Women and Hollywood and The Problem

Today, on IndieWire, Melissa Silverstein posted on her “Women and Hollywood” blog something so important, it was to big for Twitter:

Male Privilege Watch: Man With No Directing Experience to Direct Film With Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett

I was going to tweet this up, but then I paused, because I think it is important to have these examples written out in more than 140 characters.

Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett are set to star in Truth based on the book Truth And Duty: The Press, The President, And The Privilege Of Power written by former CBS producer Mary Mapes. The book is based CBS scandal regarding whether George W. Bush received special privileges to get out of Vietnam and into the national guard. The upshot is that Dan Rather who was CBS’ lead anchor at the time was disgraced, and Mary Mapes who was his producer, lost her job. Blanchett will play Mapes and Redford will play Rather.

Writer James Vanderbilt will be making his directorial debut on the film. He will also adapt Mapes’ memoir. Vanderbilt has written The Amazing Spiderman 1 and 2 as well as White House Down and Zodiac. HE HAS NO DIRECTING EXPERIENCE. (See earlier piece - The Unbelievable Privilege of Being a Male Director.)

To say that this will be a high profile film is an understatement. Deadline reports that they are eyeing a fall start, and with such high profile actors like Redford and Blanchett attached, the film will undoubtedly get awards attention.

The question this raises is, would a female writer be given this kind of opportunity? 

I read it this morning, shortly after it was posted. I felt compelled to comment, which would have made me #3 in the commenters’ queue. I wanted to say, “Hey, how about Nora Ephron through Diablo Cody?” But what I typed grew more into a rant and I had a day job I had to get to, so I let it sit. Besides, I knew there were going to be a slew of comments by the time I got home. And there were (read them). Of course, there were some that concurred with what was perceived as unfair that yet another man is directing yet another film. Men commented, too. Some were less polite, which fed the anti-men slant. Others, from both genders, were thoughtful and spoke the truth: This was a misguided, poorly chosen post. And, in my opinion, it does more to hinder the progress of women than it does to highlight inequities.

Melissa did respond:

The reason why I wrote this piece is because this happens all the time. This is not a one time thing. Bottom line – Men are given opportunities that women are not.

Oh, where do I begin with that?

First, no one in Hollywood “gives” someone anything, especially a writer. Especially with how difficult it is to get any film made today. The point Melissa sorely missed is this is not an issue about how a man got a directing gig with big names attached, it’s a celebration that a writer got an opportunity to direct. Period. A writer who has written many successful films (ZODIAK being my personal fave), and likely worked a very smart deal to direct his next screenplay. That’s not a man getting special treatment, that’s smart business (and likely a good agent).

It would be one thing if an established female director was attached to the project and then removed for a male screenwriter getting his first directing gig. That would’ve been “important” news needing more than 140 characters. But, it was just about a talented and successful writer, who happened to be a man, graduating into the director’s chair. Instead of journalism, what Melissa gave us was hysteria.

And, yes, that choice of word was deliberate.

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Perhaps that’s the problem I find myself having with “Women and Hollywood” — the choices that Melissa has made seemingly in the name of all women in Hollywood. In the name of the blog itself, the “and” seems to keep Women separate, outside of Hollywood, as if integration will never be possible. Then, I took a look at her logo. While I see the celebrations of women’s successes, it seems more that the point of the blog is to discuss the “Us vs. Them” slant of how Hollywood isn’t fair to women.

Well, name one industry that is fair and equitable to women. Seriously. I’m asking.

As women, we pretty much know we will not be treated equally. Laws do not treat us equally. Corporations are trying to take away some of our basic healthcare rights. We still don’t make an equal dollar, our dry cleaning costs more, our haircuts costs more and I could go on and on but I won’t. So, tell me: Hollywood is different how?

It’s different because, once you’re inside, you can help another get there, too. How many stories of women mentoring women is Melissa writing about? Seriously. I’m asking. But, once you get in to Hollywood, you will, indeed, be working with mostly men. Want to change that? Get yourself into a position where you can hire a few more women. But, learn to appreciate the men you work with, because it takes a village (and a lot of Teamsters) to make a movie. Once and for all, men are not the enemy in Hollywood. They are not the problem. The focus foreign sales might be, though, but that’s another post for another day.

I will admit that I’m new to “Women and Hollywood”. I was introduced to it earlier this summer at a mixer. As a writer, I’m pretty much a shut-in who doesn’t really network, and I limit my industry news to Deadline and my Twitter feed. I was excited when my friend invited me to that crowded little event. I looked forward to meeting a bunch of Women in Hollywood, and hopefully connect with another producer and possible a director to help me make my women-centric thriller. The ladies I met were smart, the conversation lively, but — as I’ve found is per usual at events like these — no real workable connections were made.

