May 9, 2008

Women at the Box Office This Weekend

New to NY and LA this weekend is A Previous Engagement a comedy starring Juliet Stevenson written and directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin. (Disclaimer- I have been working on the marketing of this film.) Read my interview with director Joan Carr-Wiggin

Then She Found Me continues its roll out to Phoenix, Denver, CT, southern FL, Atlanta, IL, Baltimore, MA, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston.
Here's my review

Also opening in NY is The Tracey Fragments starring Ellen Page, that is getting its US release due to Page's fame. Pretty cool. Here's an analysis of this film's release that I found interesting from Karina Longworth at Spout: Tracey Fragments and the Ellen Page Conundrum

Remaining in Theatres for your viewing pleasure are:
Baby Mama
Nim's Island (which over the last month has made a respectable 42 m with a budget of 37 m)
Under the Same Moon
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Under the radar success story: Hats off to Fay Ann Lee for self distributing her film Falling for Grace which was number 1 Harkins Camelview in Phoenix and is now in its fourth weekend there! She's looking for a national distributor. Ideas?

A Previous Engagement- Written and Directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin

I met Joan and her husband and producer David Gordian over a year ago as they were struggling to get a distribution deal for their film A Previous Engagement starring Juliet Stevenson. We became friends and I have been working with them over the last couple of months to try and get the word out about this comedy, which is unique in this film climate, because at its center is a woman over 50.

Joan Carr-Wiggin answered some questions about her film and why its so hard to get women's stories made in the business.

Women & Hollywood: What made you decide to write this story?

Joan Carr-Wiggin: I really wanted to tell a story about an older woman taking control of her life. Not in a "she realizes taking care of her family is the most important thing when she becomes terminally ill" way. I see so many fascinating, funny, and complicated older women living great lives, but I don’t see women like that in films.
W&H: Did you know that you would be directing it when you wrote it?
JCW: Yes. That influenced the script. I don’t think I’d enjoy directing something too depressing. I write a wide range of scripts, I even wrote a sci fi one once which was a lot of fun, and I’ve written some very dramatic pieces, but I’m only interested in directing comedy. Preston Sturges is my favourite director, and I agree with the theme of his wonderful movie Sullivan’s Travels. Watching comedy makes life a little easier for people.
W&H: Most women filmmakers struggle to get financing for their films, but you seem to have had an easier time with it. Why do you think that's the case and what secrets can you share with other women looking for financing?
JCW: It's really hard to finance any kind of character-based film in Hollywood, not just one about women. One of our biggest advantages is that my husband David Gordian, who produced the film, raises our financing in Canada and Europe, which are much more welcoming of women directors and character-based films than the American system. And the less money you need to raise, the more freedom you have as a filmmaker. We’re only interested in doing smaller character driven films that feature performances rather than stunts and explosions. We have no desire to make a number one film at the box office. We just try to make a movie we’ll enjoy ourselves. But Hollywood always wants to maximize gross revenues, even if the budget and the advertising costs wipe out their profits. It’s a “bigger is better” mentality, and we just don’t share it at all.
W&H: The line that resonates the most in the film is: "if people really knew who their mothers really were the world would end." Why do you think it resonates so much?
JCW: It's one of those things everyone knows is true but no one ever talks about it. I think most of us, as we get older, start to glimpse that our mothers were much more complicated than we realized, and we often regret not getting to know the real woman underneath.
W&H: Why do you think it’s so difficult to get films about women over 40 made?
JCW: There's a tendency in Hollywood to see films that have a young and male sensibility as universal, and to see films that have an older and female sensibility as only appealing to a niche. But I’ve discovered that A Previous Engagement strikes a chord with a lot of men as well as women. So their premise just isn’t accurate. Part of the problem is that even when Hollywood does make a film about an older woman, it often ends up presenting an absurd caricature instead of a real woman, so of course the film fails. And then Hollywood uses its failure as an excuse not to finance interesting and promising films about older women. But I was an economist before I was a filmmaker, so I know there are many economic models which can allow films to be made and distributed. I think smart filmmakers should just turn their backs on Hollywood. It operates on a business model which functions, fairly efficiently, for the delivery of simplistic movies for the lowest common denominator. And sometimes I enjoy those movies myself. But usually I don’t, and I would never want to direct one.
W&H: Why do you think that the climate is so hostile to women directors?
JCW: Sexism is the short answer, and that explains a great deal of it. Women make up about 6% of film directors, so there are actually more women law partners, politicians and even astronauts proportionally than directors. The fact that Hollywood lags so far behind other industries helps to explain why they continue to make movies that don’t show women accurately. And they use absurd excuses to resist change, such as the myth that directing is a difficult job for mothers. Except for during the actual filming, which is a small part of the overall job, the hours are flexible and a lot of work can be done from home. And of course no one talks about directing being too demanding a job for fathers. But I’m optimistic that things will start to get better for women directors with the rise of digital cinema and the internet, which are both breaking down the entire economic model of the Hollywood production and distribution system. The world is changing in wonderful exciting ways, even if Hollywood isn’t.
W&H: What advice would you give to other women filmmakers?
JCW: Watch great movies, and remember that once you get past the financing struggles, actors and crew people are really accepting of women directors. A Previous Engagement was an absolute joy to make. And be persistent.

