I don’t get to talk about the big picture very often and I am always happy to talk with a student. I also love to talk with men who are interested in the topic. Keenan Novi got in touch with me interested in speaking about a variety of issues and I was happy to oblige. Hope he gets a good grade.
Our interview was his midterm project for a class called “Industry Persepectives.” Here’s how he described the class: “Every class we have a different guest speaker who woks in some facet of the entertainment industry.” He’s a senior at Temple University in Philadelphia and is taking part in a program that sends students to Los Angeles for a semester to take part in internships and classes.
Thought our interview might interest some folks:
Melissa Silverstein is known for (amongst other things) running the Women and Hollywood blog on Indiewire. As the website has grown prominence within the industry, she has used it as a tool to get the word out about women in the film and television industries. One of the most striking things about the blog is its lack of preachy overtones. It does not give off the arrogant feeling of a point of view being pushed past its breaking point; instead, it offers many facts and figures followed by intelligent insight into why this is the case and how it may be stopped. One may see the stories there as exaggeration, only until they realize that it is all sadly true. This is the reason why I chose to interview Miss Silverstein, as her journalism sheds light on an aspect of the entertainment industry that does not get discussed nearly enough. She offers her opinions on the state of the industry, the position women are currently in and where they may be going.
Keenan Novi: Have you spent time in Los Angeles/experienced the atmosphere or have you always been east coast based?
Melissa Silverstein: I have always been East Coast based. The LA world is not for me.
KN: A recent story that has interested you, in that it represents what you feel is a positive direction?
MS: Lately there’s been some really good conversations about women in comedy. This week, there was another interesting conversation about women who are not thin getting jobs. There was a great Wall Street Journal piece and some other places picked up on that, and I thought that was really interesting. So, there’s usually a ton of great new stories and then a ton of really bad news stories.
KN: That actually leads me to my next question, which is the antithesis of the last question, has there been any stories recently that you felt represented a step back in how women were represented within the industry?
MS: Well, I think the constant lack of opportunities for women in the directing and other more technical fields is very problematic. One of the mot important things is that we need to see the experiences, visions and the voices of a diversity of people. This includes women, people of color, and of course, white men, so we could all learn from them and see that this world is a multicultural world. What happens in Hollywood is, since most films are directed by white men, we really do not get to see a wide variety of experiences.
KN: Do you feel that the independent world of filmmaking is more conductive to getting this type of multi cultural perspective in films?
MS: From some research that has recently been done about films that appear in large-scale film festivals, it is clear that woman do much better on the indie side than the Hollywood side. And women do even better in the documentary world, so you just have to look around and you see some very good things happening. Also, you don’t want women to be pigeonholed in one place. There is this documentary scene that has become a sort of girls ghetto.
KN: Is there a reason why you feel women are gaining more of a presence in the documentary landscape?
MS: Well, some of the reasons why documentaries are welcoming to women are that they take a long time, they’re much lower budget and they don’t count as much. I feel like on the other side, these are great stories for women to tell, as they are really detail oriented and they are really good at telling these stories. Its great news and it’s a great use of women’s talents, and of course there are great men that make great documentaries, but almost half the documentaries at film festivals are directed by women. Part of that is simply that documentaries are not as expensive. Not a lot of stuff blows up in documentaries, except for what happens in the live footage that is shot.
KN: Do you feel the problem is a lack of recognition or bias within the industry itself that affects the number of women directors in the studio system? Or do you feel it is a mixture of both?
MS: Well I think there are multiple reasons, and they all come down to that fact that guys are comfortable with hiring their friends. There is some weird obsession or problem with studio chiefs giving big budgets to women. They seem to, for some reason, not to be able to trust a woman to helm a big budget film, but they have no problem with giving one to a man who has never even directed before. A lot of it is plain old sexism. There is not a lot of recourse that women have when they are discriminated against, and that is an issue. Because you are not an employee, you are a work for hire. So, you cannot say very readily or easily that you are discriminated against. And there are no rules in the same way that, if you worked in a corporation, you can document the discrimination. You simply cannot do that in Hollywood.
KN: I noticed that there are often breakdowns and figures on your blog concerning how many females were involved in certain films or how many women filmmakers were included in lists, etc.
MS: I started doing that deliberately to point out these women and these issues and make them more prominent in a world that does not really highlight women. When people think about the industry they don’t think about this at all, but that is the same case with people within the industry as well.
KN: You cover both television and film in your blog. Do you feel one of these mediums is more conductive to women thriving and making an impact than the other?
MS: I think the statistics in TV are pretty low as well. What happens when a couple of shows are picked up that are created by women, everybody assumes that this is part of a trend. Since there is so much bad news concerning this, when there is some good news everybody assumes that ‘Oh, everything is solved, Bridesmaids happened and it was a success and made a lot of money. Men went to see it and now everyone will make movies about women’ and that is not the case. If you look at the Oscars this year, there are no movies about women. There is a lack of strong females protagonists even in the Oscar conversation. Everyone wants this to be solved, but it is going to take a very long time.
KN: Concerning Bridesmaids, since this is still in somewhat recent memory, do you feel like that sort of situation is a double edged sword, in that it raised awareness about women in comedy, but it also seems like the conversation implies that women had not been funny at all up until this point?
MS: We go through these cycles where you see a lot of women in movies and some where you don’t. Or, where women’s movies are successful and then they aren’t. We have been in a downward spiral for a while where women haven’t been prominent within the industry for a while. What women in Hollywood seem to do is start at zero all the time. Nothing really builds upon something else. It just seems to start over every time a new cycle comes up. So, you have to keep memory alive in some way because you cannot start from zero all the time. So we just have to say ‘women are funny, and they have always been funny.’ These conversations are sexist and reductionist, but they happen because they don’t know how to look at it another way.
KN: How do you feel about the current conversations about women directors, in that it sort of separates them from male directors?
MS: What a lot of people say is that they do not want to talk about women directors, they don’t want to be seen as ‘women directors,’ they shouldn’t be separate, and I agree with that. However, my answer to that is you are still looked at as a woman director. We need to have this conversation, we need to keep it going until we reach a place where there is a critical mass of women and people look at women differently. People don’t look at women now the same way that they look at men.
KN: Do you feel like that separation is going to stop at any point? Since we still do that with actors, and we still use the word “actress” and women still get separate categories for awards.
MS: I have seen this conversation happen that states that we should put male and females in the same categories, but if we did that, I will guarantee that you would see nominations without any women. So, right now, we need to have the ‘best actress’ categorization because that guarantees a conversation about women. Do I wish that women directors weren’t pigeonholed as women directors? Of course, but we do not live in an equal world.
KN: Do you prefer to concentrate on the Oscars, which is more in the public conscience, or more independent and art films? Or, do you simply like to spread the coverage broadly over all of these different facets?
MS: I do try to spread it out as much as I can, but I also feel like I need to give people information so they can enter the conversation. If you get too insider, or if you focus on films that are not getting a large release, then that dilutes the conversation about the big picture of Hollywood. So I feel really strongly about giving people the access and the information for where they are in their lives. Most people think about the industry only when they see their one, two, or, some of us twenty two, movies a year. And the conversations that happen are all based on celebrities and the big movies. All of those conversations are usually about men, so when you can have a conversation about women at that level, it is really important to me. That, however, should not take place of the conversation about the smaller.