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Movies About Women Nearly Impossible to Finance, Say Indie Producers

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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