women in hollywood

Celebrating Women Film Producers

With this year’s Best Picture going to producer Dede Gardner for “Moonlight” and the top-grossing “Rogue One” produced by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, you’d think the “celluloid ceiling” had been thoroughly busted — but sadly, the numbers tell another story. For Women’s History Month, we at NYFA think it’s important to honor the milestones in pursuing gender equality, while being realistic about the continuing, painful disparities.

According to research reported at The Center for The Study of Women in Television and Film, the numbers for women behind the scenes actually dropped last year: “In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.” According to the study women accounted for 17 percent of executive producers and 24 percent of producers.

At NYFA, we encourage women to make careers for themselves in the biz not only in front of the camera but also behind the scenes, where diverse perspectives have the power to shake the industry. This is only one of the reasons why, for five years, our producing programs have attracted a majority-female student community.

Finding Academy Award-winning Adventures

This year Dede Gardner took home a Best Picture Oscar for the (surprise) winner “Moonlight.” She and Jeremy Kleiner head up Brad Pitt’s Plan B, which has become a reliable source for quality films — for example, the 2012 Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave.” Regarding their process at Plan B, Gardner, quoted in an IndieWire article said, “We spend a lot of time reading, a lot of time watching movies in small corners of libraries and hotel rooms. It’s probably our favorite thing to do. We fall in love with a movie and we reach out. We ask to meet, see more work and listen to what they’re interested in, what world they want to live in, what stories they want to tell. Time and time again, those conversations can result in movies. They just need to be had in an honest space. The only intentions will ever be to continue the conversation, and not think about these things as products, but adventures that we might embark on together.”

What many people may not know, however, is that Plan B was not the only (or the first) productive force behind “Moonlight.” Adele Romanski was one of three Florida State University friends who brought the project to life long before Plan B entered the picture. Romanski set up weekly Google chats to help motivate her friend, writer/director Barry Jenkins, to start another feature film project after an eight-year hiatus. As Romanski explained to Vulture last December: “… I came to the realization that I wanted to work with good people who I knew, who I could trust or who I did trust, and [do] good work together. And so the top of the list obviously was going to be Barry. And there was a lot of noise, it was becoming sort of a louder and louder conversation about where’s Barry’s next movie? Why hasn’t Barry made a movie? We would be at festivals or other industry functions, and people were coming up to us like, Why hasn’t Barry made a movie? And I would say, I don’t know, why don’t you ask him? But also, like, why are you asking me? You’re coming to me? So anyway, I just called him and said, You’ve got to make a movie. I’m gonna make you, I’m gonna help you, we’re gonna make it, make you make a movie.” And she did — a movie that went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, Romanski said: “And I think, I hope even more than that it’s inspiring to people, little black boys and brown girls and other folks watching at home who feel marginalized and who take some inspiration from seeing this beautiful group of artists held by this amazing talent, Barry Jenkins, accepting this top honor. Thank you.”

From Secretary to President

Kathleen Kennedy started out as Steven Spielberg’s secretary, but quickly proved herself. An Entertainment weekly article celebrating women producers describes her early rise: “Spielberg tells EW that her ‘creative intuition’ while working as his assistant on 1981’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ especially ‘in the crowded streets in Kairouan, Tunisia…gaining the cooperation and participation of the people living there,’ inspired him to hire her as a producer on “E.T.” Now Kennedy heads Lucasfilm and is responsible for the Star Wars franchise, whose last two releases, “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One,” were the box office winners of 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Taking Control Behind the Scenes

Kathryn Bigelow was the first (and still the only) woman to ever win Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” for which she, as producer, also won for Best Picture. Bigelow started her career as a painter and then went to film school. She has made a name for herself directing action and thriller films that belie any notions about typical female-run projects, such as “Strange Days” and “Point Break.” A Guardian article quotes her as saying, “I suppose I like to think of myself as a filmmaker” (not a female filmmaker). In other words, she seems to attach less significance to her gender than the media and the industry does.

Fun fact: NYFA New York Producing Chair Neal Weisman worked with Kathryn Bigelow on her film “Blue Steel,” starring Jamie Curtis during his time as vice president of Edward Pressman Film Corporation.

Telling Untold Stories

The producing team of Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer, do tend towards stories that feature female perspectives, such as “An Education” and “Brooklyn,” both of which were nominated for Best Picture. In a Guardian article Posey was quoted as saying, “We are always looking to tell something from a fresh perspective and with a fresh insight and it just so happens that, because of the way history is told, a lot of the untold stories are female. We are drawn to it from a storytelling point of view rather than specifically because it is based around women.”

Happy Women’s History Month! Do you have a favorite female producer? Or do you aspire to be the next female powerhouse behind the scenes? Let us know in the comments below, and check out our producing programs at New York Film Academy.

