Part I: Gender Inequality in the Industry

Posted by Shaun O'Banion
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today's guest blog comes from producer and Stage 32 member, Shaun O'Banion, Shaun's previous blog, Tragedy on Set: Remembering Sarah Jones, was enormously popular and met with immense support from the Stage 32 community. Today we welcome Shaun back with a post about gender inequality in Hollywood... a topic that may just spur some debate.

Shaun is an independent film producer and member of the Producers Guild of America. He has produced three films: Dakota, Dakota Skye and Gotham-award winner, Girlfriend. His new film, The Automatic Hate, is due in late 2014/early 2015.

Part II of Gender Inequality in the Industry will be posted Wednesday.

Once again, I thank Shaun for his contribution.  And I invite all members of the community to discuss and debate in the Comments section below.



I’m going to do something I shouldn’t. I’m going to wade into some very murky waters to address something that is a hot-button topic, which I’m sure to get me into trouble… because I’m going to write things that some of you may disagree with or even find offensive - not all of you, but some.

The topic? Gender bias in the film industry - specifically related to directors, but also to the industry as a whole. And let me be clear, there is a bias, to be sure… but not in the way some think.

I’m going to write (cautiously) about this topic because I can’t stand to read another article about it framed, as it often is, by this ridiculous stance that women aren’t hired because they’re women, and I should note that this exact phrase was written to me on Twitter by journalist Melissa Silverstein, who writes for Indiewire, after I saw her article and responded.

The title of Ms. (Mrs.?) Silverstein’s article on her blog Women And Hollywood, was: “Male Privilege Watch: Man With No Directing Experience to Direct Film With Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett.”

To say that the title of Silverstein’s article seemed inflammatory would be an understatement… and her need to push an agenda seemingly without consideration of research or, it would seem, an understanding of the business beyond the fringe, actually bothered me.

When I read that heading, I immediately clicked through to the link, which I suppose is what Silverstein wanted - more hits for the site… I was, as one might imagine, expecting to find an article about some late-20s first-time writer somehow getting the proverbial Golden Ticket and being allowed to direct his first ever screenplay… or worse, some nephew of a studio head or well-established producer simply being handed an opportunity… but it only took me to the second paragraph before I laughed and clicked away… Why? Because all of Silverstein’s credibility was lost for me.

The person who was going to direct this Redford/Blanchett film… this person who was, according to Silverstein, merely a result of “Male Privilege,” wasn’t a newbie at all. He wasn’t some kid with zero experience on a set and no credits to his name, no, no… the director is James Vanderbilt, and he also wrote it.

If you don’t follow screenwriters, let me give you a bit of background on Vanderbilt. Family heritage aside, he graduated the film program at USC in 1999 and, only two years later, began his professional screenwriting/producing career when his script Basic was turned into a film starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Connie Nielsen (directed by John McTiernan).

After selling Basic, he briefly became the “new hotness” in town and was quickly sought after. He wrote the successful Universal action-comedy The Rundown (directed by Pete Berg).  After The Rundown, he had a bit of a lull (as often happens) before finally joining up with David Fincher and adapting the non-fiction novel Zodiac by Robert Graysmith. After Zodiac (which he also produced), he had some heat again.

Next up, he wrote Warner Bros.’s The Losers, followed by The Amazing Spider-Man, then White House Down (again, producing as well), and, finally, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which brings us up to date.       

Now, one would have to be pretty uninformed to believe that a writer on a massive tent-pole studio film these days (like either of Sony’s Spider-Man films or White House Down) isn’t sitting in a Star Waggon (yes, they spell it with two ‘g’’s) somewhere in basecamp, frantically re-writing the very scene that 347 people are waiting to shoot just a van ride away… This isn’t 1944, after all, and while writers these days rarely get the respect of some of the other crafts, they’re not entirely pushed away from set either - especially when they’re also producers on a project. Because of that, the author’s assertion that Vanderbilt is a man with “no directing experience,” is absurd. I mean, yes, he hasn’t directed, but he wrote the screenplay for the film that’s going to shoot and he has (in my opinion) more than earned his stripes in production.

In the article, the author mentioned that this new film Vanderbilt would be directing is based on a novel by a former CBS producer named Mary Mapes, and goes on to pose the question, “would a female writer be given this kind of opportunity?”

Well, ultimately, yes, under certain circumstances, I believe a female writer would be given the opportunity.

As with almost anything, it all comes down to demand. Who wants the material? What are they willing to pay for it? And what, if any, concessions are they willing to make in order to acquire it?

I went back and read the article again later and decided to dig a little deeper. After all, maybe I was wrong. Perhaps I was discounting something that ought to be taken into account. I looked up the project on Studio System, then IMDb and read about it on Deadline. From checking these sites, I was able to learn several things about the project:

1). As previously mentioned, the script will be based on the non-fiction novel Truth And Duty: The Press, The President, And The Privilege Of Power by Mary Mapes.

2). Vanderbilt will not only direct, but wrote the script and will produce as well.

The second item is the important one here. An early press release states that Mr. Vanderbilt optioned the rights to the book, along with his partners, via their company Mythology Entertainment and that he will be adapting the book (most likely with the intention of directing it).

