Women Breaking Barriers: Where Are We Now?


The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) hosted the “Women Breaking Barriers: Where Are We Now?” panel discussion at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival featuring a Q&A with HFPA member Silvia Bizio, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and guests Kyra Sedgwick, Octavia Spencer, Jenna Elfman, and Cassian Elwes.

Together, they addressed who gets to make the decisions, what guides those decisions, who has access, who is telling the stories, and how is the industry representing everybody in our culture; women, people of colour, and how do they get represented.

Bizo, described the conversation as a “vital, messy, important, passionate conversation that’s playing out with such importance not just in our industry, but in the broader world.”

Here are the highlights of the one of Sundance 2019’s most important industry conversations:

Keri Putnam, Sundance Institute Executive Director - Courtesy of Sundance TV

Keri Putnam, Sundance Institute Executive Director - Courtesy of Sundance TV

Keri: The Sundance labs is a place where we work at a very early stage with artists to help them define their creative visions and find their voices. And at our labs, we are seeing women submit at over 50%. And we’re seeing that women are, as much as men, wanting to tell stories and write stories. In fact, they’re participating all across Sundance lab programs and granting at 50% or more.

What we then see as we come to the festival and we look at our submissions; the barrier to getting to Sundance Film Festival is you have to have gotten financing, you have to have made your film. In the short film category, women are still submitting pretty strong, maybe 35%. By the time you get to the scripted features here at Sundance, women represent only 20% of the submissions.

They are 53% of our competition this year. So, they’re just making awesome work. A lot of times you hear this myth that there just aren’t women ready for those opportunities. We at Sundance know for sure—that’s not true.

Silvia Bizio - Courtesy of Sundance TV

Silvia Bizio - Courtesy of Sundance TV

Silvia: Thank you. And how do we move forward?

Keri: You have a lot of women in your group, but what I think we found is that the majority of press being accredited here reflecting the world were white men, and what we realised is the very diverse array of artists here were finding that their work was being translated to the world by a very single lens out of Sundance.

We heard the actual real-world affects that that was having on our artists and on our community. And so, we decided to reshape our press core this year and we have a 63% now underrepresented; women, people of colour, LGBT press.

Silvia: Octavia, you were here last year and we had a very emotional moment, where you told us that for the first time in your career you had gotten equal pay to your white co-star. What are your goals as a Producer now?

Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain in  The Help  - Courtesy of © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain in The Help - Courtesy of © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

Octavia: Well, I think my goal is to make sure that all women of colour get equal pay and all women get equal pay. And the only way to do it is to have these conversations, to talk numbers with your co-stars.

Jessica and I stood together. We also need advocates and allies in negotiating. And, I have to say, when I was negotiating my deal for Madam C.J. Walker, Lebron James had to intervene.

So, we need all of our male counterparts to be in the fight with us, because you know what? We’re going to be on that set the same amount of days as our male co-stars, and I think equal pay is in line for all of us, right?

Elisabeth: Cassian, you have the numbers in your hands, where are we now?

Cassian Elwes and Jenna Elfman - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Cassian Elwes and Jenna Elfman - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Cassian: Well, the number of films directed by women at studios actually went down this year. It went down from 7% over the last 4 years down to 4% with 1.9% directed by women of colour, which is just staggering—I mean, it’s beyond staggering.

Where are we now? I just think men are on a steep learning curve in Hollywood. I was in the middle of a negotiation actually in the last two days where the lawyer for the male star was saying, “Oh, he should get a bit more than she should,” and I was like “Absolutely not! There are going to be most favoured nations in this deal.” They are going to get the same deal, basically. And he’s like, “Well, he’s going to be working more days than her,” and I was like, “Ok, but we’re holding her for just as much time too.” And he said, “Well, what have you got to say for that?” And I said, “I’m just going to say two things, two words man: Time’s Up.”

Elisabeth: I love it. Kyra and Jenna, it’s been said a long time ago that in order for a woman to get stuff made in this business, whatever it may be, you have to become a producer. Can you talk about your experiences with all this, both of you?

Kyra Sedgewick - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Kyra Sedgewick - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Kyra: Well, I started producing when I was 27. I definitely think that the earlier you can get in the game, the better. And I do think that you have a huge amount of klout. You can make a lot of decisions. You can say, “50% below the line needs to be women.” You can make a lot of rules.

