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Women filmmakers: How Hollywood can change to give women greater opportunity

Angela Robinson directing
Angela Robinson directing "True Blood."
John P. Johnson, courtesy Angela Robinson
Angela Robinson directing
Our women in film panel: Betty Thomas, Angela Robinson, Catherine Hardwicke and Cathy Schulman.
Darby Maloney/KPCC

Gender bias continues to plague film and television. We’re speaking with four women filmmakers who have succeeded where very few women have, because of the industry’s well-documented bias that favors hiring men. In part one of our conversation we discussed specific instances of gender bias the women faced. Now we talk possible solutions.

Our panelists:

The ACLU's letter asking for a Hollywood investigation

Women In Film recently co-commissioned a study with the Sundance Institute, conducted by USC, that provided vital statistics on gender bias. Among the striking stats: the small number of women hired to direct TV episodes, as well as the minuscule percentage of women directing studio feature films. That data was cited by the American Civil Liberties Union in a recent letter asking that state and federal authorities investigate Hollywood for gender discrimination.

Our panel voiced strong support for the ACLU's letter.

"I'm super excited about it," Hardwicke says, "because even if it just raises the conversation, if it makes people nervous or paranoid and they think they should go hire more women — whatever it takes."

"I really feel that change is going to have to be spurred from the outside," Robinson says. "I don't feel like there's any incentive within Hollywood to change the status quo. I actually feel like there's tons of systems in place to give a lot of lip service, but not actually move the needle."

Schulman expressed more hesitance when it came to whether the ACLU's letter would be effective.

"If you only work outside of the industry into the industry, then you're basically imposing rules, and Hollywood doesn't do very well with rules. That said, I hope it works."

Thomas says she couldn't help but be excited about the ACLU's letter, but wishes they would have contacted the Directors Guild first.

"We would have told them what we do with the industry," Thomas says. "No, things haven't changed greatly, but every showrunner that we have met with, every single one, has increased the number of women in their shows."

Getting the studios to change

Still, the DGA's own study shows that, as a whole, shows failed to make improvements when it comes to hiring directors for episodic TV shows in recent years. In the 2013-14 season, out of more than 220 TV shows with about 3,500 total episodes, only 14 percent of the directors were women.

Thomas is the DGA's only female vice president, but she says the DGA is strongly behind women.

"If you think the leadership of the DGA is against women being employed in television, then that's bulls---! You have bulls--- information, dude!"

She is in on the negotiations every year and argues that progress is being made.

"We go in and say, 'This is what we want,' but these are negotiations, these are bargaining — I mean, we're a union! We go in there and ask for a lot of things that never end up [happening]. We are the only union in the entertainment business that has a diversity contract with the studios."

The DGA pushed for and got that diversity contract three years ago by fighting for it at the negotiation table, Thomas says, after asking for it many times before.

"They sit facing you, and all these lawyers, and they say, 'Well, we're not going to have this in there, we're not going to have that.' And we said, 'Wait, you want this, I know you want this as human beings,' and they do. They admit that they do want it."

Thomas says she's not sure what that diversity contract will mean in the long run, because what's outlined in that contract is just beginning.

"We forced each one of the studios, at least, to have a program that brings women and minorities into their directing program. And I just want to say, that Warner Brothers — when it works, it works because the head of the studio is behind it. Peter Roth. Peter Roth got behind it. He came to the meeting! Nobody else had ever come to the meeting."

She wants other studio heads to come to the table.

"If the other studios — and I mean HBO, which has a minimalist situation, and I mean Sony, who's just started, didn't even want to have a program, and Fox — oh, please. If those people could please see that it can be done, I'd be happy to come to their office and explain to them how to do it."

Shifting the balance of power

Hollywood considers itself a progressive town, but those attitudes can often be left behind when it comes to hiring and firing. Some women have made it into prominent positions of power, including Donna Langley at Universal, Amy Pascal at Sony and, on the panel, Cathy Schulman at STX.

Still, it can be hard for those women to tip the scale and be proactive in hiring other women. Schulman says that making that change is a balance with fitting into the culture.

"I think it's crucial that women who have the opportunity to be in charge, to have the power to make hiring decisions, execute in a positive way for women," Schulman says. "And the easiest way to survive in the power circles of Hollywood is to assimilate to the way that it's always been done. Meaning hire men, and make movies for boys and men."

Schulman says the real challenge is standing up against that.

"Do you have the strength to stand up and distinguish yourself and make choices that are against the norm? So you've achieved one thing, which is you've gotten into this very rarified circle that has few women, but can you actually execute once you're there, in a powerful [way], on behalf of women?"

Women scoring at the box office, in the media

On the bright side, Schulman says that movies by, for and about women are finally starting to win at the box office.

