Why Women ­in Hollywood Can't Get Film Financing

Want to be angry? Of course you do! Then enjoy reading this article about how women totally can’t be trusted with the vote money to make movies. Here’s a sample to get you psyched for it:

Dori Sperko, who’d been dabbling in Hollywood funding since selling her Florida-based payroll services company several years ago, told the table about three films she’d considered investing in that morning. “I automatically passed on the movie with the woman producer team attached,” she said. “I just feel like you can’t trust women you don’t know, but you can trust a man.” Sperko shrugged and sipped her cocktail. “It is what it is.”

More seriously, while that—along with several other choice bits from the article—is infuriating, some of the female filmmakers Sandler quotes need to grow up. Exhibit A: Jill Soloway, director of Afternoon Delight, about a “bored housewife looking to spice up her sex life”.

“Currently, if the [moviegoing] experience doesn’t make a man feel necessary, then there’s the feeling it’s going to be a boner kill at the box office,” says Soloway, who won the director’s prize at Sundance for Afternoon Delight, a film about, yes, another bored housewife looking to spice up her sex life. To help financiers widen the definition of what might be in their self-interest, she says, “we need to show that women actually want to see movies about unlikable women.”

I’ve got news for you, Jill: you could make that exact same movie with a man in the lead role and still no one would want to see it. The market for indie dramas about bored suburbanites is niche at best, and it’s not just women who hate movies featuring unlikable people. We’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.

If directors want big box office results and resultingly bigger budgets for their next projects, they need to make movies with more mainstream appeal. This applies to both men and women.

On flipside of the nonsense coin, we have Christine Vachon, producer of several critically-acclaimed indies (Boys Don’t Cry and Far From Heaven, for example), asserting Hollywood’s level playing field:

She’s not convinced the barriers to female filmmaking exist. She agrees that “good work rises to the top,” and adds: “Listen, I can’t do what I do with a chip on my shoulder.”

I’ll agree about the chip on her shoulder, but Hollywood is not a true meritocracy, and it’s nonsense to suggest that it is. I suspect Vachon’s own success is blinding her to the barriers other women face when attempting to make their own movies.

The film business has a woman problem, no doubt. I just wish Lauren Sandler had put a little more critical analysis into her writing of this article.

Via Women and Hollywood.

Not Just a "Rich Girl" Problem

Phoebe Maltz Bovy at The Atlantic explains how unpaid internships negatively affect all workers, not just young women from wealthy families who can afford to work for no pay:

Unpaid work exists, of course, well beyond creative fields and coastal glamor. One can be an unpaid intern with a Nebraska police department, or at a Minnesota restaurant. Young adults in general, particularly students and post–2008 college graduates, face a “job” market that doesn’t necessarily promise an ability to pay one’s own bills. But if unpaid internships continue to be so closely associated with Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, it’s understandable that the issue would be ignored in favor of the plight of tomato farmers.

The majority of unpaid internship positions do go to women, but those women aren’t always rich. The entertainment business is rife with this sort of thing, and I can testify firsthand that many of the people trying to break into the industry barely scrape by.

Radical Woman of the Day: Ida Lupino

On this day in 1918 was born Ida Lupino, British-American film actor and one of the earliest female directors in Hollywood. During her career she directed nearly 70 episodes of TV and eight films and shared writing credit on several films and TV episodes.

Born in England to a family of entertainers, Lupino began acting as a child and had starred in five British films by the time she was 16. After her move to Hollywood in 1933, she steadily built a career in both comedy and drama, leading to a contract with Warner Bros. in the 1940s. Although she spent much of her contract on suspension for turning down roles she thought “beneath her dignity as an actress”, this allowed her to spend time on sets observing the production process, which inspired her to begin writing and directing her own movies. After finishing another director’s film when he suffered a heart attack and could not continue working, she directed six films between 1949 and 1953. The only female director of her day, she was also the first actress to write and direct her own films, several of which focused on “women’s issues”. One of these, Outrage, was only the second film in post-Hays Code Hollywood to address the subject of rape.

After directing TV for over a decade, Lupino returned to the silver screen in 1966 to direct The Trouble With Angels, a comedy starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills. During this time, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s, she also guest starred on many TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Batman, Columbo, and Charlie’s Angels, before retiring in 1978.

Via the Radical Women’s History Project.

Why Having Only Strong Girl Heroines is Not Enough

Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood is happy about the year’s take of strong female roles but wishes some of them had gone to grown-ups:

Looking at the numbers this is actually a good year for female roles at the box office. According to box office mojo as of today, three films with a female protagonist are in the top ten grossing films of the year: The Hunger Games, Twlight Breaking Dawn Part 2 and Brave.

