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Guest Post: Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher on the Great Conundrum Facing Feminist Progress in Hollywood Today

Guest Post: Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher on the Great Conundrum Facing Feminist Progress in Hollywood Today

With “Suffragette” now in theaters, what lessons can we glean from this powerful story in the
current struggle for gender equality in Hollywood?

While women in entertainment certainly aren’t kicked and beaten when they demand fairness and parity, the marginalization that female protestors faced a century ago in the U.K. resonate with today’s fights for greater representation in the media, particularly in the struggle to be viewed as equally worthy — both as storytellers and as protagonists — to men. 

Unlike the suffragists of yore, we’ve got a secret weapon on our side: market data. Our conundrum is that while women working on both sides of the camera are severely
underrepresented, research on movies and television dramatically supports
the fact that female-driven content is profitable. 

We are in a unique moment of activism in Hollywood, with a
number of events bringing us to the edge of a tipping point. The Sony hack has
outed wage discrimination. The ACLU has successfully pushed state and federal
agencies to investigate “overt sex stereotyping and implicit bias” in the
hiring practices of the major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies. Stars — including Jennifer Lawrence, Viola Davis, Cate Blanchett, Reese
Witherspoon and Meryl Streep — are using their platforms and experiences to
speak out against workplace discrimination in the entertainment industry.

As a producer who works with many talented female
directors (including Mira Nair, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Katja von Garnier and Kathryn
Bigelow), I know firsthand that female audiences crave more stories about their
lives, experiences and dreams. In the last decade, we’ve seen how breakout
hits with female stars and creators like “Twilight”
(directed by Catherine Hardwicke) and “The
Hunger Games” (produced by Nina Jacobson) have obliterated the long-held prejudices that female stars don’t open
movies or that women
directors only make films for a less significant subset of the marketplace.

And yet, studies by Dr. Stacy L. Smith at USC’s Annenberg School show that only 1.9% of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and 2014 were directed
by women.

I’m a national officer of the Producers Guild of America, and in 2012 I
rallied my colleagues to found the PGA Women’s Impact Network to promote
strategies from producers in moving the industry toward a more gender-balanced
landscape. At the top of our list was the challenge of how to debunk the myths
that continue to perpetuate a
well-documented gender bias in Hollywood. Once we delved into it and looked at all
of the data available, the business case was clear-cut, staggering and
exciting. Ultimately, we were able to let the economics make the case for
casting aside these erroneous perceptions of women and their work.

Last
month, the PGA Women’s Impact Network and Women and Hollywood announced the launch
of “The Ms. Factor: The Power of Female-Driven Content,” a “toolkit” to raise awareness among decision-makers in
the entertainment industry about the profitability of investing in female
producers, directors, protagonists and storylines. “The Ms. Factor,” which I co-authored with Melissa Silverstein, is a
compilation of studies and statistics designed to offer filmmakers the analyses
they need to point to the power of women as a market and prove the commercial
viability of female-driven content.

Leading experts from Nielsen, Google Analytics, FiveThirtyEight,
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and top researchers in the field — including Dr. Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen of San Diego State and many others — were
invaluable in their support and research. We discovered that women outnumber
men in terms of moviegoers, television watchers, social media users and
influencers.
In tracking shifting demographics, we found that women constitute an immensely
powerful market and one that, with changing family structures and women now
approaching 50% of the workforce, is growing exponentially in strength and
influence.
Women
make upwards of 85% of all consumer decisions in the U.S., and over the next
decade are projected to control two-thirds of all consumer wealth. This means women
will be the beneficiaries of the largest transfer of wealth in our
country’s history.

It
has become increasingly clear to me that what we’re dealing with in our
industry is an institutional resistance to female and inclusive storytelling. The lack of a critical mass
of women decision-makers at all stages of the pipeline, from development to
exhibition, has created a very one-sided business. The ACLU
writes, “The failure to hire women directors in film and television cannot be
attributed to a lack of qualified or interested women. Women are well
represented in prominent films schools such as USC, NYU and UCLA.” But we see obstacles
to jobs at the entry level, and later a drop-off in jobs as budget levels rise.
We also see that studios are willing to take risks on less experienced male
directors, but not female directors with equal or more experience. Unsurprisingly,
we see a retention issue with female directors. Viola Davis drove it home for
all women and people of color when she invoked Harriet Tubman in her recent, historic Emmy acceptance speech, claiming, “The only thing that separates women
of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

There
is an elephant looming large in Hollywood rooms and offices, now popularly
referred to as “unconscious bias.” These are attitudes and biases, exhibited by
men and women alike, that guide our patterns of behavior around diversity. The
deep roots of this hot-button issue of unconscious bias in Hollywood were prominently exposed in this season of HBO’s “Project Greenlight.” In a recent
episode, Matt Damon and African-American producer Effie Brown disagreed on
the concept of diversity in a conversation about hiring the director. Damon interrupted Brown to argue (falsely) that diversity is reflected in the “casting of the film” and
not the “casting of the show” (meaning the hiring of the people behind the
camera). He also appeared to be excluding diversity from his definition of
merit. The social-media conversation exploded, and this old elephant in the room
was unleashed.

