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Meaningful Change at Last? Women Gain Ground in Hollywood

Women in Hollywood are finally starting to exhale. Two years after sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein first broke, turbocharging the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, there’s a growing sense among women in showbiz that meaningful change is underway — though much remains to be done before true parity is reached.

“There have been some good inroads,” says Donna Langley, chairman, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, whose studio was the first major to sign on to USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute and Time’s Up’s 4% Challenge for female directors in January. “It’s never going to feel like it’s enough. It’s never going to be enough — this is work that is going to be ongoing.”

Langley’s views were echoed by other women surveyed by Variety for its annual Women’s Impact Report. They reported increased opportunity behind and in front of the camera.

“I think we’ve made an incredible amount of progress just by opening up the conversation,” says Reese Witherspoon. She was so frustrated about the lack of substantial roles for women that she founded Hello Sunshine, a media company dedicated to female storytelling, three years ago. She is now producing and starring in some of the projects in its pipeline, including Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” opposite Jennifer Aniston.

“Female directors are working so much, and it’s enormously encouraging,” she says. What’s more, their authority is better respected on set and elsewhere. “I used to work with female directors and people would just talk over them,” but now “there’s a real consciousness to listening to women that was never here before.”

More women are speaking up — and being heard — about showbiz workplace issues, according to Mireille Soria, head of Paramount Animation. “I think women have always spoken up; women just haven’t always been heard,” she says. “It’s a good thing that women aren’t as afraid of losing their jobs by speaking up, that they are being supported.”

Soria has experienced this firsthand. According to reports in Variety and other outlets, in January the animation leader expressed dismay at a company town hall about Skydance Entertainment, which has a distribution deal with Paramount, hiring former Pixar and Disney Animation chief John Lasseter, who had resigned in 2018 following allegations of inappropriate behavior there. Soria declined to comment about that incident for this report.

There’s clearly still a way to go before gender parity is reached, as indicated by Adele Lim’s now-public struggle to gain more equitable pay for writing the sequel to hit “Crazy Rich Asians.” During her Emmy acceptance speech last month, Michelle Williams, who was paid far less than co-star Mark Wahlberg for reshoots of “All the Money in the World” in late 2017, called out the gender pay gap, urging people to listen to women, and especially women of color, when they request more support in the workplace.

But at least Lim felt self-confident enough to ask for more — and walk away when the deal didn’t work for her, says Time’s Up co-founder Nina Shaw, a longtime entertainment lawyer for Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano, who’s clear-eyed about the difficulties in changing ingrained ways of doing things or thinking about gender or race.

“Like anything else, I don’t think any of us could have expected or should have expected for [Time’s Up] to maintain the momentum we had in the first month or two or three — that would have been almost impossible,” Shaw says.

Shaw cites New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent shoutout to Time’s Up for its work on behalf of legislation lengthening the statute of limitations in certain sexual assault cases as acknowledgment of the change it is bringing even as the budding organization, without a permanent CEO from Lisa Borders’ February resignation until Tina Tchen took over this week, builds its infrastructure.

“That’s real measurable progress, but we’re also at Time’s Up trying to change culture, and changing culture is extraordinarily difficult, but it can be done,” Shaw says. “At one time we didn’t wear seatbelts, and now we all wear seatbelts.”

Having spent the bulk of her career in Silicon Valley, Quibi CEO Meg Whitman is used to male-dominated work cultures. But she too discerns some progress in gender parity since the advent of Time’s Up. “I think things are changing, generally speaking, but we have not arrived yet where we need to be,” Whitman says. “So I think we need to keep working on it.”

Also helping: the escalating content boom, which has created more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. Next month, Melina Matsoukas is making her feature debut with “Queen & Slim,” for example, and Jennifer Lee returns with “Frozen 2,” co-directed with Chris Buck.

ICM partner Hildy Gottlieb has been especially gratified to see more roles for some of the more experienced actresses in her stable, including Judy Davis, Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard.

Says Gottlieb: “Things are a lot better than they were in 1977, I can tell you that.”

Todd Longwell contributed to this report.

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