A writer controlling his or her material so as to move into a new role (the directors chair) is not a new idea. Heck, even actors have made this play… Think back to Rocky. In 1975, everyone wanted the hot new script by the unknown writer about the underdog fighter who simply wouldn’t quit, and they were willing to pay Stallone as much as $300,000 dollars for his screenplay (an even more extraordinary sum at that time than it is now), but Stallone (who was, as the story goes, literally sleeping in his friend’s closet in New York) refused to sell the script unless he would be guaranteed the lead role. In the end, MGM wanted it bad enough and John G. Avildsen signed off on it, so Stallone got to play the part and the rest, as they say, is history. The film went on to be nominated for 7 Academy Awards, make tons of dough for MGM and, by the time they commissioned a sequel, Stallone was already positioning himself to direct the film.

How about Damon and Affleck with Good Will Hunting? Billy Bob Thornton with Sling Blade?

Knowing this, could one make the assumption that a writer (or actor) with a script that people want, leverage that desire into a job in the directors chair? Could, say, Kelly Marcel, coming off her BAFTA Nominated work on Saving Mr. Banks, leverage her next script as an opportunity to direct? Yes. I’d say that she could.

Let’s talk about some other women directors - and I only single them out by gender in this instance because gender is, ultimately, what we’re talking about:

What about the excellent Nicole Holofcener? Holofcener had written and directed four films - all of them modestly budgeted - that found an audience. They weren’t blockbusters, but their investors (one assumes) recouped.

During the two years between Please Give and Enough Said, she went back into television (where she’d been working steadily as a director on shows like Six Feet Under for HBO and Enlightened for Showtime). Enough Said was, again, a modestly budgeted film, but this one connected on a level her other films hadn’t. The film was unique and funny (and also, sadly, benefitted from being one of James Gandolfini’s last performances). It grossed an impressive $25 million worldwide. Since then, she’s gone back to tv again, working on the hit series Parks and Recreation for NBC.

How about Susannah Grant? Back in 2001, she was an Oscar and BAFTA Nominee for Erin Brokovich. She went on to write In Her Shoes for Curtis Hanson and, in 2006, wrote and directed Catch and Release. Since then, she’s gone on to write films like Charlotte’s Web and The Soloist and, like Holofcener, is now working in television…

Why isn’t Grant directing now? My guess is because, like any director, when your film tanks (Catch and Release made on $16.1 million worldwide on a reported $25 million dollar budget), you go to “director jail” for a while. Sometimes you get out for good behavior (Joseph Kosinski), and sometimes you literally go to jail and try to make a comeback later (like the aforementioned John McTiernan). As an aside, McTiernan was jailed for his involvement in a wire-tapping scandal, not for Rollerball, despite maybe deserving prison time for putting us through that film.

I should probably mention at this point that I am a huge fan of a number of female directors… but the fact that they’re women has, literally, nothing to do with my fandom. I, like most people I know, judge a filmmaker on the quality of their work, not on their gender… and that goes for the casual film viewer in me as well as the producer who might be considering potential director candidates for a project.

Of the three films I’ve produced, all have been directed by men - however, two of the three have been shot by the same woman, and the reason the directors were male was because, in two of the cases, the director was also the screenwriter and in the other, my Co-Producer had optioned the material specifically so that he could direct it. I wasn’t, as a producer, not hiring a female director because I don’t like women or don’t feel a woman would be up to the task… it was that the projects were generated by men, and those men controlled the material.

On my second film even our Key Grip was a woman (talk about a rarity!). DP, female (another rarity). Costume Designer, female. Script Supervisor, female. Co-Producer. Another Co-Producer. All female.

On my third film? Two female producers, (excellent) female Co-Writer, (the same, badass) female DP (still a rarity) and her two female AC’s. We had the same (genius) female Costume Designer, a (smart, meticulous) female Script Super., and our Production Designer was another (brilliant) woman. We even had a (phenomenal) female Prop Master. Hell, our Travel Coordinators were both women! I mean, I could go on and on.

Did I hire these people because I specifically didn’t want to hire men? Did I hire them because I thought the fact that they were women somehow gave them a better sense of the material? No. That’s absurd. They were hired, all of them, because they were A).Talented and B). If I’m being candid, they were willing to work on the film within the given budget constraints.

Could women have directed any of my three feature films? Sure. Each film I’ve done could’ve been directed by a man or a woman and gender would have had nothing to do with the outcome. Story is story is story, and if women had written the films, they likely would have been directed by women.

Hopefully this illustrates that I, personally, prefer a set with women around… as long as they tend to be those with a calming presence and not the, sort of, (here’s where I get in trouble) shall we say, overcompensating presence… and I’m referring to those women who, in order to compete in this (admittedly) male dominated business, feel they need to yell a lot or… assert themselves lest they be perceived as weak. And don’t get me wrong - I don’t want to deal with men like that either!

Part II of Gender Inequality in the Industry will run Wednesday.  Stay tuned.

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Shaun is available for remarks and questions in the Comments section below.  We also welcome all debate on this sensitive subject.

Part II: Gender Inequality in the Industry
On Stage with RB (August 2014) Now On Demand for FREE
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