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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The New York Times has it wrong - there are plenty of powerful women in Hollywood and it's not sexism that's keeping them out

Maureen Dowd's "The Women in Hollywood Speak Out" article in The New York Times asserts that pervasive sexism is preventing women from directing blockbusters and running studios.

There may be a very small element of truth in that, but the crux of the article suggests both a lack of understanding about how Hollywood works and a pretty large heap of sour grapes.

In the first place, there are lots of women in powerful positions in Hollywood. Sherry Lansing ran Paramount for years, there are big time women producers cluttering Hollywood. I know some of these women, and they are very good at what they do, which is why they were able to be in a position to do it.

The main thing to remember about Hollywood is that despite the not entirely unfair caricature of Hollywood being filled with horny old men who get into show business to bed sexy young actresses, these days, that's mostly a sleazy fringe of a major industry. Hollywood's movie business is a business. Like any other business, money and good PR drive it. Studios are actually looking for more women directors because they know it reflects well on the organization. But, despite Hollywood's big players liking to look like they're vanguard of progressivism,  they're actually quite conservative when it comes to their business ledgers. No studio head is going to hand a $300 million budget to a director unless there's a high level of confidence that the investment will turn into a profit.

And the fact is, there aren't few women directors who have demonstrated that they can generate those kinds of revenues with their films. Hollywood is also not a place where a lot of original thought occurs on the whole. There are some brilliant visionaries there, and many of them are women. But as in any other field, most people have average capabilities and follow trends. When I worked at a major Hollywood production company, people occasionally asked me whether the lack of female directors was due to sexism. My response was to say that if a duckbill platypus directed a movie that had an $80 Million box office weekend, you can bet your life that on Monday, there would be planeloads of Hollywood executives flying to Australia to try to sign the first duckbill platypus they see to a directing contract.

Women tend to make movies that appeal to women's sensibilities. That's great, but the money is in watching aliens from outer space trying to annihilate the Earth and having comic book superheroes save us from certain death.

Indicative of Dowd's article, and demonstrative of my point, is this complaint from Leslye Headland:
Headland made this fall’s ‘‘Sleeping With Other People,’’ a raunchy rom-com starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, in 25 days for $5 million from a script she drafted in two weeks, chronicling her obsession with a ‘‘lame’’ ex-boyfriend. ‘‘Quentin Tarantino can make ‘Pulp Fiction’ for $8 million and you can slap him on any magazine,’’ Headland said. ‘‘He’s the poster boy. He was for me. I want to be that guy even though he looks like a foot. God bless him, and he can do whatever he wants to my feet. But with a female director, you’re just not celebrated the same way.’’
Pulp Fiction was a huge hit that revitalized the careers of Bruce Willis and John Travolta, made stars out of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, and inspired dozens of imitations and iconic cultural touchstones, like Jackson and Travolta's conversation about "the Royale with Cheese, " and "bring up the Gimp." Most people have never heard of Sleeping With Other People, and fewer still have seen it or could name anything memorable about it.

Pulp Fiction grossed $213 million dollars on an $8 million dollar budget in 1994. Sleeping With Other People grossed $814 thousand on a $5 million budget in 2015. You don't have to have to be an expert in either economics or gender studies to figure out that the reason Pulp Fiction's director Quentin Tarantino is celebrated and Sleeping With Other People's director Leslye Headland is not has nothing to do with sexism.

Track record matters in Hollywood. You don't just get to walk into a studio and have them hand you the next Spiderman or Star Wars. You have to show them you could make a successful action movie on a much smaller scale. And the idea of men being able to walk in and be handed a big budget project by mere virtue of their sex is preposterous. It's not a competition between men and women. It's a competition between a director and every other director in the business, male or female. If women want to have more power in Hollywood, then they're going to have to do it the old fashioned way, by working their way up and showing they can do the job. Those women who can make money for a studio will have no trouble getting more responsibility and power in a town that only loves winners.

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