Hollywood has long been a man’s world and this is especially true when it comes to the producing side of the biz, where the number of women securing financing for bigscreen projects remains noticeably scant. To be sure, we’ve come a long way from such bygone eras in which women, while able to increase their onscreen status as dewy-skinned starlets, were vastly underrepresented when it came to behind-the-scenes work. (During the dawn of talkies, for example, women were not considered capable dramatists and, therefore, unfit to pen screenplays). In the early 1900s, French-born filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache became the first woman to head her own studio but, for the most part, running the show was a task largely left to the boys.
Today, we have the likes of Dede Gardner and Kathleen Kennedy shepherding feature projects to movie theaters, but, sadly, the scale remains tipped in favor of men. To wit, of the 30 nominees for this year’s Darryl F. Zanuck Award for features — divided among the 10 films in contention — only seven are women. A study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles and conducted by researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC shows an underwhelming 16.7% of the 1,228 directors, writers and producers working on the 100 top-grossing films of 2012 were women. And the gloomiest news of all: the Celluloid Ceiling, an annual study steered by media expert Martha M. Lauzen, found that between 1998 and 2011 — 13 years — the number of female executive producers underwent no perceptible growth.
The Producers Guild of America Women’s Impact Network, a national committee of 200 members, is aiming to change all that.
“One of the things (the Sundance/Women in Film study) found is that as the level of financing for films increased, the opportunities for women decreased,” says Lydia Dean Pilcher, founder and co-chair (along with producer Deborah Calla) of the Women’s Impact Network and national vice president of motion pictures for the PGA. “So as you move into the studio realm, those barriers which exist across the board become more intense. The biggest career obstacles (for women) were gender and financial barriers, male-dominated financial networks and gender stereotyping on set.”
According to Pilcher, there’s an erroneous “gender-biased” myth pervading Hollywood that female-driven content doesn’t boost box office sales and that’s simply not true, she says.
“There seems to be an institutional resistance to female storytelling,” says Pilcher, “which is a misperception because the data is showing that female-driven stories are financially and commercially profitable ventures.”
Thanks to the Women’s Impact Network, female producers, who account for roughly 50% of the PGA’s total membership, have access to a toolkit filled with data and statistics, networking gatherings and mentorship and sponsorship opportunities to help debunk this myth.
“Forming a network of female producers is an important component of the strategy because it shows that we can all work together, and help each other,” Pilcher says.
Nora Grossman, whose freshman effort “The Imitation Game” is nominated for the Zanuck Award, credits fellow producers Bruna Papandrea (“Gone Girl,” “Wild”), Helen Estabrook (“Whiplash”) and Lisa Bruce (“The Theory of Everything”) with helping her navigate through the awards season frenzy.
“I’ve enjoyed having the more established female producers guiding me through the process,” Grossman says. “I think because we are in the minority we find each other.”
Women are actually faring better as producers than in any other behind-the-scenes positions. Per Lauzen’s research, 25% of producers are women, but only 10% are writers and a mere 6% are directors.
“We actually have the highest level of participation in terms of females behind the camera,” says Pilcher, “We’re ahead of the game but it’s not where we want to be by any means.”
There’s also a jarring disparity between numbers of women working in narrative vs. documentary filmmaking — and this is where money comes into play, says Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute.
She adds that “24.9% of producers of narrative films are women. In documentaries, the number is nearly 50%. Documentaries are less expensive and the power around money is less — we’re not dealing with the male-dominated financial networks.” The commercial viability and empowerment around money that has been perceived as a barrier to women in (big-budget) films is just less of an issue.”
Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film and Mandalay Pictures, echoes that sentiment. “There is a verifiable decrescendo of the number of women producing as the budget on a film increases,” she says. “Moviemaking is at its hardest when the amount of money to make the movie is at its lowest, and there’s a greater acceptance and belief in lower budget filmmaking that women can manage a little bit of money over a lot of different needs in an astute, diplomatic and collaborative way. As the money becomes less precious because a film is being done more indulgently and the fees go up, that’s when men tend to push into the producing role in even greater numbers.”
Of course, none of this surprises Cathleen Sutherland, producer of Zanuck Award nominee “Boyhood.”
“It’s not just the film industry — it’s reflective of our entire country,” she says. “We still don’t have a female president — I think that that’s a little crazy.”
But the climate isn’t all doom and gloom for femmes, assures Pilcher.
“We’ve seen a wave of women stepping forward to express their voices in a new and bold way,” she says. “The success of female-driven content is growing, especially in the TV industry. where the number of shows featuring female characters is growing in an unparalleled way. But until we get the percentages of women working behind the scenes up there’s a lot of money being left on the table. My hope is that we can change this narrative and all succeed together.”