After the fallThe aftermath of the Weinstein scandal
The furore in Hollywood will result in different stories making it to the screen
IN 2009 Nina Jacobson—formerly president of a Walt Disney studio, by then an independent film producer—was pitching a new franchise to Hollywood bigwigs. “The Hunger Games”, based on a bestselling novel, was the sort of dystopian sci-fi epic that might seem an easy sell. Yet several executives passed, partly because the heroes were teenagers—and partly because the central character was a woman. “I was taught as though it were a common-knowledge truth that girls will identify with a male protagonist, but boys will not identify with a female protagonist,” says Ms Jacobson, who eventually sold the project to Lionsgate, a minor studio. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, it became a huge hit.
Ms Jacobson describes the industry’s rules of thumb about women on screen as “bias disguised as knowledge”. The trouble was, she says, that “there weren’t enough cases to prove the theories wrong.” There may be soon.
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The scandal over Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women, and over the other reprobates exposed in his wake, is changing Hollywood irrevocably. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have forced a reckoning of the industry’s monsters, of the countless careers that were destroyed by them, and of a sexist culture that let it all happen. Regal men have been dethroned. The furore will colour the Academy Awards ceremony on March 4th.
But there are signs, too, of what may prove an equally important shift, in the stories Hollywood tells. The most powerful people in the industry—who are mainly men—have justified their decisions about what to put on screen by what they say sells tickets. Ms Jacobson’s experience suggests many have been operating on flawed and myopic hunches. So does “Wonder Woman”, directed by and starring women (pictured), which last year was the third-highest-grossing film at the North American box office. Likewise “Black Panther”, with its black director and stars, is poised to become one of the most successful Marvel films ever—dispelling another assumption, that predominantly African-American films do not succeed internationally.
Back to the future
In the past such successes have typically been isolated blips. Now, as women demand more power in the production of film and television—and begin to get it—that pattern may be changing. The business of mass entertainment, and its output, are set to become more diverse, in ways subtle and profound. The trend began before the scandal but has been accelerated by it. It promises to be good for female actors and directors, for the studios, and, above all, for audiences.
In recent years women have made some headway on the small screen. In pay-TV and streaming television, female-dominated shows such as “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” have thrived on a business model that depends less on overall viewership than on passionate support, via subscriptions. The sprawling medium forces producers to be more original. As one executive notes, it would be difficult for another television show about a white, heterosexual, male doctor to get noticed. Some of the most influential people in TV are women, including Shonda Rhimes, a producer who signed a lucrative development deal with Netflix last year. Reese Witherspoon, producer and star of “Big Little Lies”, has acquired multiple women-centred stories to develop at her company. Women (and minorities) are increasingly being hired as directors, though they are still underrepresented: about one in six TV episodes is directed by a woman.
Mainstream Hollywood is strikingly ossified in comparison. As it happens, the first person to direct fictional films was a woman. Alice Guy was an employee of Gaumont when in 1896 she began telling short stories with film. She went on to make popular features, including action films with women in leading roles and narratives that captured an enlightened view of marriage. Eventually, though, as filmmaking became industrialised under the male-run studio system, women directors all but disappeared. Behind the camera, as in front of it, the studios’ woman problem is as deep as it is entrenched.
Male actors command about twice the screen time of female ones. Men are the heroes and villains and do most of the talking, with (at the last count) two-thirds of speaking parts in successful films, a ratio only slightly better than in the late 1940s. Women, still, are often ornaments or victims, love interests or damsels in distress: useful for being disrobed, attacked or both.
So one of the simple ways that studios can be more inclusive is to put more women and minorities in central roles. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, founded by the co-star of “Thelma and Louise”, has been lobbying them for years to do this on a broad scale. Disney’s Lucasfilm, run by Kathleen Kennedy, made women the heroines of its new “Star Wars” trilogy and a spin-off, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. Next year Brie Larson will star in “Captain Marvel”, the first female-led feature from Marvel Studios (now owned by Disney).
This rebalancing might seem like common sense, given that women buy half the cinema tickets. The same logic holds for minority actors, considering non-white moviegoers buy more tickets per person in North America than white ones; altogether they too account for half of total sales. Yet in the past female-led hits such as “The Hunger Games” have not been widely emulated. Perhaps “Wonder Woman”, a female superhero flick with a male star as the sidekick, will buck that trend. Flops, meanwhile, have been taken to confirm the old chauvinist biases. After “Catwoman” bombed in 2004, it took Warner Bros 13 years to release “Wonder Woman”.
