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The first annual Women in Entertainment Summit took place at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood Nov. 5, featuring numerous panel discussions and fireside chats about the current state of the distaff half both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. Hosted by Arclight Cinemas’ executive vice president Gretchen McCourt, and featuring key-note speakers actor/activist Geena Davis and Women In Film President Cathy Schulman, the discussion centered not just on facts and figures illuminating gender disparity in Hollywood, but also on ways to combat unconscious bias, mentor the next generation and hold those in power accountable.
“Nobody’s under the illusion they’re doing right by female directors,” Institute on Gender in Media head Davis told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think there is a belief that women are not quite as good directors.”
Filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), who sat in on a discussion entitled “Gender and Inequality,” was the subject of a Funny or Die short earlier this year in which she pitches three clueless male execs who cannot conceive of a woman directing an action film. The video went viral, but the situation is no joke.
“Men can do Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but women can’t do action movies,” Hardwicke noted, recalling her experience as a production designer on David O. Russell’s Three Kings, for which she helped get Nora Dunn cast as a reporter in a role originally written for a man.
It’s a point Davis picked up on years ago. Today, when she meets with studio chiefs to discuss ways in which they might create greater opportunities for women, one of her first suggestions is changing supporting characters from Jim to Jane. She found that executives (usually men), are often surprised by how easy it is to find more roles for women, and are shocked at the biases at work in themselves and their industry.
“Before I had the numbers, people were completely and utterly convinced that they were doing very well by girls in kids’ movies,” says Davis. “Then when I had the numbers, they were like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?!’ ”
What they’re doing is discriminating against women in an egregious fashion. According to figures disseminated at the event, 7 percent of feature films are directed by women (16 percent of episodic TV), while 12 percent of movie protagonists are female, and 22 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes are women. Recent research by The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film showed that only 7 percent of the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2014 were directed by women, and that women made up only 17 percent of key positions behind the scenes. And according to the Institute on Gender in Media, the ratio of male to female characters in family films has remained unchanged at 3 to 1 since 1946.
At a time when the federal Equal Economic Commission is conducting an investigation into the industry’s hiring practices, and Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, Bradley Cooper and other stars are voicing their opposition to said practices, the event’s co-host Women In Film president Schulman advocated for a system that tracks the number of women that individual production companies are employing. She plans to publish the results, publicly shaming offenders into adopting fairer practices.
During a panel called “Social Change Through Storytelling,” documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney (The Armor of Light), lamented that fact that although things have changed, they haven’t changed enough.
“We always have this mistaken idea that there’s forward progress, and again and again we slouch back to where we were. We’re Sisyphus, we’re trying to go up hill. And the minute we take our foot off the gas, we roll three feet back,” she observed, stressing that men aren’t the only culprits. “I’m a woman and I’m capable of prejudice against women. We should never stop holding our own feet to the fire.”
The message was well received by an audience of mostly women, though Davis began her session voicing skepticism that real change was in the wind.
“Now could be the beginning of a new time and a big change for women in Hollywood, but we cannot say that just yet. Change can take an awfully long time to happen,” she admonished. But most attendees saw the focus on unconscious bias as key to rooting out social ills among those who aren’t aware they harbor any.
The Women In Entertainment Summit is a welcome opportunity for the filmmaking community to come together and consider solutions, but Hardwicke had a more direct answer for those confronting unfair obstacles.
“Shoot it, make it, and make people come to you,” she advised. “Be fearless and create your own.”
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