Geena Davis has starred in plenty of movies written and directed by women in which she plays complex, idiosyncratic female characters. And with her Bentonville Film Festival — which she tells me she likes to refer to as BFF, for “best friends forever” — she founded a festival designed to promote work by women and “diverse voices,” and to get their movies the distribution that will put them in front of audiences.
In advance of the festival, which kicks off next week in Arkansas, I talked to Davis about what changes Hollywood will have to make if the entertainment industry wants to get serious about hiring more women, whether the movie business makes rational decisions about how to make money, and why streaming in particular and television in general have been boons to women’s stories. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the biggest obstacles to changing anything in Hollywood is just how many different organizations and institutions are involved in making and distributing a single movie or television show. Where do you think the most significant roadblocks for women in the industry lie? Is it agencies? The C-suites at studios? The number-crunchers at production companies?
I know you don’t want me to say “everywhere,” but it really is a case of a lot of unconscious bias in everybody. Because if you look at not just the industry, but every sector of society around the world, there is inequality. And especially when you get to leadership positions, so, so much of it is based on bias. . . . In the popular culture around us, in the media, in the real-life examples that we see. There are just profoundly fewer women, fewer women in important positions, and fewer women just taking up space in general and being seen as important.
So we’re all taking in this message that women and girls are less important than men and boys, and therefore their stories are less important, what they do and what they say, just everything is less important. And some of it is completely unconscious. Employers who swear up and down that they have no gender bias, they just hire on merit, research shows that you show them two identical résumés where the only difference is the first name on one is female and the first name on the other one is male, the man gets offered a job more often, at a higher salary, and people are more likely to say that they think that they would like him. So it really is everywhere.
Having said that, my work centers so much around the on-screen depictions, or has, through my institute. First I’ll say the easiest way to say that is to let me read their scripts before they get made. But the most impact thing would be in the writing. . . . We asked [executives], ‘If a gender-balanced script came across your desk, would that be a problem for you?’ and 90 percent said, ‘No, and I wouldn’t even notice, it wouldn’t occur to me, “This has too many females in it.” ’ So that’s the best place. You have to look at behind the camera. I wonder if I have a theory about what’s the best way [to get more equal]. It’s become a conscious decision to hire women directors and producers and writers, and just become a very conscious effort to either give them a chance the way men are given a chance and support them. It has to be a studio- or network-wide policy. It has to be enacted on every level. That one is a really tough nut to crack, because it’s been so intractable.
Do you think Ryan Murphy’s commitment to make sure that half of the episodes of his TV shows are directed by women or people of color will set a standard that other people will have to meet?
Shonda Rhimes has been doing this for a while now. Her shows are incredibly diverse and populated with women in the production side and the directing. So that definitely has had an impact. And his actions will definitely also have an impact. We haven’t got to the place yet where people say, ‘Oh, I have to do this because people are noticing.’ Because, you know, every year those numbers are released where they analyze what TV shows, where they look at what shows had women, or diverse, directors. And there are so many shows that have zeros. You’d think that with this thing coming out every year, people would say, ‘Wow, that’s embarrassing.’ I’m very grateful to him for saying that and doing that. And I hope others follow suit.
What do you think of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s investigation into Hollywood hiring practices? Have you had any contact with the agency? Where would you tell them to direct their inquiries?
That’s not really my area of expertise. I’m excited and interested in that and what’s going on. What I’ve started doing the last couple of years, as you know, I’m sure, is launched a film festival specifically to champion women and diversity in media. It’s called the Bentonville Film Festival, we like to call it BFF. It’s a way to try to not only impact what’s on screen but what’s behind the camera and support diverse and female filmmakers.
We have some unique ways to try to accomplish that. It’s unheard-of in the world of film festivals, we offer guaranteed distribution to our winners. I’ve had a lot of directors tell me it’s harder to get distribution than to make a movie. It’s a really tough nut to crack. We’re working with all the major studios, they have a presence at the festival, it’s coming up next week. Research has already shown that films with more female characters and more diversity make more money. You can’t even talk about it being the politically correct thing to do anymore. This is the way the world is going. It’s half-female and incredibly diverse.
But do you really think Hollywood makes those sort of rational business decisions? If you look at the Motion Picture Association of America’s Theatrical Market Statistics report, it shows that women buy half of movie tickets, and Hispanic moviegoers buy more tickets per capita than members of any other demographics, and yet representation is what it is. Do you think the studios think they don’t have to cater to women and people of color, because we’ll just go to the movies anyway?
That’s a really great question. What an interesting topic! We actually work with the National Association of Theatre Owners a lot. They’re perplexed by this, too. They would love to have more diversity and inclusion in what they show.
I think it’s two things. One is just a strange phenomenon: Even when there’s research that shows a financial upside, in business, all the data is in that if you have more women on boards, the company makes more money. So you would think everyone would be like, ‘Let’s do this as fast as we possibly can!’ But those numbers move glacially, so people aren’t jumping on what sounds like a clear opportunity to have the company perform better.
The second thing is this innate sense in Hollywood, that women will watch men but men won’t watch women, is true, no matter what evidence you give them. Just in my gut, I think, even without maybe realizing it, Hollywood has this feeling that that’s true. That’s why I think we see so many examples that are wildly successful starring a woman or about women, or whatever, it doesn’t matter how many ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Hunger Games’ and all that that we have, that we don’t seem to get any momentum going. And I think it’s because it’s ‘Yeah, well, but, what if it’s true and that was a one-off?’ We haven’t been able to build on those successes.
It’s kind of crazy to think about it. Look at Disney: They roll out movie after movie with a female star, more movies starring a female than not. They’re not kind of successful. They’re blockbusters. They’re gigantic hits. And people don’t say, ‘Wow, that’s somebody proving it over and over again.’ There’s such ingrained mistrust for whatever reason.
What impact do you think the international market for movies and television has on women’s prospects in Hollywood? Is there a perception that international audiences are less interested in stories about women?
I think, my sense is that is out there. We haven’t particularly studied that phenomenon. It would be interesting to poll some of Hollywood and see what they think about that. It’s just a general sense they have. That doesn’t mean that it’s true.
There’s a general sense just within the United States that movies starring men make more profit. And the research shows clearly that movies made by or starring or about women are equally profitable once you adjust for the budget. It’s usually big movies that star male characters, it makes it seem like they make more money, but it’s absolutely not true. The whole idea that Hollywood seems based on is absolutely not true. I mean, look, ‘Star Wars’ came out. So, seriously, we should stop having the conversation about whether men will watch women. ‘Star Wars’ is the biggest movie in the history of the galaxy, and it has a female lead character! Can we all get over this already?
And of the highest-grossing movies last year, “Star Wars,” had the most male audience! What impact do you think big streaming services like Netflix and Amazon* will have on women’s directorial prospects? Could outlets like these, that are trying to serve niche audiences, resurrect genres like the romantic comedy?
Absolutely. Television in general is already doing a much better job than film. There’s more female characters. It’s not perfect by any means. There’s more female characters, they have more things to do, more leadership positions, more rich and fully developed female characters. It’s definitely a place where a lot of progress is already being made and can be made. It’s such a different model, the streaming services. I think there’s plenty of room for progress and inclusion in those kinds of shows. Personally I would like to be on a cable or a streaming service like that.
*Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.