Photo: Keynote speaker April Reign
A Report from the Provincetown Women’s Media Summit
by Rebecca M. Alvin
This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was markedly different. It seemed the Academy was tripping over itself at every level to attempt to make up for and acknowledge past biases and exclusionary practices that have effectively silenced women, people of color, and the LGBT+ community. The icing on the cake was actress Frances McDormand’s Best Actress acceptance speech in which she managed to thank her family and “everyone in this room” while also making a statement about Hollywood’s systemic racism, homophobia, and especially its sexism. She ended her speech saying, “I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: Inclusion Rider.”
For Dr. Stacy Smith, one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Provincetown Women’s Media Summit, that last part was something like a dream come true.
“It was an absolutely thrilling, almost surreal experience to hear her say something so near and dear to my heart,” she says as we talk in the Cabaret Room at the Crown & Anchor. The idea of the inclusion rider, a clause that could be put into the contracts of key talent, requiring inclusion and diversity in front of and behind the camera in their projects, was Smith’s idea. She introduced it in 2014, in a Hollywood Reporter article. But she had no idea that McDormand was going to say anything about it. As it turns out, McDormand heard about it from one of the agents at United Talent Agency (UTA), Blair Kohan, who told her about it just before the Oscars.
The Oscars this year gave a clear indication of where we are in the fight against discrimination. For the Media Summit’s other keynote speaker April Reign, the creator of the #OscarSoWhite movement, it was also a sign of progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done. She says of the show, “I think, as I do every year, it was two steps forward and one and a half steps back…I was pleased that the first openly transgender woman was a presenter this year,” Reign says referring to Daniela Vega who starred in the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman, which won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. “I was very excited to see that Jordan Peale won for best original screenplay [for Get Out],” she adds. “I think it was a seminal work, especially for a first attempt. And then there were other firsts as well. It’s dismaying that in 2018 we’re still talking about ‘the first,’ you know, the first black woman to be nominated for screenplay, and so on… We need to do more work to see a real change.”
Smith, a film professor at USC whose research at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative have lain the groundwork for Time’s Up and other activism around diversity in Hollywood, cautions us to look beyond the Oscars for what’s really important here, though.
“The Academy Awards are the end of a long process… and if we really want to think about changing, keep the conversation focused on where change matters,” she explains. “I’m far more interested in creating change than I am in condemning one particular show or one particular point. I really want to think about what’s driving systemic inequality and that’s at the very beginning… I think that commentary around the award show is important, but if I want to create change I need to start at the beginning and ask who’s green-lighting, who’s in the room? Who gets the opportunity to participate? And if those things are handled properly, at the end of the process it should look far more diverse and inclusive than it typically does.”
This is where the annual Women’s Media Summit here in Provincetown comes in. Back in 2016, the Provincetown Film Society (PFS) invited Maria Giese to speak. (The feature film director, who is also a Cape Cod native, was the woman who got the ACLU to file a lawsuit against several Hollywood studios for gender discrimination, which resulted in the opening of an EEOC case in 2013.) The following year, PFS had its first Women’s Media Summit, which resulted in a set of action items moving forward and the formation of the Women’s Media Action Coalition (WeMAC). The 2018 edition of the Summit was held the first weekend in April and included panels, breakout sessions, and the aforementioned keynote speeches, all connecting attendees to actionable items that can bring about a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment in the film industry. In other words, a place at the table.
“I’m very optimistic in the post-Weinstein scandal era that we’re seeing a galvanizing and a community organizing around Time’s Up,” says Smith, referring to the recent movement among Hollywood celebrities to call out discrimination when they see it. “I think it’s probably one of the most extraordinary efforts we’ve seen ever in the time that I’ve been studying issues of inclusion in entertainment where women from all aspects of entertainment are coming together and working, in concert and in their own lanes, to create changes. And now those same women have begun a movement that is being replicated in other fields.”
The Summit tackled tough questions around everything from the legal process of filing a gender discrimination case to how to get financing for a female-driven film to where employers can post job listings to ensure they’re reaching a diverse pool of applicants.
“The most progress, according to the statistics from the Annenberg Institute and the others, is in the digital space, and that is because there are lower barriers to entry,” says Reign. “So independent filmmakers who may be telling stories with marginalized voices have a hard time getting big budget financing to tell their stories and show their work, but they can put it online.”
To give an idea of the level of discrimination women face in the industry, Smith shares, “We talked to 59 different buyers and sellers in the industry, some of the most notable people that are in the executive ranks, or at the agencies, or very familiar with film sales, and we asked them to name female directors that are on their consideration list for movies. And out of those people, the mode response— the most frequent response—was zero. They could not name one female director.”
She adds, “When industry leaders think director, they think male. It’s a leadership issue and it’s a cognitive bias. And it’s a very explicit bias, because also in that study we found that there was a mythic perception that women only want to make small films… As a matter of fact, quite a few of the folks we talked to just said women don’t have the ambition to do comic book or tent pole films, which I thought, ‘that’s kind of interesting, you’re speaking on women’s behalf, once again?’ So we went and interviewed a group of women directors and, sure enough, we found that over 40% of the women we talked to wanted to direct comic book or tent pole type action films. So there’s a disconnect between what industry leaders say and the experiences and the reality that women directors face.”
The toughest nut to crack in all of this, according to both Reign and Smith is getting to the top-level executive decision makers.
“It’s the recalcitrance of studio heads to green-light films that reflect the experiences of marginalized communities, which has always been the case. People—the studio heads, those who have the ability to promote them—are typically older white males, and they don’t see any reason to change the status quo, even though they are literally, at this point, leaving money on the table,” Reign says.
“You want everyone to come to the table and say diversity and inclusion matters—everyone. And I think our research, whether it’s gender or race/ethnicity, LGBT+, people with disabilities, we’re starting to do research on portrayals of mental health— It’s making sure everyone has a seat at the table, and male allies shouldn’t be excluded from that process,” Smith adds with a smile.
For more information on the annual Provincetown Women’s Media Summit visit womensmediasummit.org.