Just ran into the “How Can Women Gain Influence in Hollywood?” op-ed thing in the NYT again and it struck me… the point is being missed.
It’s not about women being undervalued by Hollywood. It’s not about female executives assimilating. And it’s not about sexism.
As always in Hollywood, it’s about money.
So here is how to give women more perceived influence in Hollywood… Convince a studio or all studios to be happy with singles and doubles and occasional triples and not worry about hitting home runs all the time.
If this happened, somehow, the issue of women in Hollywood would become moot. So would racism and xenophobia.
Putting women aside for a moment (insert sniggering comment here if you like, ladies) and look at 12 Years A Slave. The movie cost about $20 million. The money came from outside of Fox, though Searchlight did pitch in for sweat equity and some of the cash for distribution and marketing. But it was a studio release. A period drama about slavery did $50m+ domestic and $140m+ worldwide. There is no defining this as anything but a hit movie. But the New York Times is still defining it as a less than one.
“While Oscar vote counts are not publicly revealed, ticket sales are monitored closely; it was glaringly apparent that 12 Years a Slave climbed into the history books without ever having truly ignited the audience. Through the weekend, the film had only about $50.3 million in domestic ticket sales, though it has performed well internationally.
Mr. Gilula disagreed. “The American public has embraced the movie far, far more than anyone thought,” he said, noting that some box office analysts were initially doubtful that 12 Years a Slave could take in much more than $10 million.
Still, ticket sales for 12 Years a Slave are now less than half those for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a similarly black-themed, reality-based movie.”
First, may I say, yet again, to the New York Times, which took an offensive, inaccurate position on the box office of this film before it went wide and has continued to repeat it as though the paper of record is infallible… “Fuck off.”
But more to the point, if a heavy, racially-themed, demanding drama can be highly profitable and win the Oscar, but still has to eat crap from the New York Times, perceived racism in Hollywood is not really the problem. The problem in this case is in the media.
Does the New York Times know that 12 Years A Slave is right in the middle of the pack if the 9 nominees in domestic box office, not sitting on the bottom? Does the New York Times know that 12 Years A Slave cost less than half of any of the movies above it in that Best Picture box office list? Does the New York Times know that 12 Years A Slave will surely be more profitable than Captain Phillips and could be as if not more profitable than American Hustle?
If they have a brain in their collective NYT head, they know all these things… and just don’t care.
But back to the women and all non-four-quadrant films.
Cate Blanchett was completely wrong and completely right in her speech. Movies about and for and by women can and do make money. But they don’t make the kind of money that big studios are looking for. Not as a rule. This is why her Oscar-winning film was released by Sony Pictures Classics, not Columbia (with all due respect to the long and very successful relationship Barker & Bernard have had with Woody Allen).
2005 was the last time Best Actress went to an actress whose film was primarily funded by and released by a major Hollywood studio (Walk The Line, Reese Witherspoon). Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side was 100% funded by Alcon and released by Warner Bros in an output deal. And Natalie Portman in Black Swan was released by Searchlight, a division under big Fox, but which was mostly funded by indie money (Cross Creek Pictures, Dune, and Phoenix).
The reason that Disney, WB, Paramount, and now Universal have shut down their arthouse operations is that the return on investment does not fit into the corporate mindset that studios now hold.
When studios were making $100m grosses on rom-coms and massive profits on DVD, they ALL did them… didn’t matter that the audience was mostly women or that there was a natural cap on the total gross.
Now the profits on DVD are relatively insignificant and movies have to make their money in worldwide theatrical before then becoming part of bigger package deals… pink ooze in HD. International is a much bigger part of the picture, so all comedies, including rom-coms, have been squeezed. And the math has changed dramatically so the major studios do not, for the most part, want to invest the effort capital on movies with limited returns.
Why did “black comedies” make a comeback? Because after years of success, the budgets had gotten high enough that the DVD money was their only profit stream and that stream dried up. So after years of drought, the budgets dropped back down and those films are now being made for very small budgets, have a committed, built-in audience, and are often making a profit in theatrical, even with little or no international audience.
There were six female-driven films in the Top 20 for 2013. There is a business there. But two were Sandra Bullock, two (one shared with SB) were Melissa McCarthy, one was Jennifer Aniston stripping, one was animated, and one was Oz. You could argue that American Hustle was female-driven, but might get some pushback. The only film of those 7 that was directed by a woman was co-directed and animated.
That is a problem that is very different than the “getting films made” problem. Put that weight on Bullock and McCarthy and Aniston if you like… or don’t. Gravity was an auteur film and only that one person could have made it, really. You can say that Oz happened with Raimi and something on that effects level might not find a female equivalent, so give it a pass. The other 3… at least 1 or 2 could probably have had female directors if the talent insisted.
But the real problem isn’t who is directing the biggest female stars. (All 5 Best Actress performances were directed by men.) The big problem is getting more female directors working on the vast middle of the studio business. And that issue is loaded with all the details that make a lot of people uncomfortable.
But I say the biggest remains basic profit motivations. Women are not gaining a reputation as making movies that generate big, big bucks. But a $30m movie that makes $30m in profit should be okay… but not so much to the majors right now.
With an opportunity to make those low-for-majors-budgeted films, successes will happen (as will flops) and riskier choices will come with them. But women need to get a chance to make those middle movies. And studios just do not want to be in the business of making those middle movies right now. It’s a middle-class that has all but disappeared.
All the talk in the world about opportunity and sexism and industry malaise, will never lead to anyone directing movies. Making movies is actually an affirmative thing, not an avoidance of discomfort. The stakes are too high. If you start with, “Let’s hire a woman because there need to be more female directors working at studios,” there will always be a cloud over the projects and the directors.
Betty Thomas and Penny Marshall became red-hot directors for a while because of their movies, not because of their gender. And their careers stalled for much the same reason.
Rebuild the middle class of American movies at studios and the change will come without being forced, without politics, and without much resistance. But until then, it is almost impossible, Don Quixote stuff.