IndieWire turns 25 this year. To mark the occasion, we’re running a series of essays about the future of everything we cover.
At the time, the reaction was swift: just three months after Hollywood super-producer Harvey Weinstein was first accused of a litany of acts of sexual abuse and harassment in what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose from The New York Times and The New Yorker, the industry snapped to attention.
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After innumerable other allegations against Weinstein and dozens of other Hollywood bigwigs, 300 of the industry’s biggest names joined together to create Time’s Up, an initiative created “to fight sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond.” Such aims soon evolved to include broader questions about how to address issues relating to parity, safety, inclusion, and equity. New organizations came into existence and set timelines for instituting permanent changes to the industry. Conversations about these issues fueled all manner of panels, events, and thinkpieces.
But that was only the first step in an ongoing conversation. Four years on, Hollywood remains very much the same.
“What is going to push the rest of the folks into change so that we see some real differences in the numbers?,” asked Dr. Martha Lauzen, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in an interview with IndieWire.
She pointed to the Celluloid Ceiling numbers, a study assessing the 250 domestic highest-grossing films and women in key behind the scenes positions. In 1998, women comprised 17 percent of individuals in those roles; in 2020, that number had grown to just 23 percent. “Wouldn’t you think, for all of the dialogue that has taken place on this issue, all of the panels, and all of the well-intentioned efforts that we would’ve seen more change than that?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you expect more change?”
The original optics were big and bold. At the 2018 Golden Globes, the first big-ticket Hollywood awards show to launch after the alleged sea change, Time’s Up’s reps did everything from bringing sexual harassment activists as their guests to wearing black outfits accessorized by sparkling Time’s Up pins. It was an auspicious start, and while the celebrity side of it might have seemed like a distraction, it had real heft behind it, including a legal defense fund that opened with $13 million in reserves and a pledge to fully dismantle sex-based harassment and discrimination in the industry and beyond.
Other organizations and initiatives dedicated to making Hollywood safe and equitable for women soon emerged. In the case of the #MeToo movement, which founder Tarana Burke launched in 2006 to promote “empowerment through empathy” among victims of sexual abuse, the group suddenly found itself a large part of the Hollywood conversation during the post-Weinstein rush to change. Other established groups, like WIF (Women in Film Los Angeles), which was founded in 1973, had already launched their own schemes, like the ReFrame Initiative in partnership with Sundance in 2017.
The film festival world took note as well, and the creation of 2018’s 5050×2020 gender-parity pledge — a promise (but not a legally-binding document) to increase transparency and promote gender parity at some of the industry’s biggest festivals, including Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. That pledge was inspired by the French Collective 50/50, which expanded on the work that Anna Serner initially launched at the Swedish Film Institute.
The festival agreement has already helped reshape who is invited to participate in some of these major events, even if many of them have not yet reached actual parity. (At the end of 2020, the organization behind the movement switched gears to instead offer fellowships through its Disruptors label, an initiative dedicated to expanding opportunities for “emerging television writers who identify as trans and/or non-binary, disabled, undocumented and/or formerly undocumented immigrants.”)
These formidable efforts have made it clear that there is sincere desire to instigate greater gender parity and broader diversity across the industry. While their existence doesn’t guarantee any sort of lasting change, it provides enough of a starting point to understand the work necessary for a genuine transformation of the industry in the years ahead.
Here are some of the critical steps that must be taken for that to happen.
Time’s Up Can’t Do It Alone
Over the course of four years, Time’s Up has remained the most visible and starry of Hollywood’s still-fledgling organizations dedicated to “safe, fair, and dignified work for women of all kinds.” But every organization is susceptible to flaws, and the problems plaguing Time’s Up as of late prove that Hollywood cannot pin its hopes on a single organization to provide a solution.
In recent years, Time’s Up has been the subject of a variety of scandals, from a recent open letter from “a collective group of survivors and victims” who accused the organization of “failing the survivor community” to a bombshell report that both CEO and president Tina Tchen and chairwoman Roberta Kaplan had advised former governor Andrew Cuomo during his own sexual harassment scandal.
In just the last two months, both Tchen and Kaplan stepped down, while board members Eva Longoria, Shonda Rhimes, and Jurnee Smollett also exited its board. (Time’s Up has, notably, struggled with in-fighting from the very start, from Tessa Thompson hitting back at Lena Dunham for not being “anywhere present” for early planning stages to Thandiwe Newton saying she “wasn’t hot enough” to be asked to join.)
“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Lauzen said. “Time’s Up were very good [at the beginning] because they had a lot of money and a lot of celebrity. They were really good at getting a lot of attention and focusing a lot of attention on the issue in the short term. But in the long term, it’s kind of a different game.”
Anna Pocaro for Variety
Time’s Up’s interim CEO Monifa Bandele — a political strategist and activist who previously served as the org’s COO — was initially scheduled to speak to IndieWire about this article, but later cancelled the interview after, per a Time’s Up representative, “thoughtful consideration.”
