6 Talking Points for the Women in Film Revolution
6 Talking Points for the Women in Film Revolution
by Naomi McDougall Jones
So…I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but we have a bit of a gender problem in cinema. Hollywood very rarely lets women direct or write movies, and the track record of the on-screen female character is…not great. This is not just bad for us females in the film industry; it’s terrible for the world at large. Really.
If this is news to you or you don’t believe me, please pause for a moment and go watch the TEDxBeaconStreet talk I just gave (The Women in Film Revolution Begins With You). I promise that, even if you’re thinking right now, “Oh GOD, another angry feminist,” or “What is she banging on about? It’s 2017. We’ve dealt with this already,” my talk will provide some useful information and may even help you see something you didn’t before. Also, I really don’t yell that much. I promise.
Okay, now that you’ve seen my talk, or if you were already like, “Please, girl. I see what you see,” great. We’re ready to go.
In my talk, I call for a women-in-film revolution (that begins with you…as the title would indicate) and provide a four-step plan for how to begin (steps that you, yes, you, can easily take RIGHT NOW!). I hope you’ll join me to make it happen.
But, in addition to enthusiasm, a revolution requires numbers. You’re only as strong as the number of people fighting beside you. So if we’re going to make this happen, if we’re genuinely going to create a tidal, cultural shift in which women’s perspectives (and all disenfranchised perspectives) are given voice, we’re going to need more soldiers.
To that end, while each of you are doing what you personally can to begin this women in film revolution, perhaps you could also start talking to other people about it.
Will you do that?
Yes? Great. Thanks for being the change.
Now, as you begin talking, you will notice that there are a number of “false truths” that people will throw around in an attempt to shut your argument down, to avoid examining themselves or actually doing the complicated work of improving the industry.
These false truths can be hard to combat because, while they are mostly nonsensical, they are usually stated as implicitly true. You will hear them over and over — even from powerful and important people in the industry* — so often that you will begin to wonder if you are crazy.
You are not crazy. Please don’t let them shut you down. Here are 6 false truths and the talking points to combat them.
*I should note that in my three-plus years of talking non-stop about women in film, I hear these false truths come out of the mouths of men and women at pretty equal rates. This article is not about telling men they are stupid — it’s about debunking pernicious ideas that pervade this conversation and prevent real action from being taken.
False Truth # 1: If only one woman has ever won a Best Director Oscar, maybe women just aren’t as good at directing movies.
Talking Point #1: “I understand why you might feel that way. Maybe you, like me, grew up watching and adulating the Oscars and oh-so-sweetly assumed that the film industry is a principled meritocracy dedicated to rewarding the most talented people.
Unfortunately, here’s the situation. Women graduate from film school at the same rate that men do, 50%, so there is no lack of trained and willing female directors. But already at the very smallest, micro-budget films (budgets of under $500,000), women are only directing 18% of them. Then in slightly bigger independent films, in the $1–5M budget range, women direct 12%. By the studio level, women only direct 5% of all films.
[Here is a graphic you can show them to make sure they’re really grasping this point]
Look at that graph a long hard moment. You have to either tell me that women are actually 5% as talented as men,* or you have to accept that there are real, systemic issues preventing women from rising through the ranks.
How many women, then, get the chance to direct one of the tiny group of films that are being even considered for Oscars at the tippy top elite ivory tower of the industry? Fuggedaboudit. They rarely let women in the front gate.”
*If they actually try to have this argument with you, you are then allowed to punch them in the face**
**jk, violence is never the answer
False Truth # 2: Women don’t want to direct big studio films. They’re too interested in making their own movies.
Talking Point #2: “Of course female filmmakers are interested in making their own, personal films. That’s why artists become artists, because they have something inside of themselves that they want and need to communicate to others. Why would a filmmaker, male or female, become a filmmaker if they didn’t have stories they were passionate about telling?
That said, I have never met a single woman in the industry who has been offered a nice, fat paycheck to write or direct the next Marvel or Transformers movie and said, ”No, thanks. I can’t possibly spare a few months to work on that movie and get paid enough to cover for my life expenses for the next five years. I only ever want to spend 4–10 years slaving away over each film, during which I get paid nothing (often literally nothing) and have to beg, borrow, and steal to scrape together a few hundred thousand dollars just to get the film to set, because…art.”
I’m sure there are some female filmmakers who would take that stance, just as there are some male filmmakers who would take that stance. Those people are admirable (and also probably very poor), but there are not that many of them. [The writer of this article would like to go on record and state that, while she is extremely passionate about making the movies she is artistically driven to make, she is also extremely available for and interested in giant paychecks.]
It’s not that women don’t want the big jobs. It’s that we are not being offered them.
[If you are speaking to a studio executive, please add the following addendum:] In fact, let’s try an experiment: for one year, offer all big studio film writer and director jobs to women and see if they refuse them. Go ahead. Prove us wrong.”
