Hollywood’s Women Problem?

After the Isla Vista shootings were over and the killers motivations became clear, social media erupted in support for women’s rights. The hash-tag on Twitter “Yes All Women” filled the timelines of many with heartbreaking stories of what women go through every day in a still male dominant, often misogynist society. In an attempt to better understand our society, many also attempted to connect the issue of male point-of-view dominance to our entertainment culture.

Some of the more candid and vocal supporters of the “Yes All Women” hash-tag were white men working in Hollywood. One writer noted how he was reading and performing notes on a studio script that clearly expressed the white male writer’s sexual fantasies in a way that suppressed the female characters. The writer was appalled at how often he gets scripts from white male agents on behalf of white male clients that have blatant misogynist overtones. Another executive noted that we needed to better represent females on screen (they only accounted for 15% of all top movie roles last year). Many more writers and men in Hollywood embraced the hash-tag, agreeing that Hollywood could do better to both employ more women and treat women better on-screen.

Then why is Hollywood still the way it is?

Why do women only make up 18% of key behind the scene roles in Hollywood, such as writers, directors and producers? This is a figure that has risen only 1% since 1998! Hollywood has long complained on the surface about sexism in its ranks, and that women could be better represented. This is a conversation that has been had for many years. So why should women in this industry feel any more comfortable that something will be done now?

How can we actually improve it? Here is a two-pronged solution I came up with.

1. Yes, you are a part of the problem.

Many writers and executives vocal on the “Yes All Women” hash-tag are actually silent participants in the industries under-representation of women. While they make a great case online and occasionally in the press, their rants come across as armchair activism.

The writer aforementioned likely won’t say anything to the agent or male writer about his misogynist overtones. That writer still wants a pay check, and most in a similar position would not turn away the opportunity to provide notes on a studio script even if they find the message to be abhorrent. The executive could go out of his way to have conversations with other executives and people with decision-making power about why they need to read/make more female stories and acknowledge the data behind the fact that female-starring movies actually do sell.

They do not do this. These folks may feel that under-representation of females in the industry is a bad thing, but they don’t personally risk anything to combat that. They become passive participants in a sexist industry for the sake of a pay check. They likely feel that so long as they know they support women’s rights, they’re not part of the problem — the other guy is.

These folks are a part of the problem. It’s a big problem when no one will risk anything to speak up for those in a disadvantaged position. These men are the equivalent of the white folks who praised the actions of other white people who joined the Freedom Rides against segregation in the south, all while enjoying their segregated life. Sure they supported ending segregation, but they didn’t act on changing anything. The folks who joined on those Freedom Rides and fought with black people for equality pushed forth civil rights laws. You can’t make change without acting on it. Period. Not doing anything or acting to make a change makes you a part of the problem as a passive participant.

2. Subconscious Bias. You look just like me!

Quickly think of three things that come to mind when someone says “female writer” or “female director.” I asked several of my male friends in the arts this question, and their responses ranged from shitty-movies, no action to romantic comedy. These men weren’t trying to be sexist, they support the goal of better female representation in the arts. However they also hold subconscious bias about what it means to be a female writer or director.

Now imagine an executive when they get a query letter from a female writer. Before he even opens her script, he’s already conjuring up an image in his head about what to expect. The same can likely be said of women executives or reps because when I posed this question to my female friends, they answered with the same assumptions. The less you stand out (think your standard white-bread generic name for a young male writer) the less chances there are for someone to read your script or query letter with a subconscious bias. The more generic your name, the less it will stand out. A simple scan of popular working screenwriters shows a common trend among male Anglo-saxon given names and surnames.

We assume as a culture that women are the mothers, the daughters and the wives. No matter how in tune to sexism any executive may be, there will be this subconscious cultural bias. It is why I write with a pen name. No one wants to be judged as a female writer versus just another writer. However it is impossible to detach that subconscious bias as a reader. We need to begin making this subsconcious bias apparent bias, because that is the end result.

Women are capable of writing the same stories men do. Women can write action, horror and even SciFi and fantasy just as men can. Yet so often decision makers are overlooking this possibility in favor of the familiar: the white male perspective.

Executives promote people and hire people that look just like them because it is safe to do so. Hollywood doesn’t really like risk. It tends to go with proven assumptions. However those assumptions lend itself to bias. Executives aren’t thinking twice about promoting a young white male with a similar surname and cultural upbringing over a woman with the same qualifications. He should be! The same can be said when choosing who can direct or be hired to write a major property.