Follow-up emails asking the organization to share information on any new initiatives and successes of particular note were ignored, as was a request to speak to other appropriate talking heads. The organization’s website has provided just one update to its press release section since June, but provides space for interested parties to “take action” by signing up for email alerts, along with offering a fairly comprehensive list of resources for people looking for everything from legal assistance to knowing their rights in the entertainment sphere.
Lauzen noted that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund appears to be “more solid” compared to other initiatives the organization has undertaken in the past. A separate arm of Time’s Up, the fund “supports individuals who’ve experienced sexual harassment or retaliation at work to come forward to seek justice.” Much of its time, attention, and money is spent to truly help victims. As The Hollywood Reporter recently noted, “in the three years since its founding, the Legal Defense Fund has spent $17 million, of which $15.8 million has been on cases for workers and $1.2 million for overhead.”
The WIF Help Line, launched before Time’s Up was founded, also supports individuals experiencing harassment and assault in the industry and continues to operate (including working in collaboration with Time’s Up legal defense fund).
That’s actionable assistance, but other pieces of the puzzle are more difficult to even define.
Invest in Diversity, Not Diversity Programs
“We’ve seen so many initiatives that constitute what I would call small ‘s’ solutions,” Lauzen said. “Their potential for creating change is limited.”
She cited mentoring and shadowing programs as one example. “While they may be well-intentioned, these programs offer opportunities for small numbers of individuals,” she said. “The companies could point to these small efforts as indications that they were paying attention to the issue, but in part, their main function has been to provide public relations cover for the organizations offering them. Groups like Time’s Up provide a short burst of intense publicity for the issue but, lacking a solid core of organized activist know-how, flame out relatively quickly.”
Caryn Coleman, founder of the nonprofit The Future of Film Is Female and a seasoned film programmer, sees opportunities for gender parity and equality to be hashed out throughout various sides of the industry.
Dave Bedrosian/Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
“When it comes to gender parity, a lot of people in the industry like to make statements of solidarity more than they will put in the real work, which is really a long-term game and may not yield immediate results,” she said. “I want to see distributors — all of them — buy more films by women at film festivals. I want to see cinemas fostering these often smaller films by women and develop audiences around them; normalizing the stories these filmmakers are telling. Representation on screen is imperative to achieving long-term, permanent gender parity and will generate all that needs to come.”
Buzzy initiatives and new professions to help bolster them aren’t limited to the parity conversation either, as Black List founder and producer Franklin Leonard recently noted on his popular Twitter account: “The film and television industry needs far fewer diversity programs and far more hires from diverse backgrounds (and no those things are not inconsistent.)”
Building a more equitable and safe environment for women in Hollywood would, hopefully, foster a more equitable and safe environment for everyone in Hollywood. Female-specific initiatives are hardly the only flashpoint in the industry right now, and they often go hand-in-hand with other calls for wider “diversity,” whether in regards to gender, sexual identity, race, color, or creed.
“It’s not an accident that thinking about gender parity and racial equity, among many other equally essential calls for inclusion, have led to the demand for better working conditions,” said Emily Best, the founder and CEO of Seed&Spark, which has long championed gender parity and diversity in filmmaking. “The IATSE strike is directly related to the broad push for equity. These ginormous companies making billions make magnanimous gestures around ‘diversity and inclusion,’ and still drive 17-hour workdays for months on end.”
So, how to make sure more people — that is, not just straight white men — are given opportunities in Hollywood? The easiest answer is also perhaps the most complicated: just hire more people for these jobs. That’s the kind of “large ‘S’ solutions” that Lauzen has been talking up.
“Large ‘S’ solutions would activate widespread change and be supported by our own human impulses and inclinations,” Lauzen said. “The studies have all consistently found that when a woman is in a gatekeeping role such as a director in film or as a creator/executive producer in television, the gender ratios both on screen and behind the scenes shift toward greater gender parity, and in some cases, achieve parity. … The numbers of women working on screen or behind the scenes increase substantially when a woman controls the gates.”
Hollywood Needs Its Own Version of the EEOC
But what happens when women are systematically excluded from gatekeeper positions? In October 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began interviewing a wide variety of female film and television directors about their experience in the industry in service to an investigation into Hollywood and its potentially discriminatory hiring practices. It was a heralded move — one encouraged by the ACLU and other organizations — and one widely recognized as a major step forward in cracking open the machinations of the industry’s so-called boys’ club.
“I think a lot of us felt very heartened by that investigation, and then, of course, it just disappeared,” Lauzen said. “I know a lot of people who talked to them, I talked to them and what happened?”
In February 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission completed its investigation into charges that the Hollywood studio system engages in systematic discrimination against female filmmakers, with explosive results. At time, it was reported that “the EEOC is currently in settlement talks with the major studios to resolve charges that they systemically discriminated against women directors.”
The results were not surprising, but despite the nature of the findings, there has been no public word on next steps, including what’s happening with those four-year-old settlement talks. IndieWire reached out to the EEOC to inquire about the current status of the settlement talks. An EEOC communications rep said that “public release of information on specific claims and investigations are prevented by statute.”
