Inside The ‘Secret Meeting’ To Solve Gender Inequality In Hollywood

CREDIT: AP Photo/Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

On October 14, 44 Hollywood insiders met at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. This co-ed group of leaders came from studios and networks, from agencies and guilds; their ranks included CEOs, producers, directors, screenwriters, showrunners. They were brought together by Sundance Institute and Women in Film, Los Angeles, for an evening and a day. The two organizations had one goal: To come up with actionable, tangible steps to tackle the deeply entrenched gender bias in the entertainment industry.

Discrimination against women in film and television is so rampant and systemic it could very well constitute a civil rights violation. Data on women in film reveals “an epidemic of invisibility” both on-screen and behind the camera. The biggest stars on Earth — Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jessica Chastain among them — have spoken out about making less money than their equal-in-status male costars. And if the odds aren’t ever in Katniss Everdeen’s favor, one can imagine what women with less fame, less leverage, and less power are battling every day.

The October meeting only became public last week. Why the secrecy?

“That’s a great question,” said Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of WIF, by phone. “Did we actually say secrecy?”

The Deadline headline: “Secret Meeting Of Hollywood Leaders Proposes “Gender Parity Stamp” Of Approval For TV, Movies.”

“The media said secrecy,” Schaffer amended. WIF and Sundance said “organized and conducted in private. And I think private led to ‘secrecy.’ The meeting wasn’t ‘secret,’ we just wanted to keep it small so we could actually do some deep work.” That said, “I think it’s kind of fun they called it secret, though.”

“Our goal was really simple: To come up with three solutions,” said Schaffer. “And we came up with four.” They are:

● Advocate “Unconscious Bias” training across the industry. This, the group emphasized in a statement, is important not just for equality but because failing to make movies that appeal to anyone but cisgender, straight, white men “leads to missed market opportunities” which, by extension, “limit[s] profits.” “An expert Unconscious Bias educator will be selected to work with executives and creatives across the industry.

● Develop and launch a Gender Parity Stamp to recognize films, TV shows, production companies, networks and studios “that show measurable progress to achieving gender equity.” This mark of approval, modeled after the PGA’s Producers Mark and similar efforts by LGBT advocates, will be granted to companies “that have prioritized equal gender hiring practice and have financed or supported business opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera.”

● Launch a pilot Sponsor/Protégé Program to “identify talented early-to-mid career female film and TV directors for a year-long training and fellowship program, and pair them with advocates across the industry who will actively help them move to the next level.” Unlike most existing training programs, this fellow would be able “to work across different networks, studios and agencies.”

● Ambassadors — industry leaders chosen at the meeting — will “spread the word about the solutions to studios, networks and agencies.” These individuals are committed to continuing the work initiated by this summit, and “will enlist an ever-growing group of advocates to work inside their organizations on articulating the business case for making changes in culture and practices to hire more women and people of color.”

Sundance Institute and WIF started their formal partnership three years ago, with the foundation of the Female Filmmakers Initiative. Gender inequality, rampant in the entertainment industry — and, well, in every industry — was evident even within the independent, lower-budget space that the Sundance Film Festival occupied. For over a decade, only 25 percent of American directors at Sundance were female. Turns out that not-so-hot number is better than the industry-wide ratio: The top 100 films of 2014 employed exactly two female directors among them. Between 2007 and 2014 (excluding 2011), 779 directors were responsible for the top 700 grossing films, and only 24 of them were women.

Through the FFI, Sundance and WIF participated in a few of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s annual studies on inequality in the top 100 grossing films of the year. This year’s effort was even more comprehensive than usual, compiling data from seven separate studies dating back to 2007 and finding that, with limited exception, portrayals of gender, race, and LGBT status have remained stagnant since 2007.

“Through that data, both quantitative and qualitative, we’ve been able to really parse the issue and better understand both the numbers and where it is that female directors fall out of the pipeline,” said Schaffer. “We live in a data-driven world. So the more data that’s out there, the more the movement is able to build.”

Armed with this research, “We realized that it was time to focus on action and started to take a look at the problem as a systemic one that requires an industry-wide solution,” Shaffer said.


