Lena Dunham Sets 'Lenny' Book Imprint and HBO Short-Film Series
Along with her creative partner Jenni Konner, Dunham talks about expanding her feminist newsletter, the legacy of 'Girls' and rebranding her 'Women of the Hour' podcast.
When Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner launched Lenny Letter in September 2015, they hoped one day it'd be more than an email newsletter.
Only six months in, the digital outlet has advanced the feminist conversation with such powerhouse bylines as Jane Fonda, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lawrence — who put Lenny on the map when she penned an essay on Hollywood's gender pay gap, opening the door for other prominent women to do the same. Now, both Julianne Moore and Shonda Rhimes have pieces in the queue.
The newsletter has kept up momentum by offering fresh takes on complex and oftentimes taboo issues, from gang rape to domestic violence to abortion, with a biweekly mix of personal essays and in-depth Q&As. And it’s developed a loyal following doing so — the newsletter now boasts more than 400,000 subscribers and an impressive 70 percent open rate, which it's been able to monetize thanks to an advertising deal with Hearst.
"The newsletter was a way to take the temperature of an audience and see if there really was a place for us to step into other media with the Lenny voice," says Dunham. Now, as the creative duo prepare to bid farewell to their acclaimed HBO series Girls in 2017, Dunham, 29, and Konner, 44, plan to expand the Lenny brand and, as The Hollywood Reporter can exclusively report, are in negotiations with HBO to team for what the pair describes as a series of 22-minute short films written and directed by women.
"Instead of just discussing issues, we want Lenny to be a part of something that gives opportunities," Dunham says of the collaboration with the premium cable network, with which they have other scripted projects in development via their Los Angeles-based production company A Casual Romance. Among them: Max, a 1960s-set feminism comedy pilot starring Zoe Kazan.
Lenny’s influence soon will extend into the print world, too. Dunham and Konner are launching a book imprint with Random House, the publisher of Dunham's best-selling memoir Not That Kind of Girl, which will focus on emerging voices in fiction and nonfiction. With the first book expected to drop in 2017, Dunham and Konner join the ranks of other celebrities who have dabbled in the publishing sphere with book imprints of their own, including Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brett Ratner and Chelsea Handler.
As they prepare to launch an empire with Lenny, Dunham and Konner sat with THR to discuss the legacy of Girls, the backstory on Lawrence's poignant essay and why they aren’t ruling out other multimedia formats for Lenny.
With Girls ending next year, what does the next phase of your career look like?
KONNER Well, we started Lenny six months ago and we were really surprised and thrilled by the reaction. It was so strong and we’re enjoying it so much that we’re trying to figure out as many platforms for Lenny as we can. So, the [Women of the Hour] podcast will become a Lenny podcast [it will return in the fall with 10 episodes instead of five], and we’re doing a short-film series for Lenny in collaboration with HBO, which is perfect. We don’t know what the limits are of Lenny.
DUNHAM We’re also going to be starting a book imprint with Random House.
KONNER Yeah, we have our first book. There’s a lot of things floating around in our heads, bubbling up, as we’re trying to figure out all the things Lenny can be.
So Lenny will ultimately become much more than an email newsletter and website?
DUNHAM We love the newsletter and it will always sort of be Lenny’s flagship, but the newsletter was a way to take the temperature of an audience and see if there really was a place for us to step into other media with the Lenny voice. What we were really trying to do with Lenny was to find a way to bring humor and pathos and complexity to some issues — be it reproductive justice or complicated legislation about domestic violence — that can feel alien and alienating. And it’s been amazing to see how hungry our audience is for that kind of content.
What reaction to Lenny has surprised you the most?
DUNHAM Some of the conversations that have been able to spring up around launching Lenny, like when we saw Valerie Jarrett from the White House congratulate Bradley Cooper on saying that he was going to share his wage info with his female co-stars. We were like, “Hey! That’s our newsletter, guys!” It was just such a thrilling moment to see these things not just becoming dialogue but actually translating into action.
Did you expect Lenny to be the conversation starter it has been?
DUNHAM Every day we’re like, “Is this real?” My Lenny [landed in] my inbox this morning and I was like, “Oh my God, this is still happening! Jane Fonda! That’s awesome!” I got amazing responses [to the Jane Fonda piece, entitled 'My Convoluted Journey to Feminism.'] Every woman in my life over 50 years old emailed me about it. I was just so excited to see that they were feeling awesome and represented and heard. They are getting to hear one of their heroes talk about a journey she had where she wasn’t perfectly sure the whole time.
How does a piece like that come about? Do you reach out to them or do they come to you?
DUNHAM It happens both ways. What’s exciting though is we’re increasingly seeing women come to us thinking about Lenny as a potential platform for their ideas.
KONNER I think once the Jennifer Lawrence piece came out — because it was such a big deal and she was so brave and raw and such a good writer — all of a sudden other people thought, “Well, I can do that, and I have something to say, too.”