Storytelling in a film is a collaborative process, and everyone working
on it contributes to the story in often uncredited but defining ways. In her famous TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda
Ngozi Adichie says, “How
stories are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told,
are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story
of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

Having a woman at the helm affects the kind of stories being told and how women are portrayed. Female producers, directors and writers are
more likely to feature girls and women on screen. Another study
conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, in partnership with Women in Film Los Angeles
and the Sundance Institute, demonstrated that female leadership promotes gender
equality behind the camera as well, resulting in more women hired as writers,
producers, cinematographers and editors — a 21% increase among scripted
features and a 24% increase among documentaries.

Television is reflecting the potential for edging up the opportunities for
women. Dr. Martha Lauzen at The Center for the Study of Women in Film
and Television
has reported that when there is a female writer, women characters appear on
screen 46% of the time compared with 39% when there are no female writers. Shows with at least one woman writer had casts that were 43% female. Additionally,
shows with at least one female creator had casts that were 47% female. And yet,
for programs airing on the broadcast networks, cable channels and Netflix in
2013-14, women comprised only 25% of all individuals working as creators,
directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and
cinematographers.

Study after study shows that a diverse and inclusive workplace
leads to higher rates of retention, happiness, productivity and profits. Many companies, like Google, YouTube and
Facebook are way ahead of Hollywood in changing the culture of their
corporations by using training methods to confront unconscious bias and talk
about it productively.

Progressive
efforts led by industry veterans — including Executive Director of the Sundance
Institute Keri Putnam, President of Women in Film Cathy Schulman and director Ava
DuVernay, who is carving a new space with Array (showcasing the works of a
diverse filmmaker base) — have been huge in coalition-building and designing the
path ahead. Studio executives, producers and financiers must look at hiring and
financing practices across the board and encourage decision-makers to create
new standard policies for studio and agency director lists, actor lists and
crew lists, balancing them for gender and racial diversity.

The brave and radical British women portrayed in
“Suffragette” directly inspired American activists like Alice Paul to demand a
constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. I was a producer on “Iron
Jawed Angels,” a movie for HBO in which Hilary Swank portrays the fearless
Alice Paul, who in 1913 organized American women to protest a war-time
president — women who were then arrested, beaten, and jailed. She led a hunger
strike that stirred the nation’s conscience and eventually led to the legalization
of women’s right to vote in the U.S.

Would the story of the militant British women of “Suffragette” have made
it to the screen if writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and producers Alison
Owen and Faye Ward had not been behind it? Morgan has said, “For ‘Suffragette,’
I realized that I’d worked with a lot of female producers, but not that many
female directors. Immediately, this process was a comfortable space to be in,
allowing me more control over and personal involvement in the material. I
decided that the most interesting approach would be to consider the movement
through the eyes of an ordinary uncelebrated woman — of which there were
thousands — to explore how someone can be willing to sacrifice everything in
pursuit of an ideal.”

“Suffragette”
reminds us of the sacrifices that women before us have made to blaze the trail
and change the definitive story of their era. Hopefully stories like these will
help us reach the hearts and souls of industry decision-makers, who must
examine and address their biases. It shouldn’t take a hunger strike for
Hollywood culture to embrace equality and fairness.

Lydia Dean Pilcher is the founder and president of Cine Mosaic, a leading New York production company, and has produced numerous award-winning independent feature films, including 2014’s Academy Award-nominated “Cutie And the Boxer” and the Sony Pictures Classics release of the international co-production “The Lunchbox,” directed by Ritesh Batra. Pilcher has produced over 35 feature films, including eleven movies in a long-standing collaboration with director Mira Nair, including “Queen of Katwe” for The Walt Disney Company coming out in 2016 and starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.

Pilcher is also VP of Motion Pictures at the Producers Guild of America and Founder and Chair of the PGA Women’s Impact Network. She co-authored with Melissa Silverstein “The Ms. Factor: the Power of Female Driven Content.” She tweets @queendean.

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