That “industry-wide” piece was key. “Sometimes people will try to pinpoint, ‘It’s the agencies, it’s the studios, it’s the networks, it’s the production companies.’ And what we came to realize was: It’s everywhere. And the only way we’re going to solve it is to bring everyone together in a think-tank-like environment and come up with solutions that are system-wide.”

Schaffer said that Sundance and WIF started interviewing consultants last November; in June, they selected Carolyn Buck Luce and Rob Evans from Imaginal Labs. (Imaginal Labs mostly works with for-profit companies and chooses non-profit work when the mission aligns with their values. “I am a real believer that the world will be better with diverse teams at the table,” Luce said by phone.) A small meeting with a small group followed in July, led by Luce and Evans, at which “[we] look through: What do we really need to solve? What does winning look like?” and evaluate the work done to date, Luce said.

With Imaginal Labs and with the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit Luce co-founded, Luce has worked with companies including Google, Goldman Sachs, GE, and Johnson and Johnson, to address gender inequality, and other forms of discrimination, within their ranks. “Rob and I brought the domain expertise of, what does it actually take to move the needle of gender equity, and what does it take to get multiple stakeholders aligned around approaches that can actually solve these problems?” Luce said.

Invites for the wider convening went out in August. “We were looking to put together a diverse group of decision-makers within the industry: People from studios, networks, production companies,” said Schaffer. In an effort to represent the Guilds, Howard Rodman, president of WGA, and Kim Pierce, DGA member and director and writer of Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss, were included as well. “We had an actor/producer [Maria Bello], we had a couple writers and directors, in TV and film.” The mix was made up of “people that we knew were good thinkers and willing to lean in on this issue and continue to do the work with us, and who had enough clout in their company or specific business that they could help us move forward.”

Right around this time — on May 12, to be exact — the American Civil Liberties Union officially requested that state and federal agencies launch an investigation into Hollywood’s sexist hiring practices. But according to both the ACLU and WIF, neither was directly involved in the other’s effort, and Schaffer says the planning for this convening predates the ACLU’s efforts by several months.

Melissa Goodman, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said by phone that “I think our actions, certainly, have turned up the pressure and the heat to get folks, and particularly those with hiring power, to more urgently address these issues… One of our goals was to get those with hiring power to pay closer attention, to address it more urgently, to have effective, concrete reform… And we support any effort, though we were not directly involved.”

“Back when we put out the letters to the government agencies, it’s not like we thought we were uncovering any new problem,” Goodman said. “People have been writing and doing studies about this problem of systemic discrimination against women for decades.” (As for the ACLU’s ongoing efforts, Goodman said, “there has been a dialogue” with which the ACLU “is very, very pleased… I certainly think that attention is being paid at the highest level in a way that, I think, suggests a real concern about this very troubling problem.”)


CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

“It’s important for many reasons that the studios and networks be paying attention to this,” Goodman said. “Yes, because it’s the right thing to do — it’s completely shameful that one of the largest industries in our state systemically excludes women — [but also], it matters because they have real potential legal liability that they need to pay attention to. And it matters culturally, because of what it creates. The systematic discrimination in the hiring of women to make our most powerful cultural products, TV and film, has a direct effect on actual discrimination that happens out in the world to women and girls… Doing nothing or being silent means you’re actually part of the problem, and that’s something people have to realize.”

Why didn’t WIF and Sundance team up with the ACLU and take a legislative approach? “Given our two mission statements, we believe that working from within the system is going to be more effective, for us, than working from outside of the system,” said Schaffer.

That said, “Because it’s a systemic problem, it very well may take a variety of solutions to solve it, and the ACLU action is certainly part of the solution,” said Schaffer. “But the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] themselves have said, ‘we hope the industry finds a way to solve this problem before we get to it.’” (Note: EEOC spokesman Joseph Olivares has said the organization “encourage[s] the industry to publicly address the serious issues raised by the ACLU and to take proactive steps to address these issues.”)

Mike De Luca says he always tried to hire with an eye toward diversity. As the producer (Social Network, Moneyball, Fifty Shades of Grey) and former executive at Sony, New Line, and Dreamworks, put it, “Just because, on a practical level, waiting in line for the same ten successful male directors is a drag,” he said by phone. “But I never saw the big picture all put together for how hard it is for female and diverse voices to break in, and how much easier it is for white males to break in. I had never really processed the why of it, or my own unconscious role in it.”

