Casting Call: Hollywood Needs More Women

Jun 30, 2013
Originally published on June 30, 2013 7:35 pm

Summer is the perfect time for a night out at the cinema, but maybe you've noticed something missing at the movies: women.

Women make up a minority of movie creators: 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers; that's nearly five men for every woman working behind the scenes.

Out of last year's biggest movies, 28 percent of speaking characters were female. That's down from a third just five years ago, according to the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California.

"Just based off last few movies I've seen, they've all been male-centric like World War Z and Man of Steel and This Is The End," says 20-year-old moviegoer Melissa Hattab. "I know that I love going to the movies and I like seeing women I can relate to."

That's not to say no women are making and having lead roles in films, recent examples include Sofia Coppola's Bling Ring and The Heat, which opened this weekend and stars Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. The Heat was also written by a woman, Katie Dippold.

The 'Thelma & Louise' Syndrome

The female buddy-cop movie The Heat echoes what was billed as the ultimate chick flick, 1991's Thelma & Louise starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon.

"Every time there's a movie starring women, the media is very excited to say, 'Well, this changes everything,'" Davis tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "That's what happened with Thelma & Louise ... and nothing changed."

Davis says the same things were said after more recent movies like Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games, but not much changed "and it's not going to," she says.

Lately, Davis has been busy trying to figure out why women aren't better represented in film, and how to turn it around. In 2004, she founded The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

"When my daughter was 2 years old and I started watching [kids programming] ... I was floored to see a huge dearth of female characters," Davis says. "I knew that there were fewer female characters in general in Hollywood ... but I didn't know that applied to what we show kids."

Davis' think tank commissioned numerous studies on women and media. Despite women making up half of all moviegoers, the studies showed that in family films and children's programming there was only one female character for every three male characters, she says. But it's not all bad news.

"We were able to see an increase in the percentage of female characters in family films," she says. At the current rate, however, reaching a parity of female and male characters would take about 700 years, she says.

Davis jokingly says her organization is dedicated to cutting that number in half. Humor aside, she says the disparity of female-to-male characters in media is a concerning issue.

"What we're in effect doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We're training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world," she says. "And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized, even in things that are aimed at little kids, that's having an enormous impact as well."

Shifting Audiences

Longtime producer Lynda Obst has watched Hollywood undergo some seismic changes, and they haven't been good for women. She says it was much different 30 years ago.

"You could make up an idea, pitch it to your boss and if you were lucky and he liked the idea and you had a good writer, you could sell it and it might get made into a movie," Obst tells Lyden.

Obst calls those days "the old abnormal," when she produced numerous hits including Flashdance, Sleepless in Seattle and One Fine Day. These days, Obst says it's "the new abnormal" trying to get studios to pick up a movie.

"What they want are ideas known around the world before they even get made because it makes marketing the ideas even easier," she says, "which is why they want ideas that can easily be made into sequels and then become franchises."

Obst calls these movies tent poles: dependable blockbuster brands like Spider-Man, the X-Men and Harry Potter. She writes about the changes in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, and what exactly accounts for the "new abnormal."

Obst says the collapse of the DVD market — which once accounted for about 50 percent of profit in the movie business — forced Hollywood to look elsewhere for revenue. They found it in international audiences, particularly in Asia and South America. The problem, she says, is the kind of movies those audiences want.

"The kinds of movies that they like abroad are movies with huge special effects," she says, "and moreover, they don't like movies with too much dialogue. ... So women's movies — romantic comedies [and] dramas — they don't play well overseas."

The other issue, Obst says, is that Hollywood marketers are only concerned with catering to men in their advertising because the general attitude is that "women will go anyway."

Obst suggests Hollywood could make one less $200 million tent pole movie a year, and instead put that money toward multiple smaller movies that serve another audience.

"Women have been incredibly supportive in showing that there is an audience," she says, "and we also have to be conscious of making those movies good enough for the audience to show up for."

Perhaps there is hope. For its opening weekend, The Heat came in at strong second place and made $40 million, beating out the male-driven action-adventure movie White House Down.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD")

LYDEN: Summertime: the perfect time for a night out at the cinema.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HOLLYWOOD HOTEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Hollywood Hotel. Good evening.