I did meet one director and happily took her card. I noted it was more about navigating the boys’ club than it was about directing, but the cards I were handing out that night were several years old, and certainly not my favorite. (It had been so long since I’ve networked like that, I forgot to restock my card case.) I IMDb-Pro’d her when I got home and was surprised to see how long it had been since she has a director credit. Over 15 years. I was disappointed to see that. With all of the energy she had, I wondered why wasn’t focused on directing a film? Because the best way to help another woman navigate the path is to set it ablaze.

My friend who took me to the event and I had just the day before been talking about how women don’t network like men. Men have sports — whether they place on a team together, or go to a professional game. Men don’t hesitate to ask for a connection, and most don’t hesitate to help make that connection. I don’t see that as a “boys’ club” mentality as I do a cultural difference. Women aren’t hanging out after work watching a game…or even the East Coast feed of “The Real Housewives”. The “sports” we seem to enjoy, like yoga or Pilates, aren’t exactly team-centric, forcing friendly competition where we can show our prowess or good sportsmanship. And, we don’t feel the need to high-five after a good plank, you know? The question she and I pondered was: How can women start networking like men? And I’m still asking that.

Male Privilege Watch? With that post, Melissa missed the mark and wounded not only herself, but “Women and Hollywood”. If that is the main agenda for her blog, I don’t have time for it. Instead of being unhappy with what she deems as Hollywood giving opportunities to men that they don’t to women, why isn’t she encouraging women to drive each other forward and make our own opportunities? Is Melissa even a filmmaker? Because only a filmmaker can truly understand what it is to be in this industry today, in this economic climate, trying to get a movie made. A journalist cannot. A blogger should not.

But, let me answer Melissa’s question (which she could’ve done via Google if she doesn’t have the list of female writer/directors tattooed on her brain like most women in Hollywood do) with everyone’s favorite, Nora Ephron. She was a writer with no directing experience whose first film flopped. What was her next? A huge success. Three guesses as to what it was. I’m not giving it to you. Nora became a director to help open more doors to screenwriters…and women. From her New York Times obituary:

Ms. Ephron began directing because she knew from her parents’ example how powerless screenwriters are (at the end of their careers both became alcoholics) and because, as she said in her Wellesley address, Hollywood had never been very interested in making movies by or about women. She once wrote, “One of the best things about directing movies, as opposed to merely writing them, is that there’s no confusion about who’s to blame: you are.”

And there you have it. If you are looking for someone to blame, grab your compact. YOU are responsible for your career. YOU have to create it. No one is going to “give” it to you. If you are a writer and you want to direct, write yourself a project that is so good you can attract the necessary talent to get it made. Not ready to direct? Find someone who is and loves your project as much as you do. If you are a director with no typing chops, find a writer with a great project you can sink your teeth into. Can’t raise the money? Make a short. Seek out a web series. Just do something. There are so many opportunities out there…but they aren’t going to pick up the phone and call you. You have to ferret them out or create them yourself.

I understand what Melissa was trying to do, but it seems she’s gone way off track. Forums like “Women and Hollywood” serve a purpose; they bring like-minded women together. But we need to be brought together for a much better reason than to bemoan what’s not fair in Hollywood. They should be bringing us together to make movies. Movies directed by women, written by women, starring women. If that’s what we want, who’s stopping us? Because I don’t see any men standing in my way. And, with all the women who follow Melissa’s blog, I’m sure it would take no time at all to cast and crew up a next-to-no-budget film that would knock everyone’s socks off.

The more we focus on the inequities, the less we focus on opportunities — namely, creating our own.

If you’re thinking, “Who the hell does this broad think she is to criticize our plight? What exactly has she done, anyway?” Well, I decided that I was done bitching about the film I’ve tried to get made for the past eight years, and another one for the past three. Then, I joked to an actor friend of mine, who also faced challenges getting his first film off the ground, that I would write something he could direct and then we’d both be done bitching. And I did. He and I are producing it along with another fantastic lady. We have our first investor and are planning a January shoot. No one “gave” us this opportunity. I sat down and wrote it. He agreed to do it, and now we are getting it done. We have a village behind us, full of women and men, and a long road ahead.

Hollywood isn’t an easy industry for anyone. While there is a clear gender bias, that’s no excuse not to make the opportunities ourselves. And it is just bad form not to celebrate the success of another. Tearing someone else down is the worst way to build yourself up. And that seems to have been Melissa’s problem today.