Jenna: There’s that Steve Martin quote “Be so good that they can’t ignore you,” and so, I feel like, for me, anything I do, I try to become extremely competent at it.

If you’re a producer, learn from the best. Read everything from every producer you admire. Learn everything and don’t ever think you know everything there is to know. Just keep learning and getting better at whatever it is you do, and just be so good that they can’t ignore you.

I think, for women, having that voice when you know you’re good at something; you can hold your position gracefully, and you have worth and value. You know it because you’re good. I think that is some of the best advice that I can give is just be so good at whatever it is that you do.

Elisabeth: Women have been doing this for a long time—trying to be the best, and I guess, have you always felt that that was enough? This is a question for all of you.

Jenna Elfman and Octavia Spencer - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Jenna Elfman and Octavia Spencer - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Octavia: There are so few roles for women. But now, women are creating their own narratives and that’s what’s important. But, I can tell you there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me doing this many years ago. So, I mean, I’m here now and I guess that’s a testament to how things are changing and evolving. We have to evolve with the times or we get left behind. So, I think that’s the challenge: to continue to evolve.

Kyra: I think, generally speaking—there are more roles for men, there are more positions for men. As producer I can tell you when we’re casting a pilot, when we’re trying to find directors for pilots, it’s hard to get the female names on there. You just have to keep pushing it.

I also think that—present company perhaps excluded—women always have to try, work harder than men because they are in a patriarchal system. So, for me, I’d rather hire someone who’s a little green, but I know, as a woman, is going to work her ass off. Maybe put a head of department as a woman or a man, but someone who has done this job for a long time. Then, you bring people up.

You want to reach down. If you’re a woman, I mean, I actually heard James Rosenthal say this, but;

If you’re a woman in power in Hollywood right now, and you’re not reaching down and pulling up another woman—you know you’re fucking up. You know you are. And I really mean that.
— Kyra Sedgewick

We need to support each other and we need to know we do work harder than the men because we have to, because it’s still a man’s world.

Elisabeth: Here’s a question for Cassian. Are men scared now? What happens when you’re in a room and you’re talking amongst yourselves or you’re standing at a bar. What is the conversation?

Cassian: I feel like, we’re still in the Dark Ages in the way that men treat women. We really are. We’re just starting to come out, the ice is just starting to melt a little bit.

Hollywood is just starting to get the feeling that there should be gender equality. And I really feel that’s not really gonna happen, until the men lean in as well as the women. Men need to be, also trying to run in the same direction as women because that’s where change is going to occur.

The last year, obviously, because of all the glossy things that have happened with #MeToo and #TimesUp, at least now that’s put the issue on the table. Men in the business are starting to see that actually—and this is where things are going to change—it makes good business sense to hire women to actually work on their movies.

There’s a ReFrame stamp that basically says that (at least) 25% of the people that were hired on this movie were women. So, it’s a little incremental step. I was very happy to see that Late Night won this huge big bidding war here because that has the ReFrame stamp on it; they hired women to make that movie. And so, things are changing.

Late Night  feat. Mindy Kaling - Courtesy of Amazon

Late Night feat. Mindy Kaling - Courtesy of Amazon

Yesterday, Paul Feig issued the 4% challenge, that within the next 18 months, he’ll work with a female director. I want to be in it, I want other male colleagues to be in it too. I want other women who have the power to be in it too. Things are going to change when people who have power actually use it.

Elisabeth: I was thinking about, where are the women directors? From what we see in the documentary from Geena Davis, there are a lot. So what can practically be done, from producers and studio heads to pick from that famous pile?

Octavia: Oh it’s easy. If the talent is there, the representation is there, and there are several women directors, and there are several women executive producers—just do it. You know?

Cassian: When I read the script for Mudbound...first of all, it made me cry while I was reading the script.

Dee Rees BTS  Mudbound  - Steve Dietl / Netflix

Dee Rees BTS Mudbound - Steve Dietl / Netflix

But I thought, I’m going to get a black female director for this movie and sadly, I’m in the business, I’m making tons of movies, I could only think of four. And then, I suddenly thought, what about that movie I saw at Sundance six years ago, that was a work of genius. What happened to that director?

