Zurich: Femme-Centered Hits Haven't Closed Hollywood's Gender Gap

Bad Moms Mila Kunis Kristen Bell Kathryn Hahn Still 2 H 2016
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Despite the success of films like 'Bad Moms,' 'The Witch' and 'The Lady in the Van,' it remains incredibly difficult to get movies directed by or starring women made.

Hollywood and the independent film industry are “leaving money on the table” by continuing to ignore female audiences and female talent, according to a panel of four of the most powerful women in the independent film world at the 2016 Zurich Film Summit.

“Why is it that every time a film aimed at women that works—like right now with Bad Moms —it is portrayed as a fluke?” asked Laura Lewis of Creative Artists Agency. Lewis noted that five of the highest grossing indie films so far this year: The Witch, Eye In The Sky, Hello, My Name Is Doris, Love & Friendship and The Lady In The Van, were stories about women with strong female characters at their core.

“Women want to see themselves on screen but have a hard time finding that which is one of the reasons for its success,” noted Kim Fox, head of international at sales group MadRiver Pictures.

But despite this, casting women in lead roles, pre-selling female-focused scripts or attaching a female director to project remains a major challenge, the panel said. It's notable that none of the films mentioned was directed by a woman.

Christine Vachon, the indie icon whose production credits include Still Alice, Boys Don't Cry and Carol, said it was incredibly difficult “to hit the numbers” when trying to pre-sell a project with a female lead character. Financiers, distributors and even talent agencies, she said, push to cast A-list male actors and boost their screen presence.

“I can’t tell you how the number of times we’re asked to write more scenes,” she recalled, noting that while casting Still Alice, which starred Julianne Moore as a woman suffering from dementia, there was pressure to made the character of Moore's husband the second lead.

“We had a running joke that it wasn't called Still Alice and John. Were just lucky that Alec Baldwin didn’t have that ego a lot of male actors have that would have prevented him from being involved in a good movie.”

Having a strong female story, told by a female director, argued FilmNation production executive Karen Lunder, can even be the “hook, the thing that makes (the film) unique” and helps it stand out in an overcrowded marketplace. But she said she still faces a battle every time she wants to attach a female lead or a female director to a script.

On Amy Adams' sci-fi drama Arrival, based on the novel about a female linguist who makes contact with an alien species, Lunder said one studio executive asked “can you make her a man?” When she pushes for a female, director, Lunder says, “often they'll say: 'what about a gay man, because that's close, right?' And I think: is it really? He's still got a penis.”

Fox, however, noted that she had no problem finding takers for Ana Lily Amirpour’s cannibal romance Bad Batch or for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty but admitted that both those women directors have very “macho styles.”

Vachon said she hoped awareness of how commercially successful films told by and starring women have been,would create “”more transparency, openness and diversity” when it comes to female filmmakers and a willingness to bet on originality. “Because the future of indie film is all about original voices,” she said