Producer Lynda Obst's No-B.S. Advice for Fighting Hollywood Gender Inequality (Guest Column)
Film is the “best business for women,” writes the 'Interstellar' producer, because women have "a better chance of being mentored, discovered and hired" even though the industry is "utterly rigged for young white dudes."
Don't throw a rock at me, but I think that: A) The movie business is the best business for women and minorities in the world; and B) It's a very exciting time to be a woman director. That being said, the situation is utterly rigged for young white dudes.
Why is this the best business in the world for women and marginalized groups? Because this is an entirely reactive business full of easily shamed people; if the market says "Make X," we make X. If social media says #OscarsSoWhite, more black-themed movies are greenlighted in one year than ever before. And in the case of women directors, a little prompting via the threat of an ACLU discrimination lawsuit made finding a woman director for a TV pilot the week after the suit was filed nearly impossible. (For a week. In television.) But both events created an awareness in both genders who do the hiring that things have to change — and changes now abound. There are multiple women on my feature director lists for the first time in my career. Agents are pushing women directors instead of hiding them at the bottom of their list. It's a whole new situation.
Sort of. The numbers on working female directors remain demoralizing and disheartening (my new favorite adjectives). As we feel the sea changes, we still watch scores of young white men get hired for studio tentpoles after one VFX job (Godzilla), art direction (Maleficent), short films (Maze Runner), an indie darling (The Amazing Spider-Man) and an even smaller indie (Spider-Man: Homecoming) versus the number of women getting this kind of job: one — Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman, whose success this summer feels critical for the whole gender. This systemic fact requires analysis.
No one is sitting upstairs doing "extreme vetting" on women directors and nixing them. They are doing the same old stupid vetting. Candidates get rejected out of hand if: 1) They've never made a feature; 2) have one flop; or 3) even one person they ever worked with calls them "difficult." Moreover, women rarely are considered for the kind of yuuuge action movies that have been the studios' meat and potatoes since international markets became predominant. If we have the testosterone, it's a problem (translation: "difficult"), and if we don't, it is too!
Another systemic crisis for women directors is that the route many regularly were taking in the '90s — the romantic comedy — is DOA. Its appropriation by male directors (Judd Apatow et al.) and its steep decline at the hand of international demand killed off all the female feature writers who were aiming their careers toward that of my mentor Nora Ephron — a great writer who became a director, once a possible route to the director's chair for women.
An entire generation of female talent was discombobulated by the death of the romantic comedy. In the early '90s, we had no problem getting Nora her first green light in that genre for This Is My Life: Then-Fox chairman Joe Roth told me he would know if she could direct if she knew how to order lunch! Nora was known to be the bossiest lunch orderer in the world! We were a lock.
But there are different rules for women. If a woman makes one bomb, she's done. (Men are forgiven two at least if they've also had a big hit.) What Nora had to do to come back after Mixed Nuts bombed in 1994 was crazy. She had to keep writing and rewriting to get another green light. If you can't write, you're really dead. But it's at least possible to write your way out of movie hell.
It isn't hard to find female directors in television. Lesli Linka Glatter has won so many Emmys for Homeland, she probably had to build an extension on her house. Television is where all the great rom-com writers went to become EPs. But it's still way too hard to bust out of that universe for a woman, while male directors are fully transitive.
So why, oh why, do I think it's such a good time for women? Though we are unlikely these days to get a green light on how we order lunch, never before has a talented, highly motivated woman had a better chance of being mentored, discovered and hired. She must be like a Lady Boy Scout: better prepared than the next guy. She must be willing and able to sell herself and her movie to everyone, all the time. She has to be prepped with a vision that entrances financiers and beguiles the big A-list acting talent who want more than ever to put their money where their mouths are. She must have a vision that sweeps away doubt in a meeting and shows she equally understands production and process. People are ready, willing and able to put a talented woman behind the camera if the circumstances are close to perfect — which isn't fair or equal or even close to the reality for guys. It's not the best of all worlds yet, nor still the worst. But if enough women make some hits in this pivotal moment, it will only get easier for generations of female filmmakers to come.
Obst is the producer of 17 features, including Interstellar, and several TV series, and the author of two books: Hello, He Lied and Sleepless in Hollywood.