That likely means that the work is ongoing, but four years on and armed with apparently rock-solid findings, there has been no public reckoning by any of the studios. There’s still value in them, though. “I think that the EEOC reports should be mandatory reading,” Coleman said. “That’s data, that’s math, and it’s so informative about pointing out where the work needs to be done.”
Independent Oversight Is Essential
One solution — and not even a particularly novel one — is an industry-wide push that harnesses the full power and might of Hollywood. Of course, that assumes the brass are willing to recognize the necessity of that work.
“There’s nothing stopping the business from creating an industry-wide organization charged with the responsibility of overseeing inclusion and diversity efforts,” Lauzen said. “There is precedent for such an organization to bring the industry in greater alignment with social expectations: In the early 1930s, the predecessor of the MPA created the Production Code Administration to oversee enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934.”
Lauzen acknowledged that the Motion Picture Production Code isn’t the most popular of initiatives in Hollywood lore, but it does serve as a prime example as to what can happen when pressures and demands reach a point where only sweeping reforms can enact big changes.
“This was an independent organization outside the influence of studio heads,” she said. “It was a maneuver intended to self-police the business which was being threatened with federal legislation and having to deal with state and local censorship boards. The industry was under such great pressure, it had little alternative but to take matters into its own hands.”
Women and Hollywood founder Melissa Silverstein, who has covered these issues on her blog for over 15 years, said that she doubted the current relevancy of studios when it comes to enacting this sort of industry-wide change. She pointed to some of the streamers, including Netflix and Amazon, which already have their own DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) standards and targets in place, as providing a better roadmap for these sorts of initiatives, adding that more and more talents are paving the way for careers without studio assistance.
“What can we do to not put people into a system that will spit them out? The only way to do that is, do it on your own, make your own table,” she said. “I think that’s where a lot of people are, which is, ‘I can’t go into this system that a) never cared about me and b) never invested in me.’”
Coleman suggested splitting the difference. “I would like to see some of the larger studios that initiate ‘diversity programs’ to work more closely with smaller, often non-profit organizations that have been doing this work for a while,” she said. “I strongly believe that we’re better off working together as a collective unit, rather than fractionated off.”
Should the MPA or another oversight body opt to create such an organization to oversee gender parity in the industry, it could follow the same path as the PCA: First, the studio heads or other bigwigs would need to join together to create new guidelines, then they’d need to endorse them as one. While the Production Code laid out a strict moral code for productions, a parity-driven organization could instead build standards around what films look like (who has a speaking role, for instance, and how many lines) and how they are made (how many people of each gender need to be in each department or similar).
Evolution, Not Revolution
The idea of an industry oversight committee is not unrealistic. The Oscars are already trying to build something just like it, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Lauzen pointed to AMPAS’ new inclusion standards — the “Aperture 2025” initiative, announced last September, details new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility in the Best Picture category — as an example of how larger organizations might enact change, though one still limited by how many people and productions it will actually impact.
While Time’s Up and MeToo represent organized efforts to institute change, they can’t set real deadlines for the industry itself. “Some high-profile individuals — Ryan Murphy, John Landgraf, Ava DuVernay — have worked to change ratios within their own sphere of influence,” Lauzen said. “Where is the larger effort? If we consider the historical record provided by the research and assume the absence of an industry-wide effort, achieving parity in film is going to take time. Shifting demographics plus continuing attention to the issue of inclusion will likely push the industry toward greater parity eventually, but it may take a generation or two. The research indicates that we will see evolution as opposed to revolution.”
While the implementation of the Hays Code was relatively swift, it also fell off after just a few years, mostly due to good, old-fashioned “economic anxiety.” Eight years after it was put into practice, studios began to flout its directives, as they struggled to create films that had worldwide box office appeal, without the restrictions demanded by the Code.
That’s one way in which the fight for gender parity (and other diversity efforts) diverges: Films that are made by a more diverse cast and crew and with a range of on-screen characters make more money than those that don’t. Ultimately, it will be that financial pull that will drag Hollywood, kicking and screaming, into a more equitable future for everyone.
“Just like the politics of this country, things are moving in a certain way, and you can’t stop that momentum,” Silverstein said. “Demographics are shifting and if you want to be relevant, you’re going to go with that flow. This is the time, this is the time to really push for things.”
While the needle is already moving — albeit slowly — a world in which Hollywood is truly equitable and diverse is not a utopian ideal. The time for talking has long since passed, and real action — and the changes it can inspire — must begin now.
Start with the obvious: Hire “diverse” people for these roles and jobs, reach out and train the next generation (and, hell, the one after that, too), make the guidelines and demand their implementation (for everyone’s betterment), stop settling for more words and less forward movement.
“One of the big things is that [now] we can talk, we can speak, we don’t have to be silenced,” said Silverstein. “I think we underestimate the power of that.”
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