Women In Hollywood: A Shit Show

Hollywood, storytelling, women

The brilliant Danielle Henderson at Fusion asked me to participate in a comprehensive article she was writing about the shit show that is women working in Hollywood. The numbers are embarrassing if this were 1919 — oh but wait, women were doing much much better in Hollywood in 1919 than they are today in 2015.

Here is the full text of my interview.

Right now, I’m writing Robert Ludlum’s THE SIGMA PROTOCOL for Universal. It’s BOURNE meets THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or THE CONVERSATION. But a totally separate universe from BOURNE. I couldn’t be more in love with it.

In Hollywood, it’s rare to be told directly that you can’t get a job because you’re a woman (though that does happen). Studio execs will say amongst themselves “I don’t want a woman on this” and an exec who gives it to you straight will actually let you know that that’s what the consensus is, so you don’t have to wonder what the real deal is.

I wrote that blog post you referenced after a former boss said publicly that he doesn’t like hiring women writers because they don’t write men as well as men do. The numbers of who gets hired to work in rooms make it obvious that more showrunners than just him feel that way, but he said it publicly.

However, these are dramatic examples. The common, everyday experience for a woman in Hollywood is to be subtly, silently backed away from, shut out of networking, mentoring and socializing opportunities which for men, may lead to jobs months and years down the line. Or at the very least surrounds them with a culture of belonging that puts them in the right mindset and around the right people to keep moving up in their career. I continue to feel shut out of that system — which is vital in terms of career development in Hollywood — to this day.

Or — I’ve been offered the opportunity to direct my first feature film. Everything in me wants to direct. But there’s this awful knowledge, that there are virtually zero opportunities for women to direct studio movies. If I divert time and energy toward developing my directing career, am I facing a brick wall? Can I afford to move my career in a direction that is possibly a complete dead end for me, because of my gender?

So to go back to your question — it’s not like there’s always some big scary sexist going YOU CAN’T HAVE THE JOB BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN! Most often it’s invisible, and it happens way behind closed doors. Or it’s silent and implicit and understood. And you have to really look and reflect to see it even happening at all. And most people working at the highest levels of the industry do not seem to care enough to do that.

Amy Pascal freely admitted to paying Jennifer Lawrence less than her male counterparts on AMERICAN HUSTLE, saying “I run a business. People want to work for less money, I pay them less money. … Women shouldn’t be so grateful. Know what you’re worth. Walk away.”

She thinks what she’s saying is “I can get away with paying you class of people less because you’re just bad negotiators. It’s your own fault for not manning up.”

There are many research studies that pertain to this, but here are three that spring to mind: In one study, the same exact play was given to readers to evaluate, but with male names on the cover or female names. The male names were given much higher ratings. In another study, elementary children’s tests were graded anonymously, and the girls outscored the boys. When the tests had names attached, the boys outscored the girls. And in another study, rats were put in cages with arbitrary labels attached to them — “smart” and “dumb.” The rats that had been placed in the cages labeled “smart” ran the maze almost twice as fast as the rats placed in the cage labeled “dumb.” The researchers theorized that their handlers unconsciously treated the “smart” rats differently — stood closer to them, talked to them differently, had higher expectations for them, thought about them differently.

In Hollywood, there are rats called actors, writers, directors. And we are all put in cages by our agents and managers, by our producers and our studios. Some of the labels on our cages say “action franchise” or “good writer.” Other labels say “black” or “white,” “female” or “male.” If you are the rat in the cage that says “white” and “male” on it, you better believe your handlers are standing closer to you, talking to you differently, having higher expectations for you, thinking about you differently.

Negotiating any job offer is a process of trying to act on imperfect information and trying as much as possible to perfect that imperfect information. How much does the other party have and how much do they want? But in Hollywood, it’s not like there’s a totally equal movie right down the street you can “walk away” to if you don’t like their offer. You may have another offer lined up, but is it as good a movie? Is it a project you’re as in love with? If you’re a writer or director, did you just spend months or even a year(s) doing free work for this studio on this project to get to the point where you’re negotiating? Pascal’s advice to “know your worth” and “walk away” is insulting because it both puts her negotiating partners in the “lose-lose” position (i.e. “I lose if I take the shitty deal and I lose if I walk away from the offer.”) and because her advice assumes absolutely no responsibility on her part or the part of her studio for dealing fairly in these matters.