This is all good news.

But digging a little bit deeper the one thing that I notice about all these movies and all these characters is that they are all GIRLS. So my question is, where are the movies about strong WOMEN?

If I haven’t before, let me now go on record as saying that I remain pessimistic about how women will fare on film in the near future. Most blockbusters starring strong young women are adaptations of existing properties, and development executives tend to learn the wrong lesson from those successes (i.e., “More vampires!” rather than “More strong women!”)

The notable exception here is Brave, which was produced by Pixar, a gang of notorious risk-takers. They might actually represent our best hope for the kind of movies Silverstein wants to see.

Dreamworks Animation's Producers are 85% Women

Of the five people in the company’s “top-tier management,” three are women: COO Ann Daly, chief accounting officer Heather O’Connor and worldwide marketing chief Anne Globe. Founder and CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg says their pool of producers is a staggering 85% female (including those producers involved with Madagascar and Rise of the Guardians) and says he “couldn’t be prouder of their accomplishments.”

Astonishing and wonderful. In the linked article, Pamela McClintock suggests a possible reason for the success of women in the production company:

Katzenberg inspires abiding loyalty by grooming stars from within. He gave longtime in-house animator Jennifer Yuh Nelson the chance to direct 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2 (all the way to an Oscar nom and $655.7 million in global ticket sales), making her the first woman to direct a big-budget animated film solo.

Lionsgate Makes Box Office History With Female-Led Films

Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue points out that, when Lionsgate Films became the first movie studio ever to release two films in the same year that both grossed over $125 million in their North American theatrical release, those two films both featured women in the lead.

The movies in question are, of course, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 and The Hunger Games. Pantozzi hopes that this will finally get the message through executives’ thick skulls that women can carry big-budget, successful movies:

Let’s think about this for a second. Both films starred female leads and both films played for what was projected to be a mostly female audience. That’s pretty huge and a good indicator going forward for not just Lionsgate but other studios. Women action stars besides Angelina Jolie can make money, and both men and women will want to see them.

Based on Hollywood’s previous track record, I’m going to predict that they will once again totally miss this indicator. One can hope, though.

♀ Romantic Comedy Reboot

Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

The best recent romantic comedy I’ve seen is The Amazing Spider-Man.

Yes, of course Spider-Man is a romantic-comedy. You must have thought it was about a comic book character or something. How naïve. For future reference, the presence of Emma Stone, the new Queen of Romantic Comedy (as anointed by me), is a dead giveaway.

Now, technically Spider-Man is a rom-com hybrid—according to the definition laid down by Billy Mernit, the man who actually wrote the book on romantic comedies. That is, the romantic-comedy component of the plot is secondary; the central question of the movie is not “Will these two people end up together?” Still, the romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy forms a vital part of the story, and more importantly, it both amuses the viewer and satisfies as a narrative.

Sadly, scoring well in both those categories puts Spider-Man out in front of nearly all other so-called “romantic comedies” produced in recent years. When pressed to name a “good” romantic comedy—one that has a strong story and actually makes people laugh—I usually cite Knocked Up… which hit theaters in 2007. While I’m sure other funny, well-written romatic comedies have debuted since then (one thinks of Bridesmaids, another rom-com hybrid[1]), the fact that my mind most easily flits back to a film from five years ago should concern fans of the genre. I mean, even referring to it as a “film” without being technically incorrect communicates a certain temporal distance.

The fact is, the landscape of modern romantic comedy looks pretty barren. Most rom-coms fail on one or both of the aforementioned metrics—usually both; the stereotypical, predictable, trope-filled, Katherine Heigl-starring[2], barely-clinging-to-reality-by-its-long-fake-fingernails romantic comedy typically provides almost zero laughs and makes almost zero sense. Even some semi-recent movies I have enjoyed (usually more than they deserved) tended to rely on tired plot obstacles that real people could easily overcome by sitting down and having an adult conversation. Moreover, the rare funny rom-com—such as 2011’s Friends With Benefits—tends to turn serious about two-thirds of the way in to focus on the disintegrating relations between the main characters, thus removing comedy and believability simultaneously. Alternatively, comedy stays alive throughout by burning rapidly through the fuel of reality, leaving the viewer dissatisfied by a resolution that feels contrived rather than earned. Couples Retreat, I’m looking at you.

I recently wrote the origin story of my love affair with romantic comedies (and feminism), and I’ve since been wondering whether the genre’s persistent detachment from reality may result from persistent attachment to the tone and sensibility of the movies I grew up watching: musicals and rom-coms of the 30s and 40s. If that sounds far-fetched, consider the following list of similarities: meet-cutes, fast-paced “witty” (rather than actually funny) dialogue, wealthier-than-average protagonists, traditional gender roles (except when subverted for effect), heightened sense of reality, overuse of coincidence to progress the plot, and a telescoped timeline that allows people to meet, fall in love, fight, split up, pine, and reunite within the space of a few days or weeks.