LYDEN: Maybe you've noticed something missing at the movies - like women. I'd like to say hooray for Hollywood, but women make up a minority of movie creators: 7 percent of the directors, 13 percent of the writers, 20 percent of the producers. That's nearly five men for every woman working behind the scenes. Our cover story today: film's forgotten females.

Out of last year's biggest movies, 28 percent of the speaking characters were female. That's down from a third, five years ago. Those numbers are from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LYDEN: On a recent Saturday night in Washington, D.C., filmgoers milled about for a movie night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "Man of Steel."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: "The Bling Ring."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: "Monsters University."

LYDEN: And we were curious. Have they noticed a lack of X chromosomes at the cinema?

MELISSA HATTAB: Just based off of the last few movies I've seen, they've all just been really male-centric, like "World War Z" and "Man of Steel" and "This is the End" and...

LYDEN: Twenty-year-old Melissa Hattab.

HATTAB: Women see movies just as much as men do. I know that I love going to the movies. And I like seeing characters that I can relate to. But it's mostly just about - the main character is the man and then if there's a woman in it, she's just the love interest, or is there to look hot and is really passive.

CHANCELLOR GAFFNEY: I don't think the women presence is lacking.

LYDEN: And that's 22-year-old Chancellor Gaffney.

GAFFNEY: Even like, Sofia Coppola - she just directed "The Bling Ring"; and Amy Adams, she's co-starring in "Man of Steel." I really don't feel there's like a shortage of women presence in film.

LYDEN: Tabitha Belkorchi says that's just the problem.

TABITHA BELKORCHI: Everybody makes a big deal when Coppola directs a film. We're at a point in our time that it should be every day. But no, we still make a big deal about it because there's so few women doing it.

LYDEN: That's not to say no women are doing it. "The Heat" has got girl power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HEAT")

SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Special Agent Sarah Ashburn) They're my Spanx. They hold everything together.

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Detective Shannon Mullins) Why? What's going to come popping out?

LYDEN: This female buddy pic opened to big buzz this weekend - starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. The screenwriter was a woman, Katie Dippold. It echoes the ultimate female buddy movie, 1991's "Thelma & Louise" starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THELMA & LOUISE")

GEENA DAVIS: (As Thelma) Let's keep going.

SUSAN SARANDON: (As Louise) What do you mean?

DAVIS: (As Thelma) Go!

LYDEN: I asked Geena Davis about the buzz that surrounded "Thelma & Louise."

DAVIS: Every time there's a movie starring women, the media is very excited to say well, this changes everything, and that certainly happened with "Thelma & Louise." Now there's going to be so many female buddy pictures. And nothing changed. And more recently, "Bridesmaids" and "The Hunger Games" - well, now everything has changed. And it's not going to.

LYDEN: Lately, Davis has been busy trying to figure out why women aren't better represented in film, and how to turn things around. She founded a think tank in 2004, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

DAVIS: When my daughter was about 2 years old, and I started watching G-rated videos and little kids' TV shows and things, I was floored to see a huge dearth of female characters. I had assumed that surely, we are showing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally, by now. I knew that there were fewer female characters in general, in Hollywood. I - you know, I'm in the industry, and I've experienced that; but I didn't know that it applied to what we show to kids.

LYDEN: You commissioned a dozen studies on women in media, from the Annenberg School at USC. Some of the figures just really boggle the imagination when you think that women are half of all moviegoers. If we didn't go to the movies, maybe this would make more sense. But we turn out in droves.

DAVIS: I know. It really does boggle the mind. In family films and kids' television shows, for every one female character, there are three male characters. But lest people think that it's all bad news, we were able to see an increase in the percentage of female characters in family films such that, if we add female characters at the rate we have been for the past 20 years, we will achieve parity in 700 years.

LYDEN: (Laughing)

DAVIS: And my institute, we have dedicated ourselves to cutting that in half. And we will not rest until it's only 350 years. (Laughing)

LYDEN: And why is this the case?

DAVIS: My theory is that since all anybody has seen, when they are growing up, is this big imbalance - that the movies that they've watched are about, let's say, 5 to 1, as far as female presence is concerned - that's what starts to look normal. And let's think about - in different segments of society, 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women; 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn't that strange that that's also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we're actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you're an adult, you don't notice?