Congratulations, James Vanderbilt. Every screenwriter is celebrating with you. Even if they are green with envy. Cheers!

Persevere

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There are two quotes from Winston Churchill that I adore. The first:

When you’re going through Hell, keep going!

And the other:

Never, never, never give up.

It’s almost like Winston was a screenwriter/filmmaker. Because the fresh hell of our craft is how incredibly difficult it is to get anything made and/or seen, and how very long even the simplest project is to get made.

You hear stories of how many years films take to get to into production. I try to block those from my mind. Really. I don’t want it to be the norm that a film takes five to eight years to get the money and into production. It’s painful to think about. It is also reality. There will be many close calls and letdowns; you have to expect those, unfortunately. And, when they occur, you have to persevere.

I won’t bother telling you how long it’s taking us to get Black Coffee made. I am fortunate enough to have on the project people as stubborn and passionate and I am, determined to get this made. I will tell you that, even when you think a project is dead, it can come back to life. All it takes is one phone call, one email to tip that first domino and get everything falling into place. And that’s what seems to be happening with another project that’s merely three-and-a-half years old.

Of course, nothing is certain until the ink is dry and the check has cleared, cameras roll and post is completed. But it is perseverance that makes it happen. Writers can never give up. Filmmakers have to keep going through Hell to get their projects made. It’s a special kind of crazy that drives us. And it’s all for one little word: Yes.

Watch Yourself

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There was a very interesting post on Salon which posed the question: Does Hollywood hate adults? Which is what many movie-goers have been asking themselves for the past, oh, decade? Well, I’ve certainly been asking it for the last five years.

At dinner parties, I’ve always been the one to argue that film is still art, in spite of its commerce, and in spite of the manufactured “blockbusters” crammed into multiplexes. It’s supposed to make you feel, think, question and wonder, not simply serve as a vehicle to escape.

I was fortunate to have a childhood in a time when effects-laden hits (Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., An American Werewolf in London — remember that one?) co-mingled with thought-provoking films (Silkwood, Sophie’s Choice, Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer) and adult-driven comedy (Blazing Saddles, Animal House). The advent of HBO brought these films (in repetition) to my living room. And while I don’t doubt the effects-laden films and comedies would be made today (they are probably in development to be remade, as a matter of fact), I think the people behind the thought-provoking films would have a hell of a time getting them funded let alone to the screen.

The error Hollywood has made repeatedly is assuming what the audience wants. Hollywood thinks along the lines of genre and foreign sales. Yes, foreign markets dictate much of what and who we see on the screen. Yet, what Hollywood has often failed to acknowledge is that the American film audience likes variety. Big films along side small ones. Smart films to counterbalance the silly. They also don’t consider that adults would like to go to movies without their kids (or, for those of us without children, to films that don’t draw kids). Grown-ups would like to talk about what they just saw, and that is so much easier to do when you don’t leave the theatre deaf from the bombastic sound effects.

As a screenwriter, I write smaller, more personal films. But that does not limit their genre. I’ve written dark comedy, romantic comedy, suspense, drama and psychological thrillers. But the important factor for me is the characters. Because, as much as we might want to escape into a film, I believe we also want to relate. We want to see ourselves — either who we are, who we’ve been or how we hope to be — on the screen. Which seems to make the road to getting the film into the cinemas harder than it should.

I’ve heard many adults say, “There’s nothing for me to see at the movies.” Which kind of feels like a punch to the gut to me, and I’m sure every other independent filmmaker who is struggling to get their work to an audience. Because, even if you are fortunate enough to get the funds to make your movie, getting it into theatres is another struggle. We haven’t quite gotten to the point of finding a good way to a strong on-demand release and “direct to DVD” has that unfortunate stigma. That leaves the independents to carve the new terrain. But, sometimes, it’s good to look back before moving forward. Hollywood should take a look at its past to understand where its future success will lie: films for a more sophisticated audience. Because it does exist. And it is hungry for content.

The past decade has been so tumultuous for America (and the world). And, unlike the Great Depression, we aren’t longing for escape on the silver screen. We are seeking connection. We can find that in laughter, as well as tears; in a small story or an epic. We want to watch ourselves and hope to see that we will be okay. We will triumph. We will love and succeed. We will laugh about it. We will come out the other side better than we were before. Mostly, we want to be understood. And wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood got that?

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Update: I am currently crowdfunding my film, BLACK COFFEE, on Indiegogo. Please, check it out. The campaign runs through 15 October until 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time.