De Luca was part of the small gathering in July, so he was “aware of the stats” by the time he arrived at the convening in October. Still, “the breadth of it and the size of the gap was a little shocking to me,” he said, as was seeing how discrimination is a factor at every level, from getting early gigs on commercials to directing blockbusters. De Luca was also stunned by how even the stats were at film school — at the top film schools in the country, women and men are almost equally represented; women make up 46 percent of graduate students at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and 51 percent at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — yet how quickly that drops off as these women try to gain entry into the professional world. “That was all new information to me, and started to paint a cohesive picture of the industry.”

“The most ‘aha’ moments,” as Schaffer put it, came from the 30-minute presentation on unconscious bias by Judith Williams, the global head of diversity for Dropbox and former diversity manager at Google. Williams explained the origins of unconscious bias, “start[ing] from this place of talking about caveman days and how we’re biologically wired to pattern match, and we do that to this day: We look for people who are familiar to us and, in doing so, we leave out things that are ‘other.’”

“The unconscious bias thing really landed with me, because it’s hideous,” said De Luca. “I feel like I’ve been the beneficiary of a system that leans into that a little bit. I can remember a few times in my career, I was a protégé of other white men who said, ‘I really see myself in you.’ And you get to this kind of boys club where you’re the recipient of great intel, and in my case, second and third and fourth and fifth chances, and I’m grateful for all that, but I also feel humbled by [the fact that] other people definitely have not had that same kind of luck and indulgences. It’s on me to not take that for granted… and to create a path of success for people that are different from me, that look different from me, that aren’t men.”


CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

The very scenario De Luca described made headlines earlier this year when Colin Trevorrow, a director with only one film on his resume (the indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, which had only a $750,000 budget), was chosen to direct this summer’s Jurassic World. Why? According to producer Frank Marshall, because Brad Bird said Trevorrow is “this guy that reminds me of me.” Trevorrow was one of a few young, white, male directors with itty-bitty track records lifted from relative obscurity to call the shots on major motion pictures: Josh Trank had only made $12 million sci-fi movie Chronicle when he was hired by Fox to direct this summer’s Fantastic Four reboot (…it didn’t go well) and Jon Watts, who shot the thriller Cop Car for just $800,000 was hired by Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios to take the reigns (web?) of the Spider-Man franchise.

You may be wondering: How many women have directed superhero movies? To date, none. Patty Jenkins is slated to direct the latest attempt to get a Wonder Woman movie to the screen, scheduled to premiere in June 2017. She landed the job after Michelle MacLaren left (“creative differences”). Had MacLaren kept the gig, she would have been the first woman to direct a superhero blockbuster. Then again, Jenkins was supposed to be the first woman to direct a superhero blockbuster long before MacLaren was even attached to Wonder Woman; she was signed on to direct Thor 2 but was dropped — The Hollywood Reporter cited sources who said she was “fired without warning” — and replaced with a man, Alan Taylor.

When Trevorrow was asked by the L.A. Times why female filmmakers weren’t getting opportunities on that super scale, he said, “Obviously it’s very lopsided, and hopefully it’s going to change as time goes on. But it hurts my feelings when I’m used as an example of white, male privilege. I know many of the female filmmakers who are being referred to in these articles. These women are being offered these kinds of movies, but they’re choosing not to make them.”

At the meeting, De Luca said, the group looked at studies pointing to the biases — “some unconscious, some not” — that hold women back in the film industry. In a shocking twist (or maybe it would just be shocking to Trevorrow), “women choose not to make them” did not come up. What did arise were preconceived notions about capabilities of women, or lack thereof: “Can women handle action films?” “Can women handle big budget tentpoles?” “We’d hire more women if there were more available; we just don’t get their names.”

“Those kinds of things are prevalent in the industry,” said De Luca. “It’s a systemic thing that needs a long-term solution. Those are the kinds of things that need to start getting overturned, because facts and evidence don’t support them.”

De Luca doesn’t think unconscious bias training should be hard to implement in theory, but the kicker, as always, is that it costs money. The convening was sponsored by BMW (Schaffer said the company will “continue to be engaged in this work”) and the supporters of the Female Filmmakers Initiative, “but getting companies to spend their own money to receive that information will be challenging,” De Luca said. “I think once the full presentation is made, the positive effect it can have on your business as a whole will hopefully galvanize companies to want to do it.”

