Geena Davis Talks ‘This Changes Everything’ Doc and ‘Conscious Gender Bias’ in Behind-the-Scenes Hiring

Geena Davis Bentonville
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Sh

It has been 15 years since the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was founded, and there is still a lot of important work to be done. The actress and producer has worked tirelessly with her team to research the statistics on women working in the entertainment industry, taking that data “privately and directly to the creators and saying, ‘Hey, did you know this?'” But, Davis points out, she is never there to “shame or blame anybody.” After the data is presented, it is up to those in power to consciously choose to change the way they hire.

Now, Davis has lent her own power to Tom Donahue’s documentary, “This Changes Everything,” which is designed to shine a more public light on the imbalances both in front of and behind the camera that still exist today.

“Perhaps the behind the camera imbalance is a conscious gender bias and perhaps on-screen is more unconscious, and that’s why the data makes a huge difference,” Davis says.

Davis, who originally was inspired to start her institute because she wanted her children to grow up in a world were they all saw themselves well-reflected on screen, came to the doc by way of Donahue himself. She recalls that he had already raised all of the funding and had acquired a number of interviews “with powerful people” before she came aboard. She was able to see some of what he wanted the narrative to be, and “it was right up my alley,” so she signed on as an executive producer and also agreed to sit down for one of the interviews for the piece.

“My institute provided the research that was in the film and I tried to help get him interviews with people he was interested in talking to. I tried to be as active as I could and as he needed me to be,” she says.

Interestingly, Davis shares that Donahue was the first person to approach her about such a project. The irony of a man making a film about the importance, but lack, of women getting important industry gigs such as directing was not lost on either of them, but it mattered most that somebody was finally willing to dive deeply into the topic.

“I don’t think anybody at all hesitated because it was a man doing this; they could see what he was doing,” Davis says.

It was the emergence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that further aided in attaching many big names to the project. (“This Changes Everything” features interviews with Callie Khouri, Kimberly Peirce, Sharon Stone, Amber Tamblyn, Rose McGowen, Amandla Stenberg, Chloe Grace Moretz, Taraji P. Henson, Natalie Portman, Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, Tracee Ellis Ross, Mara Brock Akil, Sandra Oh Shonda Rhimes, John Landgraf and Kevin Huvane, in addition to Davis, to name a few.)

“It’s a different time now. It’s a time of people really speaking up and sharing their truth and a dramatic change in Hollywood,” Davis says.

Notably, CAA’s Huvane speaks candidly in the project about starting out as an agent and being encouraged to sign mostly male clients because they earn more and therefore can earn him a greater cut of the sale. FX’s Landgraf recounts seeing in print (here in Variety) that his cable network had the worst track record for hiring women and people of color in the director position and the strides he has since taken to correct that.

While Davis notes that seeing such data “shocked and horrified” FX enough into making that change — and cites both Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative and Disney’s recent pledge to hire 40% women directors as a way of “stepping up” to the parity plate — on a broader scale, the numbers have yet to move the needle on progress.

“There’s two very broad categories of filmmaking, and one is in front of the camera and one is behind. And I work primarily on in front of the camera, and I feel like it’s the lowest hanging fruit in our industry, and in general actually: It’s the easiest place to achieve parity. So that problem actually responds to research; it’s where the numbers really make a huge difference. It’s largely unconscious that films and television are so imbalanced,” she says. “But behind the camera, people have known the numbers for decades — there’s nobody that hasn’t known how few directors are female — and it’s done nothing to make a change.”

In fact, as the doc explores, the state of women in Hollywood today is in many ways a giant step backwards from the early days of silent film, when directors included Lois Weber, who not only started her own production company but signed the “most lucrative” production deal at the time when she pacted with Paramount in 1917.

Davis admits she doesn’t know “the magic answer” to make the steps being taken to correct the course on parity in the film and television industry consistent and permanent, as opposed to something that may just revert in a few years. Certainly, though, she thinks it starts with people making “very conscious decisions to try to overcome their biases and do better.”

Davis herself made the decision to work against bias after she did “Thelma & Louise” in 1991. “I was profoundly impacted by the reaction of people seeing the movie,” she says. “It made me realize, in a profound way, how few opportunities we give women to come out of a movie theater feeling inspired and empowered by this female character. And it’s the best part of a movie, really, identifying with a character and living vicariously through them. Men get to experience that every time they watch a movie, but women not so much. So then I decided I was always going to keep in mind, when making choices, ‘What are the women in the audience going to think of my character?’ Not that I wanted to play role models, but I wanted to play characters who are in charge of their own fate.”

While that is something she has tried to stick to when choosing new acting roles, she admits it hasn’t always been easy. As she has gotten older, she acknowledges her “options” are fewer; “Age is still a very real factor” in casting. There have also been times when she has seen potential in a project and tried to collaborate with those in charge to further flesh out the character, only to be told, “No, we don’t want to change it.”

That “is discouraging — whether it’s me or not. I wish they’d say, ‘Oh really, this character seems one-dimensional? What can we do to make it better?'” she admits.

But she made a second conscious decision to work harder at influencing such changes when founding her institute. “My daughter is not seeing herself better represented than when I was a kid — yet,” Davis says. “I am definitely planning on changing that and working very hard on that. And that was the reason that I started all of this: I realized my daughter was going to grow up seeing women in a second class position.”

The title of the doc, “This Changes Everything,” speaks to the way successful or otherwise splashy “female” events in the industry have been discussed internally, as well as in the media. Davis acknowledges that almost three decades ago many thought “Thelma & Louise” would change the way women-led projects were greenlit, but, in reality, it proved to be an exception. Whether the doc’s presentation of the inequalities in such a stark and public way actually forces those in power to hold themselves accountable for change remains to be seen, but Davis is hopeful it can happen, as the next generation is absorbing this information seriously.

“My boys, even from when they were very young, because I talked about it so much, they’d say, ‘Mommy look, there’s a girl in my comic book. Mommy, look, there’s a girl in this movie,'” she says. “They’re paying attention.”