How Gender Inequality in Hollywood Affects Everyone, with Naomi McDougall Jones


Exclusive Interview with: Naomi McDougall Jones

Award-winning actress, writer, and producer Naomi McDougall Jones is one of the most prominent figures steering the “Women in Film Revolution.” Her viral TED Talk, “What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood” has helped raise awareness on the severe gender gap that plagues creative control in Hollywood. She aims to be part of the solution not only with her activism but her self-made film career, proof that there is a lucrative market for media that is both about women and created by women.

There was an audience for the film. In fact, across the country, women and men started coming up to us and saying, “THANK YOU for portraying real women on screen. How exciting and what a relief to see female characters with this depth. Why doesn’t this happen more often?”

SPEAKING.COM: Could you give us an overview of the experience you had the first years you were searching for acting jobs and how that led you to this awareness of the barriers female storytellers face in Hollywood?

MCDOUGALL JONES: It’s important to start off by saying that I was raised in a post-feminist household. My mother and father are staunch feminists who raised me with the full expectation that I would be treated and counted equally in everything I did. This worldview was reinforced when I was the smartest kid in my class throughout school, graduated valedictorian of my high school class, and, generally, could run circles around the boys in most subjects. It genuinely wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I even stopped to wonder whether there might be sexism left in the world.

It was with this rosy lens, that I left acting school and began enthusiastically pounding the pavement – hell bent on becoming the only thing I had ever dreamed of being: an actress. I had spent every moment up to that point dreaming of getting to sink my teeth into these meaty, complex, fierce, vulnerable, and human female characters – the kind I’d grown up watching Meryl Streep play.

I then spent the next two years auditioning 2-6 times a week for the most inane roles imaginable. In the worst case, although routine version of these, the director and/or producer would attempt to coerce me into getting naked for a role with one or two lines. I’ve since learned that 55% of the time you see a female character onscreen, she is naked or scantily clad, which scans pretty neatly with my own experience as an actress.

But, even in the very best scenarios, I was still auditioning for roles that boiled down to “the supportive girlfriend,” “the betrayed and crazy wife,” “the stripper” – in other words, roles that in no way matched my experience of women in the real world, nor satisfied the desire to express the complexities of human experience that had led me to want to be an actress in the first place.

Young and utterly undeterred, I got together with a fellow, similarly frustrated actress friend of mine, and we decided, “No problem. If there aren’t complex women being written and put in films, we’ll just write them and put them in a film.” So, fueled by blissful naivete, we did just that. I wrote a screenplay focused on two, complex female protagonists. We pulled together an entirely female creative team, not as a radical feminist act, but simply because we hired the best person for every job and they all happened to be women. Then, we set out to make our movie.

Almost immediately we started hearing endless variations on two refrains: “No one wants to see stories about women. There’s no audience for them” and “You girls know you’re going to have to get a male producer on board at some point, right? Just so that people will trust you with their money.”

The second refrain was too mind-numbing to warrant a response and the first didn’t make any logical sense to us whatsoever. We wanted to see stories about women. We were desperate to see stories about women. We can’t be the only ones who feel this way. Women are 51% of the population! Are you telling us that women don’t want to see stories about themselves? Ludicrous!

So, we ignored them. We scraped together $80,000 one hard-won dollar at a time, and we made the movie (with only female producers, thank you very much), and the film was a big success. To our total delight, it won 12 awards on the film festival circuit and received a theatrical and digital distribution deal (unbelievably rare for a film of that budget level with no stars or known names behind or in it) and, to our not-even-a-little-bit-surprise, there was an audience for the film. In fact, across the country, women and men started coming up to us and saying, “THANK YOU for portraying real women on screen. How exciting and what a relief to see female characters with this depth. Why doesn’t this happen more often?”

Five years ago I began investigating that exact question. I am now in the process of writing an entire book for Beacon Press about it, but what you need to know for now is that in 1945 about 5% of studio films were directed by women. In 2017, about 5% of studio films were directed by women.

That means that, if you have watched mostly US mainstream films in your lifetime, however old you are, about 95% of them come from exclusively the male perspective.

When you start to look at the full scope and intractability of the problem, it is genuinely breathtaking.

Where there is the kind of prestige, wealth, fame, and power that there is in Hollywood, the powerful (i.e. the men) have an enormous investment in maintaining their stranglehold.

SPEAKING.COM: Many sectors have made progress in gender disparity. Why is Hollywood so far behind in comparison?

MCDOUGALL JONES: Hollywood today actually has the worst gender percentages of almost any industry in the US, which is pretty astonishing considering they’re the so-called liberal elite.

The answer to this is pretty straightforward. If you look at the progress of women in various industries, they have always made the greatest headway the fastest in industries where there was little money, prestige, and power attached to the job. Teaching and nursing, for instance, which we societally and monetarily value very little (to our own great detriment) are professions with high percentages of women.

