Movies About Women Nearly Impossible to Finance, Say Indie Producers

Tallulah Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Tallulah,” the story of a homeless woman who steals a baby, reunites the “Juno” team of Allison Janney and Ellen Page, but despite the film’s star power, bringing the indie to the big screen was a decade-long struggle.

The reason? Producer Heather Rae pointed the finger squarely at Hollywood’s boy’s club mentality.

“At the time this film was deemed not commercially viable, because it was a woman’s story, and it wasn’t about getting the guy,” Rae said at a private screening on “Tallulah” in New York, noting that executives said as much to her face.

But despite profitability concerns, the film was snapped up by Netflix for $5 million, before it even premiered at Sundance last winter. “Tallulah” will be released on Netflix on July 29, and in select theaters.

Rae was joined at the panel on shifting roles for women in the entertainment industry by two prominent female producers,  Lydia Dean Pilcher (“The Namesake”) and Alix Madigan (“Winter’s Bone”). All three said that despite increased noise about the need for diversity, and even though female-driven films such as “Bridesmaids” and “The Hunger Games” have been financially successful, it is still hard to get pictures driven by, starring, and directed by women financed.

The panel was came on the heels of a report that 20th Century Fox and Paramount don’t have any female-directed movies on their slate until 2018.  The event was hosted by Variety, the Sundance Institute, and fashion company Kering. Variety Senior Film and Media Reporter Brent Lang moderated the discussion.

Alix Madigan, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Laurent Claquin, Heather Rae at the ‘Tallulah’ screening Andrew H. Walker/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Progress is slow on the studio front, the producers said said, but the rise of new distributors is changing things for the better. Alternative platforms such as Netflix, have been more receptive to smaller films with female leads, and Rae’s team has felt supported by the company.

“They believe the audience is a wide audience, and this is not just a women’s film,” she said.

Madigan, now an executive at Broad Green Pictures, has the Keira Knightley comedy “Laggies” and the Shailene Woodley drama “White Bird in a Blizzard” on her CV, said she has also struggled to get backing.

“The past seven movies I’ve worked on, five of them were directed by women, and it is still a very daunting marketplace for women,” Madigan said. “I hope that our business can change, but our business is an economic one and we have to find ways to make female films be perceived as profitable.”

Madigan, in part, blames sexism in foreign sales markets.

“The foreign sales side is very, very male-driven,” Madigan said. “There are maybe one or two female film directors on lists we get back from our foreign sales, and a very small handful of women are seen as viable. Women’s films have an uphill battle.”

But Pilcher, who has worked on Mira Nair’s films, including the “Queen of Katwe,” starring Lupita Nyong’o says although systemic change is slow to come, she’s increasingly surprised by the awareness of these issues, even at a studio like Disney, which is releasing the picture.

“I was sitting in a meeting last week at Disney,” Pilcher said. “I was very proud of the African American marketing person that said authenticity is what is going to bring success to this film.”

“In the past we’ve seen these movies through the lens of white men, and to it is just revolutionary to be sitting in Burbank, hearing somebody say that,” she added.

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  1. jonnyrp says:

    I’m all for seeing more films directed and acted by women. I like joyful or tearful, women driven movies once in awhile but if that’s what they are saying: “That audiences of women are smart enough to watch smart films” well i beg to differ since Actresses like Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie and more played stong female characters in action flicks and thrillers and there are as many girls and women that get the point as there are boys and men that love those strong characters.

    I swear, that if the industry seems like a boys club, there are many chicks/women that love to darg their boyfriends to Adam Sandler’s flicks. Talk about a guy that’s been accused of racism and sexism… When in fact, true equality is seen in his audiences. Chicks love to watch a beautiful, sexy, yet clumsy and silly girl/woman try and get the loser type. You can feel and hear the comments in theaters even if they’re never spoken out loud: “You guys are such crazy, silly, stupid.” “Well, you girls still hang out with us and like us and love us as much as we do.”

    And sadly for most of the people making tearful films, judging that they are “Women films only” i guess? This is the reality. Boys and men like to watch slow burn dramas and love story sometimes if you want to discuss sexism in audiences, we all are accused of trying to prove that we’re the superior sex when in fact, we’re fascinated with all the qualities of the opposite sex.

    • I got about two sentences in and knew a guy had written that reply. A deeply clueless man. Tens of millions of women give up on the movies because they’re full of crap stories in which we’re merely fantasy objects — objects written by men who know nothing of women’s lives. The truth is that men are obsessed with themselves and their own desires and don’t want to cede any money or time to the realities of women’s lives. It would, among other things, force them to recognize an area in which they aren’t experts.

      • jonnyrp says:

        I gave up on most of what the mainstream media shows us in theaters and or on many indie platforms but what i meant wasn’t that girls or women were never depicted as nothing more than fantasy objects, I know that. And know that most of the time this is what becomes of young Hollywood actresses, which i’m sure i’m far smarter and better than that at acting characters in general. But as i said, this is what the audience wants to see over and over again in general. I know and dare to think that you ladies, like smart actresses know how to read a guy, or you speak our language if you will. I’m not trying to defend any side more than the other here when i insist that god knows why, most girls/women that watch Adam Sandler’s flicks would have sex with the rich clown, as much as we guys in general would do it with the type of characters he makes with the female characters. I’m generalizing, but that’s sadly the case where i come from (Planet earth.) of course, woman or man driven, i prefer a film with heart, guts, intelligence and soul when i see one but sadly, too many projects and films will stay hidden underground, due to lack of funding and people’s lack of interest in general.

