How These 5 Women Are Fighting Gender Bias in Hollywood

photo credit: Happy Print Co. 

photo credit: Happy Print Co. 

For 16 years LUNA has been promoting women storytellers with LUNAFEST. Every year they program and travel with 6-8 short films, bringing awareness in different cities to female directors. They also partner with local women’s non-profits in the cities where films screen to raise money for local charities.

And last Sunday at #CreateCultivateSXSW, in keeping with the spirit of the day and LUNAFEST, four amazing female storytellers took to the stage to talk about the realities for women directors in Hollywood. They were introduced by Suzy Starke German, the brand marketing manager for LUNAFEST, who told the audience "About two years ago we decided we wanted to look at the careers of the filmmakers who had toured their films through LUNAFEST.” The company also partnered with USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative to complete a study about women in film. "Like in many areas, women directors are underrepresented,” said Starke German, bringing to the stage Mynette Louie, President of Gamechanger Films, an equity fund that exclusively finances women directed narrative features.

Joining them on stage were: Jennifer Brea, director of “Unrest,” a first time documentary filmmaker who used the medium to explore her personal medical journey, Rachel Holder, the writer and director of “I Love Bekka and Lucy,” a female friendship comedy which is the first digital series to be accepted into SXSW, and Kim Sherman, a production executive with Stage 13 representing “I Love Bekka and Lucy,” at the festival. 

The women candidly discussed their journeys and where they feel the conversation (and action) needs to go.

1. DON’T ASK FOR PERMISSION

She’s from a little town in the Midwest but Kim Sherman told the audience, “I don’t think I ever thought, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I shouldn’t do this.’ I just started making movies. Every feature seemed to lead to the next. Eventually, thanks to amazing women like Mynette, I was recommended for this new digital initiative, Stage 13.” Stage 13 specifically works to support emerging artists in underrepresented communities-- “women being part of that,” she shared.

Rachael Holder got her start with an MFA from NYU/Tisch. “After graduation I wrote a lot of scripts, but no one was reading me. So I decided to not wait for permission and I made a web series. That web series was purchased by WB. With that platform I created ‘I Love Bekka and Lucy,’” she explained.  “The beginning of my creative process was creating these characters, because I wanted to have a walking resume. Something people could click on and get two-minutes of content, hear my voice, and hear my POV. That’s how you do it, it works.”

photo credit: Smith House Photography 

photo credit: Smith House Photography 

Nodding to Holder’s narrative about how she got her start, Brea picked up on the theme of permission. “I think ‘permission’ is a big theme about how women get their start. Who are the gatekeepers and do you need to ask for permission? For me, I was pursuing a totally different path in life. I was an academic, it was a safe path— but I had a strong impulse to tell a story that I really cared about and believed that it had to be visual that I had the idea to make a documentary. I think it’s because I had reached a place where I was so sick, I had lost everything, there was nothing left to lose. It was from that place that I felt I could take the risk.”

“Make your art without asking for permission,” Brea encouraged.  

“Make your art without asking for permission.”

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2. DON’T KNOW WHERE TO GET FUNDS? KICKSTARTER ACTUALLY WORKS

Both Jen Brea and Rachael Holder relied on Kickstarter to launch their projects.

For the first “I Love Bekka and Lucy” vignettes, Holder used Kickstarter, relying on friends and family for donations. She made a web series with 5k.

“I also relied on Kickstarter,” shared Brea. “It was essentially me asking the audience, ‘Do you want this film?’ And they said, ‘Yes,’ in a resounding way.” Her project raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter. “Had it not been for that I don’t think anyone would have given me permission to make this film.” Kickstarter also allowed Brea to believe that it was a story people wanted to hear and that it mattered.

3. WHAT ABOUT THAT HOLLYWOOD GENDER BIAS?

Holder, who writes about women a lot, said she doesn’t feel restricted by the kind of subject matter she can touch. She does admit: “In terms of my female characters that have empowering sex, it sometimes feels like there’s an expectation to make that character fucked up in some way. ‘She’s craa-azy, she likes orgasms.’ I like to fight against that."

“‘She’s craa-azy, she likes orgasms.’ I like to fight against that.”

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Sherman, who got her start in the horror genre shared that she never felt restricted but she did feel alone. “I was often the only woman on set, aside from the actors. We would bond with each other because we were in a very male-dominated genre. It was interesting to go to festivals because I felt like my role in things was often overlooked or diminished. For me, that was really frustrating. As someone who champions filmmakers and directors, I noticed the difference in reception I would get when going out with a female fronted project vs. the projects that were attached to a male director. The men seems to be more free to experiment and more free to come to the table with something that was their voice and vision. Where women, depending on the distributor, there were a lot more concessions to what they could make and a lot more notes. No matter what their background was or what they’d already accomplished there was a tendency to want to tell them ‘how it is in the industry.’”

Brea who admitted she is “new to this,” said that in some ways she’s “happily naive.”

Sharing: “I know there are institutional barriers, but in some ways you can’t think about that. You have to hold onto the belief that you can do anything. That type of ownership of the world is the privilege of being a man, but it’s something that I think we as women storytellers need to own. But talk to me in ten years.”

4. ONLY 4% OF DIRECTORS ARE WOMEN

The EOC has found that Hollywood is guilty of discrimination. But just what can women in Hollywood do about it?

“Studies and numbers are on our side now,” said Sherman. “It’s not just anecdotal anymore. I think that’s the first step, but it has to be acknowledged at the higher levels. That science has to be felt. I think about this a lot. It would be amazing if even to start— every time a male project was greenlit for millions and millions of dollars, a female project was also greenlit for millions and millions of dollars. Apples to apples. Let’s get women in these major roles.”

"Women outnumber men going into film school, so why is that not translating to higher jobs? Where along the way are we losing?” asked Sherman. “How do we make sure people at the beginning of their careers have access to audience? If you going to give hundreds of millions of dollars to men, do it for women too. Let’s start there.”

For Holder, this was a point to bring up the importance of intersectionality. “We need more female directors and storytellers, but we also need to have women of color be a part of the conversation too. Not only not male, but I’m also not white and damn,” said Holder.

All women agreed that the conversation needed to be much more inclusive and is a conversation has been brewing for a long time.

Mynette also brought up the point that, "Women are expected to only direct other women.” But pointed out, “A woman inhabiting the male perspective is as feminist and apt as directing a female protagonist.”

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