As long as we’re talking about money, one key facet of gender inequality in Hollywood is notably absent from the four-point plan: Any mention of the pay gap.

According to De Luca, participants did discuss equal pay. Jennifer Lawrence’s essay about discovering, through the Sony Hack, that she received a lower salary than her male costars in American Hustle, ran in the Lenny newsletter on October 13, just days before the convening.

“I think we were so focused on getting women in the door and behind the camera and evening that playing field,” said De Luca. “The focus was really on trying to even out that imbalance, that percentage of male to female directors. [We stayed] focused, pretty much, on getting people behind the camera.”

“But there’s unequal pay there too,” he added.


CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

“Some of what happens around unequal pay is about women not having had the opportunities — there’s fewer roles for women, fewer opportunities to direct, so if they’re not working as much, they’re not moving up the pay ladder,” said Schaffer. She referenced Viola Davis’ rousing acceptance speech from this year’s Emmys; Davis, who became the first African American to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role in How to Get Away With Murder, declared from the podium that “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

“So we’re addressing the pay issue by helping more women get those opportunities so they can move up,” said Schaffer. She acknowledged, though, that “there’s another part of the pay issue that we’re not addressing.”

Speaking generally about narrowing the objectives from the meeting down to four, Luce said, “Part of strategy is knowing what you’re going to take off the table.”

Gender equality, and the pursuit thereof, is having a moment. But moments are fleeting. Feminism is cool, for now. But cool is an ephemeral quality that can fade faster than Marty McFly’s family from a photograph. It is discrimination and inequality, not fairness and parity, that is the norm, as it has been since the dawn of cinema. What happens to these initiatives when the new cause du jour starts trending?

“This is the moment for change because that’s not going to last forever,” said Schaffer. “I hope it’s a general evolution toward thinking about gender equality — there’s a great evolution happening now, empowered by social media, on racial equality, that we haven’t seen in a long time — but these things wax and wane. I hope we stay in this trendy moment long enough to get solutions implemented.”

Schaffer says programs will be put into place “over the course of the next year,” though “I think it will be a while before we start to see the results of that work, before we start to see the numbers change.”

Before joining WIF early this year, Schaffer spent fourteen years as the executive director and head of programming for Outfest, an LGBT film festival in Los Angeles. “I never thought the LGBT movement would move as quickly as it did, and it did,” she said. “In ten years, it made huge leaps. In the last year, the transgender movement has made incredible leaps. So I think that the same is likely to be true here, because the people in power and coming into power have been raised by feminist moms. You’re looking at 40- and 50-years-olds who have a lot of power in this industry who were raised by a different kind of mom.”

One litmus test for progress, Schaffer said, is the Academy — and yes, she means the Academy that nominated a 20 white actors and zero actors of color, the whitest slate of Oscar nominees since 1995. “I think the Academy is really changing,” Schaffer said, evidenced by the last round of members to be inducted. “There were definitely more women and people of color on the list and that’s a good indicator of the industry.”

She also pointed to the newest players in town. “If we look at the up and comers, like Amazon and Netflix, the shows they’re making and their mandates for hiring, that’s the next generation,” Schaffer said. “So they’re making money and doing well, and the rest of the industry is going to have to compete to keep up with that.”

De Luca: “I think where it becomes good business is, audiences, especially younger audiences — and millennials are a much bigger generation than Gen X or baby boomers — they are going to bristle at the same story being told told over and over again by the same people. If there was ever a time for companies to recognize [that] there are tremendous business opportunities from telling stories from different points of view… it’s going to be in the coming decade.”

“Maybe I’m an optimist, but I feel like there’s a spirit of working together around this,” said Schaffer. “And maybe that’s also because it’s what came out of this convening: An acknowledgment that there’s no one person or part of the industry to blame, and if we all do our part to make a difference, it will change. I think that most people are genuinely interested in seeing a change and, I would add, are starting to realize there’s a good business case as well.”

“This is the entertainment industry. It is driven by art, but is ultimately a business,” said Schaffer. “And if we can make a strong enough business case for including women and women’s stories, it will change.”