Why can’t a woman write or direct Star Wars, or a comic book film? Likely because the white men who are fans of the property don’t even consider the possibility of hiring anyone but someone who fits the same mold and assumed view points as they do.

In order to break these biases, we need to make them apparent.

Conclusion

We should be looking to equalize the playing field. If white men’s views are the predominant one, we get the same stories over and over again. The problem with that is such stories are also incredibly misogynist, with woman as prize versus woman as character.Beyond the lack of female representation, when we do show females, we show them in a male-dominant light. This is embracing societal stereotypes.

The only way to change this is to allow for more points of view in the creative process. If white men are the predominant cultural force at the top making the decisions, we need to look at diversity at the top. If there’s too many white male writers, we need to hold diversity contests open to women and minorities only. There’s plenty talented women and minorities looking to get into this business, and they are blatantly overlooked in favor of white men. We can lie to ourselves that we are not a part of the problem, but the employment numbers do not lie!

I truly believe many in Hollywood find this trend disgusting, but unless they actively fight it, they are part of the problem as passive participants.

Us women are tired of the armchair activism. We are tired of people constantly spinning wheels on tackling this issue of diversity. We want solutions! So unless you are willing to actively be a part of the solution, step aside. If you’re not willing to actively start fighting this problem, you are part of the problem, plain and simple.

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Godzilla v. Hollywood

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Godzilla stomped its way to a $93 million domestic box office launch, far exceeding its expected $75 million domestic gross. These numbers are normally reserved for super hero films, animated family movies or epic sequels. While Godzilla is a familiar property, nobody expected the film to perform this well. Many will argue its success is due in part to a weaker Spider Man film and a brilliant (but misleading) marketing campaign by Warner Brothers. While I will not disagree with that, I think it has more to do with how the film was made itself: it’s a classic Blockbuster.

Godzilla takes on the feel of Jurassic Park at times, with Gareth Edwards being the closest thing to a young Steven Spielberg I think Hollywood has seen to date. This film was not just a CGI-constructed set piece extravaganza like so many other blockbusters released. The film actually emotionally resonated with audiences, in both the chilling trailer and the film itself. American audiences want quality cinema, not just blow-’em-up cape fare light on character exposition and story. Despite being a monster movie, Godzilla delivered. Godzilla is that 1990s-style Spielbergian blockbuster that had you feeling like a kid again while appreciating the human element at the center of the fantasy story.

So what did Godzilla do right that other blockbuster films so often do not? Why is this film outperforming Spider Man? It starts with the man they chose to helm the project: Gareth Edwards.

In 2010 Edwards broke onto the scene with an independently produced film, Monsters. The film was set in Mexico where two young people were trying to escape back to the United States through a quarantined area under invasion by intergalactic monsters. While the whole premise sounds like a B-Movie, the tone was in fact much more serious. The execution, despite being produced on a budget of only $500,000, was near flawless. The world Edwards built was not only entirely believable, but brilliantly crafted with a painstaking attention to detail. The biggest shock of all was when people found out the young British director did all of the special effects on his own personal laptop!

What ultimately made Monsters so captivating was that he created tension using the two main characters; he built up to that monster reveal using appropriate pacing. That is what so many of these modern blockbusters get wrong — they just throw everything out at once, no drama or tension is built up. So often in blockbuster movies we move quickly from set-piece to set-piece without ever feeling that our characters are in danger. Of late blockbuster films have been more about the universe itself rather than the characters fighting or living within it. The human element has been all but wiped out. There is no reason to keep sitting in the theater when everything is given away in the first act of the film.

Like Spielberg, Edwards shows a talent for being able to construct a world on a blockbuster scale, but still have grounded human interest at its core. When Edwards was offered the opportunity to direct Godzilla he stressed the importance of keeping a single human interest at the core of this monster movie. He was a fan of the monster, but also understood that in order to build up suspense and make him more menacing we needed to have humans to relate to. Bryan Cranston’s chilling voice-over in the trailer created a genuine terror. You felt an emotional connection to the seriousness and fear in his voice throughout the trailer. While the film itself eventually deviated in tone from the one portrayed in the trailer, it still kept true to the pacing and human element advertised.