Thus the number of female characters in action films has risen only slightly since 2007, from 20% to 23% in 2016, says Stacy Smith, who analyses screen portrayals of women and minorities at the University of Southern California. (Her research also found that women are much more likely to be given only one shot at directing a studio film.) Females are nudged out of the picture in varied ways. Ms Jacobson says that when she was doing research for “Antz”, an animated movie released in 1998, she learned that females had a lot of the most important jobs in ant colonies. Then an executive at DreamWorks SKG, she wanted to switch a leading role from a male ant to a female one, but was rebuffed.
Of the top 100 films at the North American box office in 2016, 34 featured women in leading or co-leading roles, compared with 20 in 2007, according to Ms Smith’s research. That looks like progress—but women are not being deployed more imaginatively. About one in four were shown nude or partially nude in that sample, almost treble the rate for men. That includes 35% of females aged 13-20, up from 23% in 2007. The #MeToo movement has produced chilling accounts of actors being intimidated into taking their clothes off on camera. Salma Hayek wrote a harrowing article in the New York Times in which she alleged that Mr Weinstein pressured her into a lesbian-sex scene in “Frida”, a film about Frida Kahlo, an artist. (Mr Weinstein “does not recall” pressuring her into the scene.)
Nobody thinks sex is going to vanish from screen. After all, women enjoy erotica, too. “Women are just as game as men are,” says Ms Jacobson; “it’s just a matter of who gets to tell the stories.” But the Weinstein convulsions are spurring a rethink. The change won’t mean “purifying” entertainment, says a senior movie agent, but will mean films offer a more “balanced” view of sexuality. Figures in the industry whispered to the Hollywood Reporter that executives have become skittish about greenlighting films with gratuitous sex.
Like a better equilibrium between male and female roles, a less pornographic approach to sex might actually be good for business. Data suggest female viewers are turned off by the exploitative sexualisation of women and girls. Nick Meaney of Epagogix, a consultancy that evaluates screenplays algorithmically to predict box-office takings, says that sex scenes can indeed help films make money, but only when they fit organically into the story.
Hollywood, the sequel
If sex on screen is under scrutiny, so is misogynistic violence. Films portraying women in distress are unlikely to go out of fashion, but they might be made in a style that is less crass and demeaning. As it happens, says Mr Meaney, that would also help at the box office. ‘Woman in peril’ films fare best, he finds, when the woman fights back and wins at the end. This advance from primitive victimisation may already be under way. Keira Knightley recently said that, reviewing scripts set in the present, she had noticed a welcome uptick in women who “aren’t raped in the first five pages and aren’t simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife”.
Another, more concrete ramification of Hollywood’s Weinstein moment, observes Ms Jacobson, is that fewer careers of ambitious young women will be crushed by harassment. Fewer abusive men will mentor acolytes in their image. In time that will mean more women taking decisions. Two big agencies have pledged to achieve equal representation in senior posts by 2020. Some redistribution has already begun. The former boss of Amazon Studios, who left under a cloud, has been replaced by a woman, Jennifer Salke.
Change has begun in the director’s chair as well. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found that, for the top 100 films in 2017, 8% of directors were women. That seems paltry, but in 2016 the figure was 4%; in 2010, it was 2%. Greta Gerwig, one of that minority, has been nominated for the best-director Oscar for “Lady Bird”. A female cinematographer has been nominated for the first time (Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound”). The link between more female artists and more rounded pictures is hard to quantify, but it is real. John Landgraf, president of FX, a network that has raised its share of female and non-white directors to around a half, notes that “broadening the diversity of our roster” has “yielded a wider and often times more surprising range of choices”.
All this matters beyond Hollywood because of the example it sets to viewers everywhere. To take one small but telling instance of that influence, after the release of “The Hunger Games” there was a surge in girls’ interest in archery, the heroine’s speciality. Almost two-thirds of women say that watching a strong role model on screen made them more ambitious or assertive, says Rachel Pashley of J. Walter Thompson, a marketing firm. Women report seeing greater possibilities in the real world if their avatars realise them on celluloid: “What they said was, ‘if we saw more female scientists or female leaders or female politicians on screen, it would make it easier for that to happen in real life’.”
A new kind of storytelling does not mean homogenising men and women, or eliminating sex and violence. It means telling much the same stories, but with a different eye. Recent television provides a template. “Big Little Lies” is in part a saga of domestic abuse. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a parable of women being systematically controlled. But they are told from the perspective of the women. Similarly, “Wonder Woman” was a superhero film in more than name. Some people who went to see it waited with trepidation for the scene in which the heroine is reduced to a fetish object; that scene never came. Instead women and girls walked out of screenings ready to conquer the world.This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "After the fall"