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This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A few years ago, Women in Film president Cathy Schulman and I were talking about the seemingly intractable problem we were seeing year after year in our research with USC on women behind the camera. The percentage of female directors across all the Sundance programs has been around 25 percent over the last 10 to 15 years, but in the top 100 box office, it hovers between 2 and 4 percent. Clearly, we’re seeing falloff.
What we’re not seeing is much information or research about why. We wanted to understand the root of the problem: Is it in the culture? The pipeline? We realized that we needed the whole industry to understand the obstacles and collectively do something. And it finally felt like Hollywood was ready to have a meaningful, specific conversation because — from Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech to Jennifer Lawrence’s Lenny essay — a movement seemed to be happening.
Director Catherine Hardwicke (left) and Orange is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan at the confab.
Working with Sundance’s Caroline Libresco, Women In Film’s Kirsten Schaffer and producer Jen Chaiken, we reached out to a group of leaders in town — execs, agents, producers, directors, writers — and asked them to give two days. That meant putting down their phones and leaving their workplaces, which is a lot to ask. So we wrote a note to them saying, “We promise we’ll feed you well and give you phone breaks.” And you know, it worked.
We wanted each person there to be actively involved, so the scale of the group was important — it couldn’t be more than 50. Earlier in the year we had a smaller confab of 10 core participants — Mike De Luca and Bruna Papandrea among them — who met to discuss whom to invite to the larger gathering. The room needed to be filled with people at a decision-maker level who represent a cross-section of the industry. There were a lot of people we could have invited, but we kept reminding ourselves that this wasn’t going to be the last meeting — just the first one.
Fifty Shades of Grey producer De Luca (left) with former Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara
When we walked into that room Oct. 14 at the Pacific Design Center, with magic markers and big whiteboards everywhere, I wondered whether these people would reach over and pick up those pens and actually engage. But everyone was eager to share their experiences and observations right away.
We started by digging into the hurdles facing women in our business. For example, one of the perceptions is that there are not enough qualified female directors. Now, is that a reality? Some buyers in the room might say, “There’s not enough women for me to hire for that big job.” And then some directors and agents said, “Well actually, there are quite a few women. Maybe they’re just not making it to your attention.” And why is that?
From left: The Blacklist founder Franklin Leonard, Modern Family executive producer Cindy Chupack and Beyond the Lights producer Stephanie Allain.
We also were interested in how other fields have successfully created change, so we invited Deena Fidas from the Human Rights Campaign, who created the stamp of approval that’s given to companies promoting LGBT diversity. That was the inspiration for the gender parity stamp idea that came out of our convening. We brought in Larraine Segil, a former CEO who once set up a networking organization across Fortune 500 companies where successful women could mentor other women. Out of that, a lot of agents in the group, including CAA’s Chris Andrews, gravitated toward the idea of an advocacy program for talent that would cut across all the studios and agencies.
Everyone agreed that one of the highlights was Judith Williams, who runs global diversity at Dropbox and formerly did so at Google. Her talk on unconscious bias blew the minds of the people in that room. We see it in our own lives. I see it in mine. It’s a natural human thing to carry the bias of the body and the history that you live in. But understanding the business opportunities that are lost when we unintentionally replicate ourselves in our hiring practices was a huge eye-opener. “We’ve got to put this in front of everybody,” people were saying, “because then they’ll begin to see the business case for change.”
Actor-activist Maria Bello will help promote the gender parity stamp initiative.
I think this meeting was the first of its kind to take place across companies. To see three big agencies together thinking about what we could do to foster female talent and to hear buyers talking about why and how women are put on their lists when they’re considering directors was amazing. One of our goals was to come out of this day with everybody’s buy-in to serve as ambassadors. Already I’ve seen some of them talking to friends, and people are calling me saying, “I’d love to get involved.”
We’ll need to fundraise, get the groups back together to put these ideas on their feet and develop the structure. There’s momentum. I’m confident we can make transformational change, not just incremental improvements in the numbers. I’m choosing to be an optimist.
Putnam is executive director of the Sundance Institute. As told to Bryn Elise Sandberg.
Read more essays from THR‘s Women in Entertainment issue:
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