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At a time when gender issues are dominating Hollywood conversations, the third annual Women in Entertainment Summit gathered a large group of notable female success stories, decision makers and industry aspirants together to celebrate recent breakthroughs — most notably the triumph of Wonder Woman and its director Patty Jenkins — and discuss ways to change the game even more significantly.
Throughout the daylong event held at the Skirball Cultural Center, the occasion was notably absent of any substantive talk about sexual harassment, instead focusing on the landmark progress made by women in the industry: Jenkins was the final keynote speaker and the recipient of wild applause in praise of her film’s glass ceiling — shattering critical and commercial success.
During her onstage conversation, Jenkins discussed her Wonder Woman journey, the influence on her combat fighter-pilot father on the character of Steve Trevor, and the opportunities she sees in the streaming field — a territory she admits she’s just as interested in exploring as blockbuster films, where she admits that, in the way that her success opened doors for both herself and other women filmmakers, a future failure might also be interpreted in broader terms.
“I’d rather do pilots than a movie that is fatally flawed,” said Jenkins. “If it’s not successful, then it will look really bad. I don’t want to end up in a debacle where I’m like, ‘That wasn’t wise.’ … The trajectory of a woman’s career has been sensitive at times, and I’ve had to be aware of that as well.”
Actress, screenwriter and director of Lady Bird Greta Gerwig was also warmly received during her keynote speech, and told The Hollywood Reporter she’s long appreciated seeing women coming together to address common issues.
“I went to an all women’s high school and college, so I’ve got a real soft spot for a room full of ladies who are trying to figure out how to do something bigger and joining together,” said Gerwig.
She admitted that she’s unsure if her road to making her own film was any more or less challenging than any other woman’s. “You don’t really ever know how it was hard for you because nobody actually tells you if they didn’t pick you because you are a woman, or if they paid you less,” she said. “These things are only revealed later. … So the truth is, I have no idea whether it held me back, or it didn’t hold me back. What I know is that I’ve somehow gotten here now, and I don’t intend on stopping, because it feels like such a privileged position to be able to have written and directed a film which is getting released to a wider audience.”
Onstage, Gerwig noted that frequently men genuinely have no idea what women are doing or discussing when they’re not in the room, and she told THR that she looks forward to more cinematic stories that shed light on all kinds of female experiences.
“The sort of behaviors, and intimacies, and rituals, and things that women have between each other that they recognize instantly are something that men aren’t privy to,” she said. “So whether it’s between sisters, or friends, or mothers and daughters, or grandmothers and grandchildren, there are all these little pockets that feel undocumented because there hasn’t been a diversity of voices. I’m always excited to see a filmmaker that is expressing something that I had no way of knowing about, because it’s that way of opening a window to a world.”
Early in the day, actress Geena Davis showcased a revealing series of statistics that had recently been generated, through a grant from Google, by her eponymous Institute on Gender in the Media, which analyzed film and television content for its “Inclusion Quotient,” measuring not only the number of female characters appearing onscreen, but how much screen time they had and how often they spoke.
“What’s groundbreaking about it is it uses face and audio recognition software and the very latest artificial intelligence to analyze these images and reveal data that’s just not possible with the human eye in real time,” said Davis. “It’s revealed a layer of unconsciousness that we weren’t even aware of, and goes far deeper than just ratio of male to female characters. … There are not only far fewer female characters — only 29 percent in the films we studied — but you’re not seeing them or hearing them as much as male characters either.”
She offered a few other statistical bombshells, among them: hyper-sexualization of female characters was apparent even in family films, with 61 percent of teen girls shown in revealing clothing, even more than women in their 20s and 30s. Female characters are twice as likely to receive sexual harassment and gender slurs as male characters in family films, which also featured zero LGBT lead protagonists.
The Institute’s study of 2,000 English-language commercials from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada over 12 years was even more concerning. “However bad it is in films or TV, it’s profoundly worse in advertising,” Davis noted, where women spoke even fewer words, and used words of fewer syllables, than men.
The data did contain some good news: “On a positive note, media images have the power to inspire change instantly — the impact can be absolutely instant,” said Davis, noting that a two-year study of 5,000 women around the world demonstrated that the examples of women portrayed in media — in leadership positions, athletics, nontraditional roles, etc. — had a near instantaneous and profound inspirational effect on viewers.
“Media can be the cure for the problem it’s creating,” said Davis. “Let art lead the way in presenting inclusive and intersectional content, and the real world will be inspired by that. It’s a simple and east fix.” Both on a script and casting level, taking early efforts to ensure that certain roles are not made male by default is a solution, as is reimagining lead and supporting roles written as men for women.
“[Ask yourself] ‘Might this character be more interesting if they were played by Kathy Bates, Octavia Spencer — or me?'” quipped Davis.
During a panel on disrupting traditional norms regarding gender and diversity, SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris painted a positive picture of where the industry currently stands.
“I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I can tell you that what’s going on in terms of inclusion and diversity, what’s happening now and what we’re seeing is more exciting than ever before, and we’re just on the brink of it,” said Carteris, noting that the actors in the SAG membership “reflect the diversity of our culture. … We are you. When you watch what’s going on, we are reflecting you.”
Carteris was also keen on the increasing democratization of content and platforms that ever-evolving technologies offered. “Technology is freeing our members to create their projects, and in that freedom we will see more diversity than ever before, because they’ll be telling their stories,” she said. “They won’t be waiting to be financed by the major studios to get permission to tell their stories. … That will be the liberation of our industry.”
On the same panel Patti Rockenwagner, chief communications officer for STX Entertainment — producer of female-led fare including Bad Moms and Bad Moms Christmas, The Edge of Seventeen and upcoming projects led by Charlize Theron, Amy Schumer, Anne Hathaway and Melissa McCarthy — was equally bullish on the digital space as an increasingly potent avenue to cultivate “super-engaged” female audiences.
“To leverage those communities that organically came together, leverage the data of it to do our jobs better, and also to communicate and interact in a way that you never could before. You just threw up ads and hopes that you hit the right target audience,” said Rockenwagner. “Now, you can find them, they can find you, you have conversations and a lot times it’s really organic. It’s been a way that we’ve been successful at STX.”
A strategy of making midbudget films in genres like romantic comedy now largely abandoned by the major studios and the fact that eight of STX’s first 13 features and nine of its next slate of films are female-led has contributed largely to STX’s swift success, said Rockenwagner.
“Being the fastest studio to get to $100 million in the domestic market with Bad Moms last year, it just proved the thesis that there is a huge, addressable market of women who want to see themselves, who want their stories told, and we are thrilled to be part of a company that does that,” she said.
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