LYDEN: I wonder what the impact is of all of this lack of female representation.

DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50. And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.

DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that's just sort of unconsciously expected?

LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?

DAVIS: What we're, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We're training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized - even in things that are aimed at little kids - that's having an enormous impact as well.

LYDEN: That's Geena Davis, on her work with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Longtime producer Lynda Obst has watched Hollywood undergo some seismic changes, and they haven't been good for women. When she began in the industry three decades ago...

LYNDA OBST: You could make up an idea, pitch it to your boss, and if you were lucky and he liked the idea, and you had a good writer, you could sell it; and it might even get made into a movie.

LYDEN: Obst calls those days the old abnormal - when she produced numerous hits including "Flashdance," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "One Fine Day." These days, says Obst, it's the new abnormal trying to get studios just to pick up a movie.

OBST: What they want are ideas that are known around the world before they even get made because it makes marketing the ideas even easier - which is, of course, why they want to make ideas that can easily become sequels, and then become franchises.

LYDEN: Obst calls these movies tent poles: dependable, blockbuster brands like "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and "Harry Potter." And she writes about the changes in her new book, "Sleepless in Hollywood." So what, exactly, accounts for the new abnormal?

OBST: Between 2006 and 2009, the cushion that had allowed all of these one-off movies to get made - the DVD cushion that accounted for 50 percent of the profits of the movie business - had utterly collapsed, in the wake of downloading and piracy. And people were no longer buying DVDs.

And with that profit margin gone, the studios were paralyzed until they realized that there was only one revenue stream that was replacing the revenue stream that the DVDs had represented. And that was the international audience.

At the same time as the DVDs were disappearing, the emerging markets of Russia and China and South America were taking their place. So they had to start making movies that were similar to the ones that were breaking so hugely abroad.

LYDEN: How has that affected films about women and for women?

OBST: Well, not very well. (Laughing) The kinds of movies that they like abroad are movies with huge special effects, movies with gigantic explosions. And moreover, they don't like movies with too much dialogue; so that what they like are movies without cultural nuance, movies that are essentially universal in your ability to understand them. And now, 80 percent of the business is overseas.

LYDEN: Wow.

OBST: And when I began in the business, it was 20 percent. So women's movies - that is, romantic comedies, dramas - they don't play well overseas.

LYDEN: You write that in 2011, "Bridesmaids" was the only original story in the top 15 films. Women are half of all filmgoers. Why haven't we seen other films challenge the dynamics that you've been speaking of?

OBST: There is a shibboleth - a rule - in the movie business, and I can see it in the marketing of the new Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy movie; that women will go to men's movies, if they're good, but men won't go to women's movies. Now, it's just not true. But as I was told recently, when you market a movie - listen to this, it's kind of amazing - do not risk losing a single male viewer by catering to women in your advertising and marketing...

LYDEN: Wow.

OBST: ...because women will go anyway.

LYDEN: Is it going to be possible to see movies that women see themselves in, and are not just going because it's an action movie and it's date night?

OBST: This is about making them for less, and this is about great scripts. You know, I can always get a great script made. I just can't get it made at the same price point I could get it made for in the old abnormal. You know, my movies used to be 30, $40 million. I'm going to have to make those movies for $20 million now or even, in some cases, $8 million.

So what I think we need to do is maybe make one less marginal tent pole a year for $200 million, at the studios; and break that $200 million down into 10 $20-million movies that serve another audience. And then also, we have what I call tadpoles, which are the opposite of tent poles. There are a tremendous amount of young producers making movies for much less money. And we're going to have to starve those movies, but then prove that there's an audience.

And women have been incredibly supportive in showing that there is an audience. And we have to be conscious of making those movies good enough for the audience to show up for.

LYDEN: Lynda Obst - she's the author of the new book "Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business." And consider this: "The Heat" did way better than expected, coming in a strong second place in the weekend box office. It raked in 40 million bucks. That beat out the action-adventure flick "White House Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHY GOD MADE THE MOVIES")

PAUL SIMON: (Singing) That's why God made the movies...

LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.