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Friday, May 16, 2014

It's not sexism that drives Hollywood, it's capitalism

The movie industry, particularly its hub in Hollywood, is not immune to sexism. But those saying it's a sexist industry either don't understand the workings of the movie business or are making excuses for their own failings, much same way as a felon who is a visible minority might blame being arrested on racism.

Cannes Judge Jane Campion
So when Cannes judge and movie director Jane Campion spoke about how sexism in the movie business keeps women's films "out of view," and is "undemocratic," it could be more about frustrated directors hindered by an inability to make popular entertainment than the conspiratorial workings of a sexist industry.

Speaking as someone who has worked as an executive with a major Hollywood film production company, I can tell you that the "ism" that drives Hollywood isn't sexism, or racism; it's capitalism.

Despite having the highest concentration in the world of people who wear their liberalism on their sleeves, all that socialist stuff Hollywood would impose on Wall Street and Main Street isn't something they are all that dedicated to practicing themselves. Hollywood is a place where Occupy Wall Street is pushed by multimillionarie champagne socialists like Michael Moore. Movie industry "progressives" live in enormous Beverly Hills estates with mansions that would outdo the most ornate palace owned by any of Louis XIV's dukes and marquises.

I worked for Participant Productions, which produced Academy Award-winning movies like Syrianna and highly acclaimed films including Good Night and Good Luck. As an organization that was focused on social issues-themed movies and founded by Jeff Skoll, one of the world's most enlightened philanthropists, we went out of our way to try to find women directors for projects to try to rectify the imbalance in the profession.

One of the films I was involved with for Participant, North Country, was a "based on a true story" movie about workplace sexual harassment in the mining industry. It had a fantastic cast of actors headlined by Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins and Michelle Monaghan, and a female director was found to tell what was thought of as primarily a woman's story.

It was a box office bomb.

Not all of that failure can be blamed on its director, Niki Caro, who directed the poignant, impressive low-budget feature Whale Rider in New Zealand. North Country was hindered by a tedious script that told a story mostly in flashback, and gave away critical plot revelations at its outset, eliminating a lot of the movie's ability to create dramatic tension.

But the movie's plodding pacing and its being a chick flick without a romance doomed it to also being a major studio release without a natural audience. Part of the director's job is to identify and fix those problems before and during filming and obviously, that didn't happen with North Country.

The charge of sexism against Hollywood comes up often and the reality is that it's not Hollywood's fault. The industry is driven by what audiences want to see. It's also no secret that the prime audience for movies consists of males between 14 and 35 years of age. It also should come as no surprise in a world where about 20 per cent of Internet revenue is derived from pornography that the objectification of women is going to play some role in movie entertainment.

But that's on screen. Behind it, it's a business where some of the most important producers are women, like Kathleen Kennedy, and there are plenty of brilliant, powerful women executives calling the shots, like Zanne Devine and Sherry Lansing.

Hollywood is in reality a very conservative town when it comes to business. That's why most big budget movies these days are low-risk comic book franchises. When looking for a director, the main criterion for both female and male executives and producers is to find the person most likely to make it a success. So in choosing a director, a production company will want someone with a track record of being "bankable." For whatever reason, there are very few bankable female directors.

The dearth of female directors isn't really a 'chicken and egg' dilemma of women not getting to make many movies, therefore being unable to prove that they can make successful movies. The way many directors break into the business is to struggle to scrape together enough money and resources to make their first low-budget movie. That's how Martin Scorsese, Doug Liman and a very long list of today's top directors started out.

However, there's a lot more to it still. After some Hollywood executive notices that little low-budget gem and signs its director up to do their first studio film, that multi-million dollar project has to meet commercial and critical expectations. If it doesn't, the director is back at the starting gate.

Do you remember Eduardo Sanchez? Most people don't. He was a director on The Blair Witch Project, which was the most commercially successful micro budget movie of all time. But he wasn't able to recreate that success, which is why you don't know who he is. And there are plenty more Eduardo Sanchezes than there are Robert Rodriguezes, whose low budget El Mariachi blasted him into the big time.

It's not like there aren't women directors out there. Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, gets to make big budget movies. But yes, there fairly few Kathryn Bigelows out there.

It's hard to say exactly why.  We do know that make and female brains, at the biological, hormonally-driven level do function differently. Women seem more predisposed to wanting to focus on the emotional aspects of relationships. That's nice for lunch conversation, but when every 16 year old boy in the movie theater expects a car chase or someone's head to be blown off at least once every seven and a half minutes on screen, that emotional stuff's not consistently conducive to box office success.

The Cannes judge complaining about the undemocratic sexism in movies, Jane Campion, did enjoy critical success with her film The Piano some years ago. Speaking for myself, I found it excruciatingly boring and was unable to sit through the whole thing. Evidently, I'm not the only person who felt that way, or we'd have seen more Jane Campion movies in subsequent years.

Orson Welles once remarked that being a movie director is the only profession in the world where you can be incompetent and go on being successful for thirty years without anyone discovering it. That's true, and the reason for it is that Hollywood has no shortage of ignorant senior executives. I personally knew two Vice-Presidents of Production who, though thinking they did, did not actually understand what a movie director does.

If a duck-billed platypus directed a low budget movie that grossed a hundred million dollars last week, you can bet your life that planeloads of Hollywood executives would be flying to Australia right now trying to find another platypus to direct their upcoming big-budget feature. Because in the end, for Hollywood studios, it doesn't matter what sex you are, where you come from or what you look like. It's about how much money you can make for them.

What could be more democratic than that?


CQ said...

Sadly, U.S. TV director and (1960s era) actress Nancy Malone passed away a week ago.

David said...

Not necessarily take the 2011 movie the Artist. It was a black & white silent movie and did extremely poorly at the box office. The movie did however deliver on five academy awards. They may know that they make movies that interests few people but sometimes in situations like this peer recognition in the form of awards is what they seek.

Richard K said...

Absolutely, there are occasions when studios are willing to take risks on "prestige" projects. But even in those cases they want a director whom they are confident can pull it off.

However those are the exception. Believe me, the studios aren't in business to lose money.