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Could ReFrame be a game-changer for women in Hollywood?

Jacobson Nina
Nina Jacobson, producer of the Hunger Games movies, is among the leadership of ReFrame.

As career statistics for women in film and television continue to flatline, women are not patiently waiting for Hollywood to sluggishly evolve. Instead, women across the spectrum—journalists, critics, producers, directors, screenwriters, and creatives in every conceivable realm—are challenging the system head on in hopes of forcing change where far too many stubborn obstacles still remain.

The numbers paint a frustrating picture. Women account for 51 percent of moviegoers, yet, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, among the 100 highest-grossing films of 2015, only 22 percent of protagonists were women. Only five of those films had female leads or co-leads older than age 45, while 26 featured male leads or co-leads older than age 45. Women directed only 9 percent of the films.

Despite activists raising awareness of these problems, not much has changed. In 2015-16, women represented only 17 percent of directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the 250 highest-grossing films. That rate was lower than the previous year and equal to that of 1998.

But we now seem poised to begin a new era. Women in the industry are pushing for a speedier end to what producer Lucy Fisher called “deep-seated aversion to letting women drive.”

One of the biggest and most promising of these efforts is ReFrame, a new joint project of Women in Film and the Sundance Institute that is made up of 50 industry leaders and influencers, including high-profile names like directors Paul Feig, Kimberly Peirce, and The Black List’s Franklin Leonard; and producers Glen Mazzara, Nina Jacobson, and Michael De Luca, who are committed to educating about, confronting, and reshaping inequality and representation in film and TV.

ReFrame has a three-part action plan designed to remedy systemic gender inequity. The first is a “culture change toolkit,” which will educate those in positions of power about gender bias and provide concrete steps to address it. The toolkit will include videos that train production companies and industry professionals on implicit bias when hiring. As producer Michael De Luca told the The Hollywood Reporter, "If you're a studio executive and you request a list of directors or writers from an agency, and it comes back 99 percent male, make that second phone call: 'Hey, do you have any clients that are female?'"

The second aspect of ReFrame is a sponsor/protégé network that puts people in power in charge of mentoring and advocating for women. Unlike men in Hollywood, women often do not have a mentor who will promote them based on just one successful film at Sundance or a short film from a festival. According to a study by researchers at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just 4.1 percent of 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2002 to 2014 were directed by women. The study’s author Stacy Smith determined that “for males, opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.”

A wunderkind director like Damien Chazelle or Benh Zeitlin can burst onto the Hollywood scene on the basis of one short or a micro-budget feature and then find himself in the Hollywood stratosphere. Men in this situation are often immediately given a major blockbuster to helm, as was Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who had done some TV and made one feature before being handed a $160 million budget to make Kong: Skull Island, one of the most promising blockbusters of the year.

ReFrame would help match a sponsor with an up-and-coming female filmmaker. Instead of a woman making one film and then disappearing—a phenomenon that happens with alarming frequency—a ReFrame ambassador could keep her in the conversation, helping to put her name in the ring for a potential job.

The third part of the plan is a stamp of approval that will proudly convey the message that media projects earning this certification recognized the problems of discrimination against women and did something about it.

Key to driving the message are women who have been astute industry observers for many years and have become articulate critics of the decline in representation of women behind and in front of the camera. Thelma Adams is one such outspoken film critic who has watched with dismay as women’s voices have diminished since the rise of fanboy culture in film criticism. “I’ve seen a setback of powerful female critics with years of experience and clout,” says Adams. “There’s a brain trust that were already struggling to be heard, and when they fell there weren’t enough women in power to rescue them. It is not in any way a meritocracy. Even if we have mechanisms to expand the number of women directing and writing films, when they come to the marketplace, their works of art will connect to an audience that is fifty percent female but will be hobbled by a critical majority that are male.”

Adams adds that ReFrame’s efforts will bolster a wave of activism that focuses on “developing female talent behind the camera.” Adams cites Film Fatales, which is a community of women filmmakers who meet regularly to mentor each other and share resources; Gamechanger film fund, which is the first fund to specifically focus on women directors; and Tangerine Productions, a film production company that focuses on “commercially viable, critically acclaimed stories for all audiences, with an emphasis on female filmmakers and strong roles for women.”

Monetary investment is one of the best ways to enact change. Adams adds that the goal is to make films “that not only reflect women’s lives but allow the directors to be artists, to break the mold, to show women in different dramatic and comedic situations, to flex and not be called pretentious but artists.”

One of the most persistent voices for women is Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood and the Athena Film Festival. Silverstein insists, “The conversation must be intersectional,” with specific attention paid to women of color. Like Adams, she believes that change is happening because of women’s growing impatience at the rate of change. Says Silverstein, “There is stuff happening on the ground, stuff happening at a higher level, which is ReFrame. Lots of great stuff. Women are not waiting for permission. They are making their own movies. They are taking back the narrative.”

Director Kimberly Peirce, a ReFrame ambassador, posed this possibility to The Hollywood Reporter: “Can we do basically what men have been doing in the system, which is, you’re a young filmmaker, somebody gives you a movie beyond your capacity and you learn on the job? That never happens for women, who are not chosen above their experience level.”

Thelma Adams believes fundamental change will take a village. “We’ve begun to move the giant rock—but where will it lead and how long will it take? Those are questions for an intuitive, not a writer.”

Still, it's now undeniable: this past year women, including women of color, proved profitable at the box office. With Hidden Figures earning over $162 million, La La Land at $148 million, Arrival passing $100 million, Moana at $247 million, Finding Dory at a whopping $486 million, and the year’s highest grosser, Rogue One, at $529 million, no case can be made that films with women at their center don’t make money. Does this mean things are beginning to change?

Perhaps. One thing is certain: change is happening because women are making it happen. ReFrame plans to launch immediately and hopes to show some measurable success within two years.

Silverstein remains hopeful, “Interventions are needed at all levels of the industry from the second a person walks into film schools to the festivals all the way up to the Hollywood blockbusters that women have no access to direct. If ReFrame gets the women in the door and gets them jobs, it will be a huge accomplishment. There are women able and ready to direct all different types of movies. They just need the opportunity.”

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