Of course, the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s were actually laugh-out-loud funny in their day, not merely chuckle-worthy. And current rom-com writers are not directly copying the format; as someone who recently shot a movie that did attempt a fairly literal homage to 1930s filmmaking, I could hardly complain if they did. Rather, contemporary romantic comedies appear to be attempting a translation of the style into modern vernacular instead of inventing their own cinematic conventions.

We do get the occasional exception, like last year’s Friends With Kids, a grounded, genuine offering from Jennifer Westfeldt about two platonic friends who decide to have a baby together without getting married. Naturally, the plot centers around whether they will, despite their ill-laid plans, eventually end up together.[3] While really more of a dramedy, the movie is funny when it tries to be, and more importantly, no one makes decisions for unbelievable reasons, the plot does not hinge on coincidence, and for the most part the characters act like sane—albeit flawed—adults. Right up until the last scene, that is; see this post by Dianna E. Anderson for a (spoiler-laden) analysis of the rape-culture-driven denouement. Despite this and other more minor flaws, though, Friends With Kids tells a somewhat satisfying romantic story that made my wife and me laugh.

Or consider Newlyweds, also from 2011. Written and directed by Edward Burns, an ardent admirer of Woody Allen—of whom I am not a fan—the story follows a couple, both on their second marriage, as they weather the adversities of two different family crises. While not to my comedic taste, the movie—shot on DSLRs for a production budget of $9000—found success among its target audience, being well-done for its subgenre (awkward faux-documentary). It, too, featured very authentic-feeling characters and relationships and never relied on blatant stupidity or coincidence to drive the story.

Both Newlyweds and Friends With Kids were independently-produced films, although the latter had a substantially larger budget than the former. And therein may lie the secret to believable, relatable, genuinely (in both senses) funny romantic comedies. The major studios, even when they consent to produce a movie not based on some popular, pre-existing property, have developed a severe allergy to ideas that are not “high-concept” and hyperreal. While some might classify Friends With Kids as high-concept, Newlyweds is certainly not, and neither premise is executed in the heightened style upon which Hollywood insists. Filmmakers who aim to produce literal comedies that are literally romantic may increasingly find themselves turning to independent financing for the artistic liberty required to tell those stories.

I do realize that I am simply engaging in the kind of doomsday hand-wringing typical of not only rom-com fans but nearly all cinephiles. Claiming the indie film scene has cornered the market on quality is so common that it is now bleeding over into the general populace, along with bemoaning the absence of original ideas left in Hollywood, which I also did not five sentences ago. Every now and then the movie industry does surprise us with a Bridesmaids or a He’s Just Not That Into You—another genuinely funny romantic comedy (with a little tragedy mixed in)—but for the most part the near decade-long doomsaying of romantic-comedy lovers has not proven false. Good rom-coms are dying out, and even the crappy ones rarely perform well at the box office. If we want to keep the genre not only alive but healthy, we may need to reboot it back to its origins—small, cheaply-made, character- and dialogue-driven love stories that provide both escapism and familiarity—without adhering to the tone and cinematic style of a bygone era.

  1. Although because the main plotline of Bridesmaids is actually a womance—a story about platonic love between two heterosexual women—the central question of the movie does satisfy Mernit’s rom-com criterion, after a fashion.  ↩

  2. I don’t know why, but it always seems to be her.  ↩

  3. (SPOILER: They totally do. What did you expect?)  ↩

Too Fat For Hollywood

At a size 10, Romola Garai (Atonement, The Hour), gets airbrushed thinner when she appears in magazines, and she feels conflicted about it:

It’s difficult because if I refuse to do any magazines at all, my work, I think, would suffer in a very immediate way. But when I appear in these magazines, I know I’m being “trimmed”. I’m being airbrushed a lot.

And I know that people are accepting those images and are under the impression that that is really how my body looks, that I’m hairless and sexless and weigh 90 lbs. That really worries me. And I really don’t know what to do except talk about it.

Did you know Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) is also too fat? We have a real actress obesity epidemic on our hands, people.

George Lucas and Kathleen Kennedy Discuss Future of Star Wars Franchise

In this video, George Lucas professes his enthusiasm for handing over the reins of the franchise to the newly-promoted President of LucasFilm, Kathleen Kennedy.

Kennedy has already had an illustrious career, and the fact that a woman may well be producing the next batch of Star Wars movies is a story somewhat lost amidst the swooning and moaning of the fans.

Via The Mary Sue.