8 Female Producers on Pay Disparity, "Sequelitis" and Being Told "You Don't Look Like a Producer"

Barry King/FilmMagic; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; Mireya Acierto/Getty Images
Denise Di Novi, Lucy Fisher and Jane Rosenthal

The Women in Film honorees also dish on how to forge ahead when sexist exes won't even shake your hand and whom they'd hire as the next James Bond (My name is Elba, Idris Elba).

This year, Women in Film will give its Crystal Award for Excellence in Film to eight female producers. "We are on a mission to change the gender imbalance that is endemic to the entertainment industry, and these women we're honoring are all catalysts for that change," says WIF Los Angeles president Cathy Schulman. The group of trailblazing leaders sounded off to THR on the worst part of the job, how they've been treated differently than their male counterparts and the one trend in film they wish would go away.

Was there a time when you felt like you were treated differently than a male producer?

DENISE DI NOVI When we made Heathers, the bond company said because I was a woman producer and my line producer was female, we needed a male on production. It was a long time ago, and thankfully that wouldn't happen now. Now it's more the assumption that women don't do action or special effects.

LUCY FISHER After the success of Gremlins, my first big hit as an executive, when our Japanese partners arrived to thank us, they shook the hand of everyone in the room but me.

LIANNE HALFON Often when I am introduced to the owners of a location where we are shooting, I can see the look of surprise — "You don't look like a producer." People think a producer is a guy in an expensive suit and Italian loafers sitting in a director's chair on the phone.

LAUREN SHULER DONNER In the beginning, people assumed I only produced Dick Donner movies when in fact I only produced three of his, one every 10 years.

JANE ROSENTHAL Obnoxious, inappropriate sexual comments were made [one time]. I didn't sue for sexual harassment.

The one film trend you wish would go away …

SHULER DONNER Lack of financing for good dramas and thrillers.

LYNDA OBST Reliance on comic books, IPs and terror of original movies. But seeing as that won't happen, let's say sequelitis.

FISHER Lack of originality and trying to copy the last hit instead of trying to create the next one.


DI NOVI Sequels that no one is that excited about seeing.

ROSENTHAL Pay disparity.

What's the worst part of being a producer?

ROSENTHAL You get told "no" more than you get told "yes."

FISHER Having to navigate the winds of fear at the studios.

OBST Finding out your idea did not connect with the market.

HALFON The steps that get you to the actual filmmaking can be quite a brutal business — much less collegial than it appears on the red carpet.

SHULER DONNER The lack of respect.

DI NOVI That final push to get the financing or the green light. It's devastating to spend years developing a movie and then never get it made.

WEINSTEIN Being asked, "So you got the money, right?"

What advice would you give to a young person aspiring to be a producer?

FISHER Go into television.

SHULER DONNER Believe in yourself and your ideas. Keep a sense of humor.

OBST Don't take things personally.

WEINSTEIN Don't do it … unless you absolutely love what you're devoting yourself to and know the stories you want to tell.

HALFON You have to be relentless. Flexibility is overrated. Listening is not.

DI NOVI Try to juggle as many balls at once as you can.

ROSENTHAL Passion. Passion. Passion.

PAULA WAGNER Have the soul of an artist, a steel-trap mind that focuses the macro and the micro simultaneously and the skin of Teflon.

What's the biggest difference between producing now and 10 years ago?

SHULER DONNER It was way more fun.

OBST The primacy of the international market and pre-awareness vis-a-vis studio movies, giving rise to addiction to sequels and original movies being harder to make inside the studio system.

WEINSTEIN There are so many more platforms for expression, and you're no longer banished to one or another form of storytelling.

FISHER So many fewer movies and so much less variety in the movies that get made. Fewer ways to be creative.

HALFON Like so many independent filmmakers, we are developing television as well now. And we are less likely to look at foreign co-productions these days for financing — instead we are looking toward streaming.

DI NOVI It's much harder now to get a film made. There is a much smaller margin of error in terms of hitting a target in the marketplace. Medium-budget films are being made less often.

ROSENTHAL The biggest difference is technology and the speed with which you can do things that 10 years ago would have been completely impossible.

WAGNER We are now promoting our films through social media, and there are so many expanded platforms now that you need people with expertise in this area. That's why if you look at the credits now, you see a lot of producers.

What's it really going to take to see more women in power in Hollywood?

SHULER DONNER They are in power.

OBST A gigantic series of hits for the female international audience including the preteen Frozen/Pitch Perfect audience that's growing worldwide and we are ceding to animation. Once women take this audience and make it theirs and show how valuable it is to the business, that will help. Also, when we keep succeeding and don't drop out from exhaustion.

DI NOVI What I'm starting to see is a strong commitment on the part of studios and networks to make the numbers more equitable. They are finally acknowledging that the statistics are crazy. Taking steps to hire more women writers and directors and people of color needs to be intentional and a mandate, not an accident when it happens.

HALFON I think its going to take much more work — and it has to be done by women. Women my age (I’m 62) are often loath to discuss sexism, as though it in some way discredits their success. But the sexism (or, maybe gender bias is more appropriate) is so pervasive. In a business that is already deeply competitive and hierarchical, it's hard to address. Successful women who have made it into the club don’t want to abdicate their membership by a complaint. But terming it a complaint or criticism makes it seem like a small adjustment is needed. And that’s not so — it is such sweeping change that is needed. But it needs almost a Title IX approach. We need our own Patsy Mink.

What's the best part of being a producer?

DONNER Seeing your ideas realized on the screen, then watching an audience enjoy them. 

WEINSTEIN  Seeing a story come to life even better than you had dreamed or imagined.

FISHER Getting to choose what you want to do.

HALFON When it is done well, you push something into being out in the world. Sometimes you conceive it, sometimes you just deliver it — but it's a thrill either way. 

DI NOVI For me, being on the set is the best part. I love the pragmatics of making a movie and also the creativity of designing a world and watching a story come to life. 

ROSENTHAL Being a producer allows you to work with diverse creative talent. The best is when you discover someone who has a new voice and vision.

WAGNER Sometimes I think it's the wrap party.

What do you think about the notion that women make better producers because they’re — as some claim — more "nurturing" or better at multitasking?

DONNER I agree.

OBST I think it's absolutely true and demonstrable. Show me a male producer who is also always the medic.

WEINSTEIN  I’m not looking for better, I’m looking for equality.

FISHER Some are. Depends on the person. 

HALFON That’s a backhanded compliment I think.  They aren’t better at it — but they are certainly equal.

DI NOVI I think it's generally true and it's a style of producing that can make it a much smoother and better experience for all involved. It still needs to be combined with strength and authority to work. 

ROSENTHAL I think it's true. Women do make better producers because of our inherent multitasking ability. A lot of what you’re doing as a producer is nurturing all the creative talent. You have to create a safe environment for everybody — both on the set and in the office — to come together and do their best work.

If you were Barbara Broccoli, who would you cast as the next James Bond?




DI NOVI I love the idea of a female Bond. It would be so cool to see women go from being a "Bond Girl" to being Bond. But I would love to see Idris Elba!

A version of this story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.