False Truth #3: We would love to hire female writers/directors, but we can’t find any “qualified” ones.
Talking Point # 3: “I have fantastic news for you! This wonderful woman Destri Martino has gone to the trouble of putting together an entire database of female directors to help you combat this very issue (http://thedirectorlist.com/). She has also offered to make herself personally available to help you sort through this database to find women with the needed qualifications. Yay, Destri!
Additionally, the brutal truth is that women are held to a much, much higher standard than men before they are considered “qualified.” There are endless examples of male directors who were scooped up by the studio system after having only directed a tiny micro-budget film and were promptly handed the reins of a multi-million dollar studio movie. That kind of risk has almost never been taken on a female director.
One example of this scenario (although there are, truly, endless examples), is Colin Trevorrow, who, after directing the very small indie film Safety Not Guaranteed (reported budget of $750,000), was promptly hired to direct the latest Jurassic Park (reported budget of $150 million). Find me a woman that has happened to. Please.”
[Writer’s note: I bring Colin up as a keenly illustrative example, not to contribute to his status as the internet punching bag he has become after a very stupid comment in interview (a.k.a. False Truth #2). I’m sure Colin is a perfectly nice individual who repeated a statement he’d probably heard many times over from others (as have I). He just had the misfortune of saying it in print shortly after the Jurassic windfall befell him (and also right after he’d made Naomi Watts run around in high heels for an entire film shoot), and the painful irony of hearing it from him under those circumstances made the female filmmakers of the world (and their allies) digitally punch him in the face.* I would imagine he’s learned his lesson.
*Digitally punching someone in the face can occasionally be a useful alternative to actually punching them in the face.
False Truth # 4: Audiences don’t want to see films about women.
Talking Point #4: “Women are 51% of the population. They purchase 51% of all movie tickets. [Note: both of those statistics are real. I’m not conflating them.] So what you’re saying is…women don’t want to see movies about themselves? And that men…don’t care about women at all? The premise that audiences don’t want to see films about women is logically nonsensical.
Beyond that, it’s simply not true.
The Washington Post released a study by FiveThirtyEight demonstrating that films that feature female characters make $0.23 more on every dollar than films that don’t.
Furthermore, The 51 Fund commissioned a study from Bruce Nash at The-Numbers.com that looked at the 1700 films made from 2011–2015 and compared the average return on investment (ROI) if a man or woman filled each of the following roles: director, screenwriter, producer, and lead actor.
And [as demonstrated above in this nifty graphic you can show them] in every single case, the average % ROI is higher if it’s a woman.
Audiences do want to see films by and about women, and if you make them, you will make more money.”
False Truth #5: Hollywood is driven by profit. If what you say is true and films by and about women do make more money, then Hollywood would be making them.
Talking Point # 5: “That does seem intensely logical, doesn’t it?
I don’t know. I don’t work at a studio. I don’t pretend to know what goes on in their minds. However…
…facts: [Repeat answer and show them the graphics from Talking Point #4 again]
Here’s my best guess at what’s happening:
At the moment, something like 97% of all scientists agree that climate change is real and happening faster than we ever predicted. They agree that unless we take massive and immediate action to reverse it, our planet will become uninhabitable for humans with terrifying rapidity.*
There is a clear, facts-based argument that it is in every human being’s best interest to take action and make change.
And yet…there is an army of people, including the bulk of a major political party, that swears that climate change is not happening and that, therefore, we don’t need to do anything about it.
This is insane behavior. They are acting against, not only their own personal interest to not become a crispy human kebab, but against the interests of the entire planet. And yet…
Large and entrenched systems are, well, large and entrenched. The people in charge of them tend to like them the way they are for reasons of personal job security, of stodginess, of righteousness, of private interests, and of not wanting to have to do the incredibly complicated and inconvenient hard work of real change — even when there are solid, factual, urgent reasons for doing so.
It’s not terribly that surprising that Hollywood doesn’t want things to change. Retaining 95% of the jobs is working very well for the men. Their recalcitrance doesn’t mean the facts are wrong. It means they’re human. It means that if we are going to change the film industry (and in doing so, change the world), we’re going to have to stop waiting for them to get with the program. We’re going to have to make the change happen ourselves, through a revolution.”
*If you’d like to know more about the terrifying issue of global warming, you can listen to my fellow TEDxBeaconStreet speaker Lauren Kuntz. Yikes. Let’s get on that.
False Truth(s) #6: There isn’t a women in film problem. If there is one, it doesn’t really matter. Movies are just entertainment. There is no institutional sexism anymore. We dealt with that already.
Talking Point # 6: [These are the questions that make me feel intensely exhausted. After talking about this for awhile, you may feel the same way. If so, I suggest, you take a deep breathe, smile calmly and say…]
“May I show you this TEDx Talk?”
Thanks for talking to people about the lack of women in film. Please keep talking, even when it’s exhausting; even when they tell you to shut up. It’s important for the world.
May the force be with you and odds ever in your favor.