybody’s going to forget that the audience exist."
"The audiences in movies and especially in TV have been sending a lot of messages saying that they are very receptive to diverse filmmaking and programming," said Mark Harris. "My frustration is in seeing how invested certain agents in the business are in not hearing that. They see every diverse thing as an exception if it exceeds."
While change is still coming slowly in film, women directors have experienced "a modest improvement" in television, according to the DGA’s latest diversity report.
The panelists all agree that TV is the future, especially for women and minorities.
"I think film is becoming like theater, where it’s a very rarified art form that is for white people mostly," said Louie.
"TV is challenging film no matter what," said Brown. "I’m the queen of the little movie, and I’m over it. It’s so rare to make money on a little movie, and it’s so hard to make money on a little movie. So I think the Internet and also doing TV, is the way to go. And the fact that we can be there and hold down the fort — I love it."
"Not only are we there, we are kicking ass," added Lewis. "This is the space that we [black women] can own, and people want us."
"On TV, we’re getting to the point where there’s actually freedom to fail," said Harris. "Saying ‘Give us a chance and we’ll prove it and give you a success’ is one of the great economic arguments, but it’s also a devil’s bargain. Because it invites people when something flops to say, ‘See, we tried, but it just didn’t work.’ … Freedom to fail is really crucial, because no one says, ‘No more movies with Adam Sandler.’"
No one says "No more movies with Matt Damon," either.
"’The Martian’ is the number one movie. So even though everyone was in a flutter about Matt Damon, that wasn’t enough to stop the ticket sales," said Brown, who still finds the experience with the "Project Greenlight" media storm positive.
"What really surprised me is that you guys got it. I really did think that I was alone with that whole diversity comment. Like maybe Black Twitter will get it. I even said that when I talked to HBO. ‘Black Twitter is real.’ What made me feel great is that it grew. It became a bit of a moment, and everybody — black, white, Asian, everybody — came up and said, ‘This didn’t make any sense,’" Brown said. "But I still haven’t heard from Matt Damon."