        I do admit i ain’t an expert in women. Been writing them since i started writing stories years ago but the object of fantasy, which can suit a good balanced story, is the type of repeated character which a 12 years old boy can write about, i know that. But since you ladies watch our films and automatically can read us, what would become of men in women driven and women driven films? Would you women in general never make us slaves and fantasies? Attention whores and all these things in exchange? Which, oh no, i’m sure you never see in any of us.

  2. j s says:

    Which means they will make more money. Everybody is bored with the same old same old.

  3. j s says:

    which is why the only way to handle this, have to say, is a quota system. At least for now, with 50% of the films being directed by or about women. I don’t see any fast changes unless this is done. It’s working in Europe. And the films are better, frankly, as there is more diversity — far more interesting with both male and female points of view.

  4. HPR says:

    Get out of the pollution and into the solution.

  5. Yes clearly a grand conspiracy by the patriarchy. The potential financiers of this film turned it down even though they felt like they could make millions of dollars in profits. But it was more important to them to keep women down in our society.


  6. Josiah-David says:

    Nah, “Groundhog Day” (1993) is still a better movie….. ;-)

  7. yada yada says:

    These women are wonderful actresses but they are far from the names that get indies greenlit and you’d have the same difficulties with two similar male actors with no foreign value. I’m afraid this is yet another tiresome ploy to blame social issues for the difficulties that all indies face.

  8. EricJ says:

    Hunger Games had a book cult–and a teen-girl one at that–and Bridesmaids had fans who thought Melissa McCarthy was funny and others who had never seen her in a movie before. (And that was just the straight fans.)

    Every other “female” film, even if it’s an indie that -doesn’t- star a grim, bravely narcissistic Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie, audiences will still perceive as probably being a “Joan of Arc” film about our brave heroine persecuted by the entire world against her–And if it’s a female director, strike the “probably”.
    That’s that little elephant in the room that comes up every time we get the big crusade about “Why aren’t there more female directors in Hollywood?”: Because female directors make female FILMS, that’s why.

    • I agree. Female directors make The Nanny Diaries and You’ve Got Mail but they don’t make films like Lock Stock and Barrel, Crank, Spun, Fight Club, or Taxi Driver. I’m living in Europe and I do see where female directors are making less chick films. And actresses have a longer career in Europe than they do in Hollywood

  9. scott says:

    Have these people considered the possibility that the difficulty in getting financing isn’t because the story is about a woman, but because someone recognizes that no one wants to go watch a movie about a homeless person stealing a baby?

    • Lisa says:

      Actually, I think it’s a terrific premise ripe with promise. It beats the 20,000 shoot em up films out there.
      To cast away the idea of tackling the problems of homelessness is just too safe.

      • DadinWestchester says:

        Actually, no one want to see a movie about a homeless person stealing a baby and do want to see a shoot em up. Find some female bankers that want to invest in female stories, etc.

  10. DaveJ. says:

    The sad reality of it is that there are more men or boys going to the movies than their female counterparts, where they spend many of their time perhaps on shopping and looking after their families! The equality of in terms of demographic measures them equally depending on the age since “Frozen” was a hit with very young girls!

    • Lisa says:

      If that was the case we’d be seeing just men in the movie theaters. And the rest of your comment is just too sexist to even acknowledge.

    • Jess says:

      Actually, this is not the case. In fact, more women attend movie theaters than men. See the findings in The Ms. Factor report, which includes the figures from the MPAA and other sources (see section “Debunking the Myths”). I was actually surprised at the numbers.

      • Jaime says:

        You’re exactly right. Folks who are not in the business don’t know or get that. Hollywood has been relying on old marketing formulas, same old same old to finance and market films because the folks behind the financing are stuck in time. There is a laziness that has set in about building new markets that films can be marketed to. I get and understand that it’s their money and they can do what they want with their money. But the truth is these guys are leaving a lot of money on the table by not bringing a greater variety to the big screen with the stories they are telling. You can’t develop new markets if you only want to invest in films that have followed the same formula for the last 60 or so years. At this point they are trying to milk the old marketing formulas for everything they can. But truth be told, folks are getting very tired of seeing the same white guy on screen doing the same thing each film. It’s why Netflix is having so much success in bringing all different types of stories to the little screen. I am loving it. So the next time you hear white male producers etc etc say “films produced or directed or told by women etc etc don’t make money” be weary. It’s not that clear cut at all. Its just their way to get everyone to shut up and stop pressuring them about diversity. Change is hard for people even if you present them with the best evidence, it’s hard for folks to stop doing what they’ve always done and what they feel has always worked for them. That’s human nature. But it also does not mean that we should just continue with the status quo.

    • guest says:

      Not every woman has a family, or goes shopping. If films are created that can interested women as well, then they will go and see it. However, a lot of films are targeted to men, that’s why more of them go to the movies.

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