And she (Dee Rees) was a classic case of a black female director who hadn’t made a movie in six years. And then I saw the Annenberg report; when a young white male director comes to Sundance and has a successful first movie, he’s making a movie within a year and a half. When a woman, forget a black woman, but when a woman brings a movie to Sundance, it takes them, on average, six years to make the next one.

I mean, how do you survive in that period of time? How do you keep a career going? How do you live? You have to do other things. So, that’s why so many women fall out of this. There’s so many different points of entry, of responsibility.

One is the agents when they go to the studios: pitch female directors. One is the junior executives: pitch it to your boss. Senior Executives: hire one!

For me, I just finished my second picture with her, and she’s turned out to be one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever worked with and a total blessing.

Elisabeth: So in terms of numbers you said, we haven’t come that far in a year. But in terms of conversation, do you feel that we have?

Kyra: Oh I feel like we’re having many, many, more conversations. I think we’re having the right kind of conversations.  There’s a lot of things that are trying to shift and change in this country, and the entertainment industry is just one point of entry. We’re not doing it perfectly. Personally, I would love it if the pendulum swung way in the wrong direction and see women get offered everything. Jill Soloway’s idea where all men should just stop making stuff, you know, that was kind of funny.

Kyra Sedgewick - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Kyra Sedgewick - Courtesy of SundanceTV

Cassian: By the way, Jill said another fun thing. She said, “the reason why young male studio executives hire young male directors is because they love young dudes getting together and doing young dudely stuff with each other.”

We went round with the ReFrame program with the groups of ambassadors to the various different major studios to try to get sign-off on the idea, that they would actually start hiring female directors, and I went in to studios that wouldn’t sign it. They didn’t want to be told what to do. They said that they’re doing it anyway, which is absolute garbage.

Jenna: So, they should have no problem signing it.

Octavia: I think what’s exciting to me now is I feel like there is a paradigm shift and women are leading the charge with that, and we just have to continue our momentum. We have to remember that, all of us, we need to work together—men and women. We need to advocate for each other. I think we’ve made considerable strides in the conversation. Are we there yet? No. But, are we where we were? No. And that’s what’s promising.

We can’t be these little, asking-for-permission things. So in the workplace, you can be graceful and commanding and just help the men do the right thing.
— Jenna Elfman

Jenna: I feel like every situation requires a different colour of paint, as with anything in life.

I was told once—I was starring in a show, but I wasn’t the first person brought in on a show—I was told, after having a hugely successful career and the two male leads had never done television, “You can’t make more than him.” And I said, “why?” And they said, “Well, that would be uncomfortable on set.” And I said, “For who?”

And I said “Either pay me this or no thank you.” So, I got paid more.

Elisabeth: Where do we want to be, if we could dream, and build, and have ideas, where do we want to be a year from now?

Kyra: I’ve started a production company. We’ve been producing for about over a year now, with two women. And every single thing that we have on our slate is women-focused and diversity-focused.

I think you have to put your creative juices where your mouth is and where your desire is. My desire is to see more women in the workplace and more women stories reflected back to us, so that we can go and see our stuff and know that this is a woman’s point of view. That’s where I want to be a year from now.

Cassian: I want to dream about a time when we don’t have to have these panels anymore. Where business as usual is just hiring women and men in an equal way. Everyone gets a fair shot at what it is they want to do. There shouldn’t be any discrimination whatsoever against anybody for anything.

Jenna: As a performer, what I’d like to see, what turns me on is, full textured, multi-faceted characters—like who we are in life. I want to see stories of women doing what we are doing, (because) we’re doing amazing things.

Mark Wahlberg and Octavia Spencer on the set of  Instant Family

Mark Wahlberg and Octavia Spencer on the set of Instant Family

Octavia: Well, what Mark Wahlberg—yes I just dropped a name—has been teaching me in my workouts is action. What I’m learning is action, and I think we all need to take action. So, why don’t we start with: tell your stories. They’re varied, they’re interesting—tell your stories. And I think that’s where we have to start. Male or female—write it. And then, we have avenues like Sundance Institute.

Utilise every option available to you, but don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it—take action. If you want to be a writer and you haven’t written anything, you need to write. You want to produce something, start small. And I have one more thing to add: Find your tribe. It’s not a solitary journey. Find your tribe and get there together.

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Special Thanks to Jessica Daly for Transcribing this vital conversation.