5 Actresses Who Became Successful Producers

Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality during her Oscar acceptance speech earlier this year; Emma Watson being appointed by the UN as a Goodwilll Ambassador, heading the gender equality initiative, He For She; Amy Schumer being the first female comedian to headline a show at Madison Square Garden (scheduled for 2016)… with all of these women making big moves on an international stage, it seems feminism in the entertainment industry is well and truly alive. That said, it’s not news to say that women have been long overshadowed by their male counterparts in show-business. I mean, when considering nearly 70% of characters in speaking roles were male among the top 100 films between 2007 and 2014, it’s safe to say the industry hasn’t quite overcome gender imbalance as yet.

Nevertheless, females are taking a stance and continue to make headway, particularly behind the camera—a place where the imbalance is most evident. With women being so grossly underrepresented, it’s no wonder many actresses are making the transition and taking part in the production of their creative platforms. Here are a few of the women who have dared to challenge the status quo and transitioned from acting in front of the camera, to producing behind it.

Drew Barrymore

Quite literally growing up in the public eye after she shot to stardom with her adorable, blonde pigtails and lisp in Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) at the age of six, Barrymore famously experienced a tumultuous adolescence and early adulthood but came out on-top with a prosperous acting career. What is lesser known about the talented actress is her extremely successful career as a producer and founder of her own production company Flower Films in 1995. Knowing longevity wasn’t always synonymous with a woman’s career in Hollywood, she embarked on the project with long-time friend, Nancy Juvonen. “Doesn’t matter how far or high I go; if I can keep working, that is the most profound amount of success I in my personal life can ever find,” says Barrymore. Her self-initiated enterprise earned her the role of Executive Producer for the company’s debut film, Never Been Kissed in 1999. Since then, she’s consistently produced big, money-making films that have received several accolades and critical acclaim—many of which she also starred in. Along with the Charlie’s Angels films (2000, 2003) and the TV show in 2011, she’s also produced instant cult classics like Donnie Darko (2001) and Whip It (2009), followed by a string of romantic comedies like 50 First Dates (2004), Fever Pitch (2005), and He’s Just Not That Into You (2009).

Reese Witherspoon

Beginning her acting career from the age of fourteen in The Man in the Moon (1991), Witherspoon’s resume went from strength to strength, starring in classic hits like Election (1999), Cruel Intentions (1999), and box-office successes, Legally Blonde (2001) and Legally Blonde 2 (2003)—the latter which she produced and from which she earned $15 million, fifteen-times the amount she got for the original. Becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of lead female roles and the majority of scripts sharing the common theme of women needing to be saved by men, she decided to establish her own production company. “I think it was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30,” she said, “and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy.’” Using much of her own funds, she launched Pacific Standard with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea in 2012. The production company released its first two films just weeks within each other—the first was an adaptation of the blockbuster novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, and the second was based on the bestselling memoir of Cheryl Strayed, Wild. Both films were a huge success and the latter earned Witherspoon nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes and SAG Awards for her part as Cheryl.

Elizabeth Banks

Having taken on 70 roles in front of the camera so far, including those in major hits like The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Spider-Man 2 and 3 (2004, 2007), and The Hunger Games franchise, Banks has certainly accrued some Hollywood brownie points through the years. Using those points and knowing the difficulties faced by actresses in Hollywood after a certain age, Banks took a pragmatic turn to production in 2009, creating Brownstone Productions with husband, Max Handelman. “There was a group of us girls coming up … a lot of us surviving, some of us not,” recalling her days at auditions with Tara Reid, “We’re not all still here.” The company earned Universal $113 million at the box office on a $17 million budget, and another $103 million in home video sales for its surprising hit Pitch Perfect in 2012, which she also starred in. She also jumped into the director’s chair for the sequel Pitch Perfect 2, released this year in May, which snagged a $69 million debut weekend.

Sandra Bullock

Boasting an illustrious acting career that began with the motion picture Hangman in 1987, Bullock has continued to capture audience’s hearts with her girl-next-door persona. Her big breakthrough came when she starred alongside Keanu Reeves in the famous thriller, Speed (1994), shortly followed by romantic comedy, While You Were Sleeping (1996), which earned her a nomination for a Golden Globe. It was in this genre she really soared, founding the production company Fortis Films in 1998, which went on to produce a string of well-received romantic comedies and dramas she also starred in. Some of them include Hope Floats (1998), Miss Congeniality 1 and 2 (2000, 2005), Two Weeks Notice (2002) and The Proposal (2009).

Margot Robbie

A newcomer to the producing scene, this 25 year-old Australian is trying out her hand at the creative process behind the camera, after bursting onto the Hollywood scene two years ago with her life-changing role in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Since her big break, the young actress has scored major roles beside Will Smith in Focus (2015) and again (alongside many other big names) in DC Comics’ antihero film, Suicide Squad—due for release in August next year. Robbie recently revealed that she’s been working on two projects that she’s producing, focusing mainly on one called Terminal in London, a “thriller-noir flick” comparable to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Sin City (2005). Admitting that she’s really enjoying being behind the lens, the young star says her focus for the next year will solely be on producing, despite the media frenzy that’s likely to follow the Suicide Squad release. “The experience has really opened my eyes to the world of indie film producing,” she said. “It’s such a hustle—extremely difficult but very rewarding.”

Learn more about the School of Producing at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.