In 2014, just 8% of the directors Pascal hired were women (and that number is inflated by indies her art-house divisions acquired at film festivals — without these, the number would be closer to the 4% studio average). How is a director supposed to know her worth in that climate? When she cannot get hired to begin with? And the picture isn’t much better for women screenwriters either. I’ve heard from studio execs that reps don’t even put their women clients up for jobs the execs would be willing to hire them for, or the reps don’t push them hard enough, or the reps might think their dude clients are more of a home run for tentpoles, etc ad nauseum. There are so many failure points in the process of a woman getting paid in Hollywood before the point where she is able to “walk away” from a deal.

Which brings us back to the rats in our cages. No talent (rat) is ever negotiating directly with studio heads. Our agents are talking to them, and if they’re any good they have deep relationships with these people that extend way past any one project or client. In a different kind of industry, your market value might be determined by years on the job or programming skills or whatever. But in Hollywood, what determines your market value? Yes, for actors there’s some highly dubious scoring about whether international likes them (and foreign sales agents’s and financiers’s personal opinions and biases come into this big time). And for writers and directors, there’s your quote, meaning what you made on your last movie. And there’s how your last movie performed. All that goes into the negotiation. But beyond that, it’s just how much they like and want you. And how much someone else likes and wants you. Like any market valuation. There’s no app to consult or fair practices guide. It’s all just movie magic. If your rat handlers (reps) believe enough themselves — and do a successful enough job convincing your studio bosses that you are worth more than what they are offering, you may get more. But both sides have to believe it and feel like they are winning in the deal. But there’s no logic determining who is worth what. Is that actress worth more than that actor? Shrug. Will that writer do such a better job than some other writer that they’re worth this amount more? Which brings us back to those studies with the men’s and women’s names on the scripts, or the kids tests with the names on them …. Your agent has to believe you’re worth this much more. And your studio boss has to believe it. And you have to believe it. All this before Pascal’s “know your worth, walk away” leverage point.

And here is the key to all this: once the reps come to the talent with a negotiated deal, it’s all but a done deal. Like I said, negotiating is about imperfect information. In this case, it’s about the client not being privy to all the different loyalties and conversations and other projects in the pipeline and other clients and other (possibly better) movies she might do that usually she doesn’t even know about, trade-offs, promises, and unconscious biases that might have made both the reps and the studio boss stand a little further back from you the rat, talk a little different about you the rat, lower expectations for your chances of running through the maze. A great rep will push hard to strike the very best deal they can (and I love my reps). But Hollywood deal-making is the most psychological game there is. Your reps usually present the deal to you as “this is the best we could get and this is it.” Very few women actors, writers and directors are going to navigate the months-long slalom of getting to that point and then walk away. Because who’s to say whether there’s a better deal elsewhere (your agency won’t tell you that) or whether the studio actually will pay more (is Pascal saying we’re supposed to walk to find out?)

So when I get the advice from one of the most successful women in Hollywood history — a woman who has run a major studio for the past six years and thus has had control over all this — if you “want to work for less, I’m going to pay you less” I have to say it’s devastating.

But your quote is one negotiating threshold that’s hard to argue with. It’s a number. (Although studios do sometimes try to bully you into accepting less than your quote, but that’s another story.) What drives your quote up is getting jobs. I am very happy with the job I have right now, and I am not out looking (today). But speaking for all women writers and directors — and women actors who don’t see any roles for them out there — we do know our worth. We are not walking away. We are ready to drive those quotes up. Help us do that Amy.

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This is the amazing article Danielle Henderson originally interviewed me for, which resulted in this piece. In it, she contextualizes everything I say with recent statistics and in depth analysis. Go read it!