The presidency and congress – with great power, prestige, and the probability of great money – remain with percentages about as bad as Hollywood.

Ironically, the very beginning of the film industry actually was predominated by women. In the 1920s and 30s, most directors, writers, and even studio heads were female because at that point it was considered a frivolous industry with no real future. In the 40s, Wall Street realized the enormous money-making potential of film and began investing, demanding that men take over running it (because, you know, women just can’t be trusted with money), and at that point the women got summarily forced out and have remained out ever since.

Where there is the kind of prestige, wealth, fame, and power that there is in Hollywood, the powerful (i.e. the men) have an enormous investment in maintaining their stranglehold.

SPEAKING.COM: How does the lack of female voices in Hollywood compare to film industries in other regions of the world? Is this an issue that’s unique to the U.S.?

MCDOUGALL JONES: It is definitely not an issue that’s unique to the US, but our percentages are amongst the worst of developed film industries. Bollywood’s percentages are worse, as are a few other smaller film industries in less developed countries. But among the 1st world film industries, we are definitely leading the way to the bottom. Sweden, Australia, and Ireland’s government and film boards have notably put a great deal of effort into this issue in recent years and have made tremendous progress – demonstrating that it is actually not that impossible a problem to solve. Hollywood has made some noise around trying to address this, but it has been mostly PR-related, and their commitment to actually doing the work of change remains dubious.

The most troubling aspect of that, of course, is that Hollywood produces the vast majority of films viewed by people all over the world. More than any other film industry (or industry full stop), we are shaping the global culture. Therefore, the overt and covert messaging of our content is the most impactful, while also being almost exclusively representative of the male perspective.

Stories are essential – they are the way that we make sense of the world and our place in it… In a modern context, films are those stories we share and that campfire storytelling has now become global.

SPEAKING.COM: How does the gender gap in Hollywood affect people outside the industry?

MCDOUGALL JONES: People often think of film as entertainment: something we consume, but nothing that really affects us one way or another.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. We are the only species on earth (as far as we know) that tells each other stories. Going as far back as cavemen, no human culture has existed without some form of group storytelling.

Stories are essential – they are the way that we make sense of the world and our place in it. They are how we understand who we should relate to and who are our enemies.

To cite just one simple example, the year that Brave and The Hunger Games came out, female participation in archery went up 105%. But it isn’t just our hobbies; studies show that the movies you watch affect your career choices, your emotions, your sense of identity, your relationships, your mental health — even your marital status.

In a modern context, films are those stories we share and that campfire storytelling has now become global.

It gets downright vertiginous to think about the subconscious impact of having 95% of the stories we are told come from the male perspective. Aside from anything else, we are literally telling our women that their stories, perspectives, and lives are not worthy of being shared with the community.

It is not hyperbolic to say that the progress we as women make in any other industry or sector of life will only be fleeting until we are allowed to tell our stories and our roles in those stories.

SPEAKING.COM: Why would an increase in female creative control within the film industry be good for business?

MCDOUGALL JONES: This is the best news of all! I can make the moral/equitable argument all day, but our strongest argument is actually financial: films by and about women make more money.

Studies commissioned by The 51 Fund and Slated.com show that films with a lead female character make an average of $0.23 more on ever investment dollar spent and films with a female director, writer, or producer make an average $0.37 more on every investment dollar spent.

The fact that Hollywood, even in the face of that data, continues to make films almost exclusively by and about men is not actually just bad for society, it’s bad for their bottom line.

SPEAKING.COM: What can people do to promote women’s voices in film?

MCDOUGALL JONES: If you are in the film industry, there are all sorts of things you can do, but, assuming you are not in the film industry, there are two big things we need your help with:

Vote with your dollars:
1) Commit to seeking out and watching one film by at least one female director per month – just start there. If you need help finding them, you can go to moviesbyher.com. Increased market demand will put pressure on the decision-makers.

2) There is a whole generation of female filmmakers now, like myself, who, tired of waiting for Hollywood to get with the program, are making their films independently and distributing them through online platforms directly to consumers – thus bypassing traditional gatekeepers. The biggest hurdle we face is getting financing for those films. So if you can afford to invest in a film by a female filmmaker, do that – the impact will be enormous. If you can’t afford a full investment, consider donating to a crowd-funding campaign for a female creator. You can find active campaigns to donate to at Seed & Spark here: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/category/women

The number of elements, people, and money that have to come together at exactly the same time to even pull a film into existence – never mind make it artistically any good – makes the very existence of any film an absolute miracle. It is impossible and yet people do it all the time.

SPEAKING.COM: Your first big project was the award-winning independent film, Imagine I’m Beautiful. What gave you the idea (and confidence) that you could make your own movie?

