The biggest news out of the Sundance Film Festival may have been the purchase by Fox Searchlight of "The Birth of a Nation," a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion and the first from the indie festival to ever reach a lofty $17.5 million deal.
But there's another fresh deal at Sundance that involves a notable first: What appears to be the first movie starring a woman in a Wall Street leadership role that also has women in key behind-the-scenes jobs.
"Equity," which stars "Breaking Bad" actress Anna Gunn as Naomi Bishop, a top investment banker managing a controversial IPO, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics Monday for distribution. The director was Nora Ephron prize winner Meera Menon, the screenwriter was Amy Fox, and the producers were Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner (who plays the assistant warden "Fig" in "Orange is the New Black"), who also act in the film. Thomas plays Bishop's competitive deputy who's vying for a promotion, while Reiner plays a tough U.S. attorney prosecuting white collar crime.
The goal of the two producers, who caught up with On Leadership in a phone interview from Sundance Wednesday, was to make a film that featured strong female characters, raising gender issues on Wall Street without dwelling on them too much. Reiner said that at the end of the premiere Tuesday at Sundance, a man stood up and told them he liked how the movie felt like a thriller, but tackled gender issues without being too heavy-handed. "We said to him, 'are you a plant?' " Reiner said. "That really was our goal."
In other words, they needed to make a film that would attract not only women eager for films that show them in roles other than strippers or bimbo girlfriends, but finance bros and a mainstream audience, too. ("We're the first non-ho movie" about Wall Street, Reiner said in a discussion with Hollywood Interview.) Attracting that audience required a credible, realistic film about life on Wall Street today that's also a fast-paced thriller involving insider trading, banker-size ambition and buzzy social media IPOs.
"The public loves Wall Street movies -- they've all made money," Thomas said. Look no further than "The Big Short," the Oscar-nominated film based on Michael Lewis's book that has grossed $57 million in domestic box office sales. Their goal was to offer an inside look at this seductive world of money and power while still depicting the reality of Wall Street in a more chastened, post-financial crisis world.
To try and capture that authenticity, Thomas and Reiner sought the advice of a number of heavy hitters on Wall Street, including J.P. Morgan's late dealmaking legend, Jimmy Lee, as well as several high-profile women bankers, such as Barclays vice chairman Barbara Byrne.
"Our investor pool is majority women on Wall Street who not only gave us so much expertise in writing, but also really helped us," said Reiner, both with capital and introductions.
At the same time, they tried to raise gender issues without forcing them on the audience. For instance, Thomas's character is pregnant and married and wants a promotion, but there are also women executives who don't have kids in the film, too. Reiner's character, the prosecutor Samantha, is a lesbian who is married to an African American woman.
"It's not really an issue in the movie," Reiner said. "It's just a truth of the movie, and it was important to me when we were writing this to put some things in that we never talk about."
That effort at subtlety appeared to pay off.
A Variety review, while somewhat mixed, noted Samantha's "knack for seducing incendiary information out of easily flattered finance bros," raving that "one of the most fascinating avenues of investigation in Fox’s script is the double-edged sword of sexuality for women in finance: As presented here, it’s a weapon that can maneuver them into positions of greater advantage, only to be swiftly used against them by misogynistic gatekeepers."
Most greater advantages for women in the world of finance, of course, are still rare. Studies show that women make up just 1.4 percent of CEOs and hold only about 28 percent of executive and senior-level jobs in the finance and insurance industries. Just 25 percent of new partners at Goldman Sachs last year were women -- and that was a record.
The film industry has similarly discouraging numbers. The percentage of top-grossing films directed by women is the same as it was in 1998. And just 12 percent of protagonists and only 11 percent of business leaders in top grossing films were played by female characters, according to research from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University.
While those numbers are a little better in independently produced films like "Equity," particularly when critical behind-the-scenes roles are held by women, there's still more work to be done. Reiner and Thomas aim for their production company, Broad Street Pictures, to tell complex, entertaining stories featuring "brilliant women doing rad things," as they say on their web site.
Next up: they're getting interest in a TV series of "Equity," according to Reiner. "And of course we want to hire a lot of broads on it -- behind and in front of the carpet."