Unlike Pacific Rim (another Kaiju film released by Legendary), Godzilla was only on screen for fifteen minutes or so. Edwards brilliantly built up to the third act finale. When the final fight happened, my theater erupted in applause! THAT is what a blockbuster is supposed to do, elicit that kind of “heck yeah” reaction. There is a reason we have a three act structure, and that is to appropriately build a dramatic story arc. That is what other monster films like Pacific Rim (not nearly as successful with American audiences) failed to do.

So how does Godzilla get the dramatic structure right?

*MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

In the first act, we are introduced to the human element and actually do not really see any monsters at all. Contrast that to most super hero films where you would already have had some kind of battle with the main villain or monster. The first act wasn’t slow either, it was very action packed, but it kept you waiting for more. The first act didn’t throw everything at you. Most blockbusters throw the entire kitchen sink away in the first act, build to a downfall (that never actually feels like one) in the second and then works its way to a giant set-piece for the third act. It’s boring, it’s predictable and you get worn out by all the inhuman CGI by the mid-point of the film. I never feel like any of these superheros or characters are in any sense of danger or fear for their lives. In Godzilla on the other hand, the film was not shy about killing off main characters (even in the first act). As a result it made you feel like the characters were in constant and direct fear for their lives.

Even by the time we get to the second act, we still have not seen much of Godzilla, we only know that our characters know he exists. By the first major reveal of the monster, we have seen a number of crafty set-pieces, but ones that quickly come back to the human element. Right after we destroy a city, we are left to see the consequence of the devastation. So often in blockbusters we see the city get destroyed, millions die, but we are never treated to the visual and emotional result of that set-piece action. Not only did we witness the destruction of the city, standing tall in a beautifully shot ghostly silhouette, we hear on the news “millions feared dead.” The director understands that this is not just a monster Kaiju film, but a disaster movie. What would it be like if Godzilla actually were real? That is what this director actually bothered to show, especially so in the second act. He got up close and personal with human subjects in the foreground of devastation. It wasn’t just CGI destruction porn. In Godzilla we learn to appreciate the consequences of the action so much more than in the average blockbuster.

With appropriate pacing in mind, by the time we arrive at the third act we are not yet exhausted. We still need to see what will happen to our characters and what will happen to the city. Edwards hasn’t even allowed our two monsters to fight yet! Most super hero films would have already had several fights by this point between the hero and villain, exhausting the viewer. The third act battle as a result has to be so much more epic, laced with CGI abuse and devoid of human interest to separate itself from all the set pieces that came before it. It is a narrative error in my opinion. You cannot just expect people to feel anything for the characters in most third act blockbusters because you have removed all tension with battle-fatigue and the whole film just feels devoid of any sense of danger, drama and tension. You always know the good guys are going to win. It never feels like the good guys are going to win in Godzilla. In fact because of the way wanton destruction is treated in this film, you feel you might for the first time in a long time be treated to a bittersweet or bad-guys-win (for now) ending. In a way, this film leaves open the potential to return to this universe the way it should: without a totally obvious cliff-hanger. It was a great stand alone film.

So why did I choose to title this article ‘Godzilla v. Hollywood?’ I did so because I feel that this style of blockbuster needs to show Hollywood executives who choose to give the greenlight to large-scale projects that story and pacing is the most important part of any film. This film wasn’t just attracting a niche demographic either, it was a general blockbuster. It was a film about a giant monster but one whose story and pacing could appeal to any audience member. It takes all the algorithm reliant story-structuring and throws it out the window. Godzilla didn’t feel like every other formulaic film in theaters and that is why it earned $93 million on opening weekend.

American audiences will go back to theaters again if you give them reason to. If every film feels like the same, why would I go to see the same film every weekend? Godzilla ought to show that a blockbuster film can be both epic in scale and yet indie-at-heart. That is why Steven Spielberg is so successful. Spielberg understands this style of blockbuster film-making, and has repeatedly called to Hollywood to stop the formulaic tent-poles and get back to proper stories. When a movie is just a giant set-piece people stop caring. It is why The Amazing Spider Man 2 got panned in reviews and is currently loosing out to Godzilla with domestic audiences. Americans are tired of lazy film-making. As a result, I’m hoping that Godzilla will take on Hollywood. I am hoping that after this blockbuster, it will leave audiences begging for more films done right.