MCDOUGALL JONES: This may not be the most flattering answer, but I’ll give you my exact thought-process. I had, at that point, spent 2-3 years as an actress acting on other people’s indie film sets. For the most part, these were the most phenomenally disorganized, illogical, and badly run situations you could imagine. Additionally, the creative caliber of the scripts themselves were mostly iffy at best.

The thought that kept me going through the 3-year process of making Imagine I’m Beautiful was, “Well, I don’t know yet whether I’m a Steven Spielberg, but I can definitely make a better movie than those jokers.”

That combined with the blissful ignorance of having never been to film school and having absolutely no idea how insanely difficult it actually is to make a movie, gave us the audacity to begin and keep going.

When you are making your first feature film, I actually think a good dose of naivete is important. Making a film is essentially impossible. The number of elements, people, and money that have to come together at exactly the same time to even pull a film into existence – never mind make it artistically any good – makes the very existence of any film an absolute miracle. It is impossible and yet people do it all the time. A little audacity at the beginning of your first experience of that is probably necessary.

SPEAKING.COM: What were some of the challenges you faced getting that first film made and distributed?

MCDOUGALL JONES: The primary challenge was that we had no money, no relationship with or access to people who could write us big checks, and no real connections within the industry. On top of that, none of us had ever been to film school or had the least concrete idea how to actually make a movie. We had a team with no proven track record that might suggest to an investor that we could make a movie, and, to boot, we were women and, therefore, instantly taken less seriously and consistently written-off.

Other than that, we were golden.

A film is the culmination of 100,000 little decisions made by each of those 100 people and, in order for a film to work, every single one of those decisions must be made in service of this ONE BIG VISION of the film. If there isn’t a clear vision and/or that vision is not communicated effectively enough to the cast/crew, it won’t work.

SPEAKING.COM: You’ve produced two feature length films now. What are your tips for bringing 100+ people together to produce a single unified project?

MCDOUGALL JONES: As I said before, what you describe is basically impossible. It’s an insane art form. How could that ever work? It’s mayhem.

Yet, my teams have actually managed to do this twice. As far as I can tell, there are basically two things that must be true in order to have a chance of making a great film:

1) At the center of everything, there must be an incredibly clear, specific, and creative vision for the film. This vision sometimes, as in my case, can be collaboratively created between the writer and director of the film. In other cases, it comes just from the director. That vision must not only be clear on the screenplay page, but must be clearly and constantly communicated by the director to every single one of the 100+ people working on the film.

A film is the culmination of 100,000 little decisions made by each of those 100 people and, in order for a film to work, every single one of those decisions must be made in service of this ONE BIG VISION of the film. If there isn’t a clear vision and/or that vision is not communicated effectively enough to the cast/crew, it won’t work. You may be able to make it, it may be coherent, but it won’t ultimately do the thing to an audience that it is supposed to do.

2) Hire people who are talented, competent, creatively in sync with you, hungry to work on your project, and kind (obviously not everyone in the film industry would agree with me on that one, but, in my book, film is hard enough without working with assholes).

Then, step back, do not micro-manage, and allow those people to do their jobs creatively and in service of the ONE BIG VISION. There is an intense hierarchy and power structure on film productions – almost militaristic in its rigidity. This exists and is effective so that inside of that well-oiled machine, the riffs of jazz can emerge.

SPEAKING.COM: Could you tell us about some of the projects you’re currently working on?

MCDOUGALL JONES: Yes! My second feature film,Bite Me, is now in post-production. It’s a subversive romantic comedy about the real-life subculture of people who are vampires and the IRS agent who audits them. It should have its film festival premiere later in 2018 and then get general release in 2019. I am ferociously proud of this film and can’t wait to share it with the world.

I am currently writing a book, The Wrong Kind of Woman: Dismantling the Gods of Hollywood, which will be published by Beacon Press in Fall 2019. That book will pull back the veil on the complexities that are so systematically keeping female storytellers out of the film industry, explore the current women in film movement, and paint a map for actions we can individually and collectively take to at last create real progress.

I am at work on my third screenplay, a magical realism film that explores themes of identity, legacy, and gender through a modern day 7-month pregnant woman’s unexpected interaction with the brilliant, eccentric, and deceased inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr.

Alongside Lois Scott, former CFO of the City of Chicago, and Jessica Goodman, former Warner Bros executive, I am in the process of founding The 51 Fund, a private equity fund designed to finance films by female filmmakers and, thus, capitalize on the business opportunity Hollywood is leaving on the table.

I have also this year founded and am leading a non-profit organization, The Women in Film Revolution, which is the first centralized mechanism for female leaders of existing organizations, companies, and initiatives working to bring parity film to communicate and collaborate with each other on a monthly basis. We have over 35 organizations participating so far in just our first four months. It is radical, thrilling, and hopeful.

To bring inspirational and women’s empowerment speaker Naomi McDougall Jones to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on August 29, 2018

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