"And not little winning, big winning. Particularly in the [young adult] area, girls are not only going to the box office, they're going multiple, multiple times."

The latest example of a female-driven hit: "Pitch Perfect 2."

Pitch Perfect 2 trailer

"I mean, the idea that 'Pitch Perfect 2' just beat 'Mad Max' to such an extent is kind of a mind boggler."

Schulman says the way the media is interacting with women is changing too.

"The fact that, in Cannes this year, not only are women being interviewed — which I don't even remember happening — but what they're saying is interesting, and what they're being asked is interesting. The conversation is moving in a positive way enough, that if we in power don't take those indications and those signals, and don't start making decisions that further enhance this and drive gender equality into place once and for all, then we're not doing our job."

Amidst this change, some women are afraid of being pigeonholed as women who hire women, and afraid of failing, which can lead to them making cautious decisions.

"I mean, I think women get fired way easier than men do, and I think women are also held to higher standards," Schulman says.

"I would say a director that a male director that has a movie that fails is working within weeks," Thomas says. "A woman director goes to what we call 'movie jail.'"

And Schulman says that, when that happens, they may never work again.

Where there's hope for the future

Hardwicke says she's optimistic about the future of women and film. She says she feels everything could change around quickly, if the will was there.

"Literally in one year, everything could change and we could stop having these conversations and statistics, if every single studio executive and every TV executive would just say, our list has to be 50/50 choices. This would change in the year, and we could just move on and make great projects, and great films."

Future talent

Robinson says the talent is out there.

"For the past couple of years, I've gone to AFI, and I talk to their women directors seminar, and I try to give them an honest assessment of what they will be facing when they go out into the world. And I think it's incumbent on those of us, men and women who are working in the industry, to back young women directors."

Robinson says it's a chicken and the egg problem.

"You need experience in order to be a director, and you can't get experience if nobody will hire you, but then if you have no experience, nobody will still hire you. And so, it's really hard for women to get that first shot. And a lot of people took a chance on me."

Women who want to break in have a big task in front of them, but an achievable one, according to Robinson.

"The women have to work incredibly hard, and know their s---, and be incredible. And I was talking to all these women, and they were super rad, so I know it's coming out of the film schools, and it's coming out of Sundance, and so we need to help in whatever ways we can prepare those women, and get them so that when they get the job, that they can blow people out of the water and keep going."

Fixing the economics

Schulman says the problem of gender bias can be addressed by finding the problem points in how the business works economically.

"First and foremost, agencies and representatives, because the transactions that are happening when executives, producers, etcetera are hiring people, it's generally based on conversations happening with agents, and generally based on agents submitting certain clients, and on lists that they make actually being submitted to the studios and things, and the networks."

It's also a problem that extends to international deals.

"Over 80 percent of movies in Hollywood are made on the basis of the value of foreign sales," Schulman says, "and when we look at that economically, when a movie's going to go on the basis of whether or not a movie can be sold internationally, we have to look at that point of sale. And what's happening there is we have men selling to men."

Schulman says that movies either made by or starring women aren't selling internationally.

"So we have to look at these little points, and we have to start fixing them economically so that we can release the cash flow."

Why Betty Thomas has had it with moms

Thomas agrees that the agencies are a big factor in making change.

"They're big problems. They're blockades instead of doors."

She also says that change can't just come from women in power, due to the increased pressure that's already on them.

" I say, if you're a man, you have a daughter, a mother, or a sister, then you better think seriously about this. And if you're a woman who is a wife, daughter, sister, mother of the men that are in power in this business, get your asses in action, dude. Put pressure on those men. If I can't do it, you can do it, mothers. I've had it with mothers, unless you come out and do something."

Thomas also advocates supporting women in film at the box office to send a message.

"Buy two tickets to every woman's movie. I buy two tickets online, even if I can't make it to the movie; I buy those two tickets on opening weekend, not the second weekend, opening."

Thomas sent us an addendum for how she thinks gender bias can be fixed:

"There is a simple act for the people who hire  to improve the lack of women directors in television: There are approximately 110 new directors — no previous directing experience in TV — hired by television shows each year. At this time, the numbers are about 85 percent  men and 15 percent women. Just make those numbers 50 percent men, 50 percent women. There. That's one thing that allows an equal playing field for the future."

She wants it to happen now.

"Explain to me why that cannot be done. No really. Explain why that can't happen today.  OK, tomorrow — but no later. Then lets apply this to films also."

If you missed part one of our discussion on women in film, be sure to check it out for more from our panel, including stories of how filmmakers behind movies like "Twilight" and "Crash" went on to have trouble finding work immediately after despite those films' success.

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