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Oscar Pals With Women Producers, But Big-Budget Gigs Are Scarce

Studies show blockbuster films are still a province of the ‘boys club,’ and director jobs remain elusive

Of the three dozen films identified as potential Oscar contenders, 22 of them have at least one female producer.

That seems to indicate women producers are gaining more equality with their male counterparts. And the Producers Guild of America says that nearly half (47%, to be exact) of its 6,000 members are women, according to Lydia Dean Pilcher of the PGA Women’s Impact Network.

But while those tallies represent some progress for femme producers over the past decade, a closer look reveals something troubling: There’s still a huge economic disparity between the sexes.

Stacy Smith, a professor at USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, says that the role of women seems to diminish in direct correlation to the cost of movies.

Of the year’s top live-action films at the box office, “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel,” “Gravity,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “World War Z,” 19 individuals are listed as producer. Only three are women: Deborah Snyder and Emma Thomas on “Man of Steel” and Dede Gardner on “WWZ.”

On the awards front, female producers are more prevalent as budgets scale down, such as Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter on “Dallas Buyers Club” ($5 million budget) and Anna Gerb on “All Is Lost” ($9 million).

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The testosterone level is disproportionate in nearly every department on higher-budgeted movies. The Sundance Institute and Women in Film unveiled a study done with USC/Annenberg examining the top-100 grossing films each year from 2002 through 2012 (which were often big-budget films). A meager 4.4% had women directors.

Alison Owen, producer of Disney’s upcoming “Saving Mr. Banks,” is not surprised at the male/blockbuster connection. Producers follow their noses, she says, and big-budget blockbusters have been a male domain for decades. In contrast, “People ask why Ruby Films (her production company) and I focus on strong women as a topic. It’s not a conscious move; it’s simply because these are subjects I’m interested in.”

Owen, who has worked both in the U.K. and U.S., on film and in television, said British TV tends to be a boys club. In both film and TV, she adds, “It’s more difficult for female directors, but a little easier for women producers and writers.” Part of that is because of biology. As a producer or writer, a woman has some flexibility to take time off to have children. “But in directing, it’s difficult to step off the ladder and have a few kids, because people tend to be suspicious if you’ve been away too long.”

Kristine Belson, who shifted from a role as a studio exec into animation, and is one of two producers along with Jane Hartwell on “The Croods,” thinks a producing role is a good fit for a woman. “Producing is a maternal job in a lot of ways. You’re dealing with lots of personalities, helping everyone to get along, and making sure everyone is OK. That’s what I do as a mom and that’s what I do as a producer.”

Belson praised Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation for his sense of fairness. “He seems very drawn to women, and is very happy to put them in key roles of leadership, both on the artistic and the executive side.”

But equality is not embraced everywhere, as she discovered in her years in live-action studio work. “I felt the boys club mentality; it definitely exists. I saw it at work, and it drove me crazy.” On the other hand, she says, “I felt really lucky when I was working for Wendy Finerman, Lisa Henson, Amy Pascal — strong women who were looking out for me and others.”

The solution seems to be tied to raising industry awareness. As PGA’s Pilcher said, “When we saw the Sundance numbers, a lot of us were shocked there hadn’t been a perceptible change. The PGA has always felt that diversity makes us more effective. We’ve always had that as part of our mission statement, and now we feel it’s time to step it up.”

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