Donna Gigliotti first fell in love with film when she went to see The Sound of Music with her mother in her hometown of Utica, N.Y. "I was completely exhilarated by the experience and I thought, 'I have a choice,' " says the Oscar-winning producer of Shakespeare in Love, up for her second Academy Award for Hidden Figures this year. "I can either go and become a person that makes movies like this or I could become a nun."
In light of women's slow progress in Hollywood since then, the convent doesn't look so bad. After two years of #OscarsSoWhite, the 2017 ballots include a significant number of people of color both above and below the line. But things didn't advance as much overall for filmmakers with two X chromosomes: Outside of the acting categories, only 20 percent of the nominees across 19 categories are women - a share that barely has budged in decades.
Still, there are significant bright spots on the Oscar ballot: a few historic firsts (black women nominated in documentary feature and editing; a female team in sound) and a record number - nine - of female best picture nominees. And when eight of those producers gathered at The Beverly Hilton on Feb. 6 to talk about this year's bad news/good news scenario, they mostly were in a mood to celebrate the good.
"It could be that women's time has come," says Gigliotti, 61. "It is incumbent on women producers to make movies about women for a variety of reasons. One is, if we don't do it, who will? Secondly, from a purely economic point of view, I just proved that if you put women in the lead of a movie you can make over $100 million." (To be precise, $132 million - Figures' domestic gross to date.)
"Smarts and determination are gender blind, but I do think women make great producers for all sorts of reasons that will sound like reverse sexism," says Hell or High Water producer Carla Hacken, 55, whose neo-Western thriller definitively is not a female-driven tale. Adds Hell or High Water producer Julie Yorn: "At times it's thankless, and you have to be egoless. I'm a mother of a teenager, and it's very similar to that." Adds Gigliotti's fellow Figures producer Jenno Topping, 48: "I hate to generalize, but I do think women have an ability to multitask in a graceful way. I also think they understand a little more naturally how to get the best out of people."
Whatever their strengths as producers, women remain underrepresented where it may count most: Only 4 percent of the 1,000 top-grossing films in the past 10 years were helmed by women, according to a USC Annenberg study released Feb. 1. "Directing is really tricky; it's a very hard lifestyle with all sorts of hardships that aren't true with other fields," says Topping. "But I still think we have to hire, hire, hire. [Some female directors] don't know it can work. But there's always a way you can do it."
With producers in the best position to do that hiring (Gigliotti proudly notes the Figures crew was 33 percent women - "a big, big number," she adds, when the industry average is 12 percent), this group "shows that women are able to greenlight projects and give directors, DPs and other female filmmakers more opportunities," says Manchester by the Sea producer Kimberly Steward, 36. Adds her producing partner, Lauren Beck, 40, "We are hoping to set our own rules."