So, did Jennifer Lawrence approach you guys?
DUNHAM I actually reached out to her before Lenny even launched, before we were even public about it. I just said to her, “Hey, we’re starting this feminist newsletter. If there’s anything you ever want to say, think of us.” And I expected her to be like, “Sure, great,” lovely and polite as she is. But I think she really did have something she had been waiting to find a safe channel to express, and we were really, really lucky that she trusted us so early in our process because we think it opened up the doors for a lot of other women to do the same. It’s so exciting — we have pieces coming out in the next few months from Julianne Moore, Shonda Rhimes, Amanda Peet, Joy Bryant, just an amazing collection of women who have a lot to say and have wanted to say it outside the form of an interview. As wonderful as journalists are, the fact is that when you speak it’s going to be dissected in a very particular way. You have a real power when you speak in your own words. And it’s really cool to see female actors, who have historically been relegated to be just these pretty faces, be so excited to express themselves on such a personal level.
Who else is on your wish list?
DUNHAM Hmm, well, do you know what one of our staffers said the other day? "The Lenny conversation: Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan." Like, a makeup on Lenny. Whether that’s even realistic for legal reasons I can’t begin to say, but it would be really nice. Also, I’ve been chasing Babs Streisand for a little while, so if she hears this call, I got a lot of questions for you, girl.
What exactly will your latest collaboration with HBO entail?
KONNER They’ll be short films for HBONow that are directed and written by female-identifying writers and directors. They will be based on short stories by women, and their crew is going to be 50 percent female, mandatory. They will just be little 22-minute passion projects. [The deals for this venture have not yet closed.]
DUNHAM Jenni and I have really been lucky enough to be part of the conversation about the lack of representation of women in Hollywood and people of color in Hollywood. So instead of just discussing issues, we wanted Lenny to be a part of something that gives opportunities, and we were lucky enough that HBO, being our longtime partner, felt like that was a worthy goal. Also, the short film is such a beautiful form that has so much to offer. It is so delightful and is often overlooked, so we’re excited to try to find a way to do that intelligently that gives a whole new kind of content, and hopefully lets our [Lenny] readers behind the scenes of the process of making the films. Part of what Jenni and I want to do is make being a writer or being a director or being a producer seem less like this ivory tower job and more accessible. So by creating a film series in which we’re giving work opportunities to people who identify as female and also let our readership look at the process, we’re hoping to just be a part of the change we want to see in the world.
You mentioned that you’ll require that half of the crew on these future short films be women. Do you have any sort of mandate like that for your writers rooms?
KONNER The Girls writers room has just sort of developed over time, but certainly when we were staffing Lenny it was something we thought a lot about. We didn’t have a specific percentage in mind but were like, “We need diverse voices,” and we went out and looked for them.
DUNHAM Obviously having been a part of the real conversation about diversity on all ends — both as subjects of criticism and people who are criticizing — it’s something that is always on our minds.
With Girls on its way out next year, what do you want the legacy of the show to be?
DUNHAM I would feel really happy if we freed up some space for women to be complicated and unlikable and allow them to make some tough choices on television. I think that even in the time we’ve been on, we’ve seen so many more of those kinds of females appear on television — ones that used to be few and far between. I mean, they’ve always existed. There’s always been your Mary Tyler Moores and your Maudes and your important kind of pioneering women, but it’s funny because I just was recently rewatching Ally McBeal and I was reminded by how scandalized people were by her because she wasn’t professional at the time and cried in the bathroom and pitted people against each other. I was like, “That’s just another Wednesday on Girls.” I feel really lucky that we get to make a show that is not just one of those women but a bunch of those women interacting with each other.
KONNER Equally, I hope that we leave some space for behind-the-scenes women running shows more. So many more women since we started are running shows. There’s the queen of television, Shonda Rhimes, and it exists, but there’s still a big disparity between men and women. The show is the two of us, our two highest-level producers are women and our production companies are filled with women, so I think if we can [keep] pushing the ball forward for women, we’re doing our job.
DUNHAM And I think in the coming years as we continue to figure out what Girls meant to us, we really do want to be open about our experience and be a resource to other women who would want to do what we’re doing with the show and who would want to understand what it was like writing female characters like this in the public eye.
You also have other projects in the works at HBO, including the 1960s-set feminism pilot Max starring Zoe Kazan. What can you tell us about that project?
DUNHAM That’s not something we can really discuss right now, but what I will say is that it was really fun to shoot something else with a really strong female lead and just continue to explore our voice and to support other writers that we really like. I love directing and I love being able to have the opportunity to focus on it without the kind of schizophrenia that comes with trying to do two or three jobs at once. So I hope there’s more just directing or just writing in my future because it’s really refreshing for me. Even when I direct, say, a short fashion film for my sister-in-law, it’s a thrilling thing for me to just be able to focus on that one part of the craft.