At Toronto Film Festival, Push for Gender Equality May Be Paying Off

On Sunday, CBS chief Leslie Moonves became the latest industry titan to be toppled from power in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment. From Harvey Weinstein to Dustin Hoffman to Brett Ratner, men who were once thought to be mighty enough to act with impunity are colliding with a new world order, one in which their celebrity is no longer enough to guarantee that their accusers will stay silent.

At this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival, where much of Hollywood has decamped for the annual running of the Oscar contenders, the talk was of Moonves, #MeToo and the possibility that women might finally be granted a seat at the table.

“There’s an opportunity for real cultural change,” said actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, at the fest to support her film “The Kindergarten Teacher”; she’s also scheduled for an In Conversation With … session.

But the big question is: Will the spotlight on the stubborn obstacles the women in the entertainment industry face lead to more opportunities? There’s a general sense that some of the old barriers are crumbling and many of the most ingrained prejudices, such as a misguided belief that female directors can’t handle big budgets or that men won’t watch female-driven films, are being challenged. Amber Heard, the star of “Her Smell,” said she’s noticing that the scripts that are crossing her desk have more fully formed roles for women. She’s not just being offered supportive spouse or girlfriend parts.

“At least one or two [every week] have actual female characters in them, but it’s still nowhere near half,” said Heard. “Women make up over half the ticket-buying population, over half the population in general … and yet we only appear in movies with roles that have a name or that speak 30% of the time.”

Heard is right. The statistics in terms of female representation on screen are bleak. Men are two times more likely to have a speaking role in a movie than women, and the number of female speaking roles in films has dropped from where it was a decade ago, according to a recent study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It’s even rarer to find female directors on major studio releases. Only 4.3% of filmmakers of the 1,100 top grossing films released from 2007 to 2017 were women. Chanya Button, the director of “Vita & Virginia,” a love story about an affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, said that she often feels like she has to go out of her way to prove herself to financiers and producers who are accustomed to seeing a man behind the camera.

“I frequently feel like I have to justify myself and justify the stories I make,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of work that goes into making people feel safe with me and to making them believe that I’m capable and trustworthy. I can’t say for sure, but I feel like a man my age wouldn’t have to do that.”

Stories of sexual predation and abuse by high-profile industry figures are finally coming to light, and many actresses at Toronto say that they believe that is impacting the behavior of executives, producers, filmmakers and stars. It may be the fear of getting caught, it may be a belated awareness that there are boundaries and codes of conduct on film sets, but it is getting better, they say.

“Now they’re in a position where they have to be aware of what they’re doing and how it might affect other people and be conscious of their actions, and I don’t think that’s such a bad place to be,” said Olivia Munn, on hand at Toronto to debut “The Predator.” “Welcome to the rest of the world. That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

For its part, Toronto has put an increased emphasis on promoting female voices. Of the 342 films screening this year, about 36% are directed by women. That’s up from 33% in 2017.

“The quality of the films is only better for that,” said Natalie Portman, who is at Toronto with the drama “Vox Lux.”

But many of the women gathered at the festival worry that any gains are fragile. They stress the importance of remaining active, engaged, and supportive of one another.

“We’ve got to pick up the cameras and pens ourselves and do it, because no one else is going to do it for us,” said Heard.

Jenelle Riley and Meredith Woerner contributed to this report.


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