A Previous Engagement opens today in NY and LA.
A Previous Engagement

What Does the Demise of Picturehouse Mean for The Women?

Yesterday, Warner Brother shut down its two indie operations Warner Independent Pictures (headed by Polly Cohen) and Picturehouse. Warners, if you recall, if the studio headed by Jeff Robinov who declared his love for women by stating that he didn't even want to read any scripts that had women leads (earlier post Do Women Matter to Hollywood?.)

Picturehouse led by Bob Berney (who brought us the awesome Whale Rider) has a couple of women friendly films on track to be released within the next several months: First is Kit Kittredge: An American Girl based on the American Girl dolls which stars Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormand, Joan Cusack and is directed by Patricia Rozema from a screenplay by Ann Peacock. It's a family friendly film with a G rating and Abigail plays a young reporter. Sounds cute. Film will be released in early July.

Second is The Women an update of the classic film written and directed by Diane English starring Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing and Candice Bergen and Bette Midler. Yowsa. Every time I write this cast I can't help but get excited.

Now that The Women is technically in the hands of Warner Brothers which has a horrible track record with women, what will they do with this film? I'm nervous. I really hope they don't dump it (the release date has recently been changed from October to September 12). I remember what happened when the Weinsteins left Miramax and there were a couple of films that never got released properly. Hopefully they sell it or partner with someone who can figure out how to market this to women (not that anyone is Hollywood is good at that).

Anyone know what's going on?

May 8, 2008

Lioness- a film by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers

I've been going to the Tribeca Film Festival for a couple of years now and one of the strongest parts of the festival has been the documentaries. Each year I manage to see a couple that I can't get out of my head. This year one of the films was Lioness, a film about women soldiers on the front lines in the war in Iraq. Yes, women soldiers are on the front lines in Iraq. Just like the farce of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy that prohibits women in combat does not reflect the reality of this war. Team Lioness was created out of necessity on the ground in Iraq in 2003 to diffuse tensions with women civilians and children during raids and operations where soldiers were on the hunt for insurgents.

This film focuses on five of the earliest Lionesses, their lack of training for the missions, (because women are not in combat so, of course, the can't be trained for the combat they won't be seeing) their experiences in battle, and what it was like to come back home to a world that doesn't acknowledge or understand your contribution to the war effort. The most moving story for me was that of Shannon Morgan, a young woman who joined up in the wake of 9-11 in order to get money for college. Shannon knew how to shoot and was so tough that the guys requested her to be attached to their missions. Shannon was sent out on the most potentially volatile missions. She got caught in a firefight and had to kill in order to not be killed herself. Killing screws up everyone and when Shannon came back from Iraq with PTSD needing therapy there were no services available for a woman soldier who has done what she has done. The therapists don't have any context or training to help her.

No matter how you feel about war, especially this war, this film illuminates an important issue that needs way more attention. But the defense department can't bring the issue to the Congress or to the public's attention because women in the military is still such a hot button issue they can't afford to be told to pull women out. Women make up 15% of the force in Iraq and with a force stretched thin, losing necessary soldiers is not something that can be contemplated. So again, here we have another story of women being invisible and denied rights and services for political expediency. What else is new?

Directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers answered a few questions about the film.

Women & Hollywood: What interested you in making this movie and how did you find out about the Lioness program?

Daria Sommers: Like many Americans we watched the war unfold over the first year and we began to get a sense as a footnote that women were engaged and involved in the war in a way that marked a historic shift in the role that women were playing especially in the army. So we took that as a point of departure and decided to investigate and ask questions to find out what was going on.
W&H: Were you surprised that the Army agreed to work with you?
Meg McLagan: I think we were initially surprised because like many people we had a pretty uninformed understanding of how the military works and how decentralized it is. It's not as monolithic as it appears from the outside. We wrote a letter stating our interest in exploring the issue of women in combat and in talking to female soldiers who have come back from Iraq. They gave us permission and facilitated our visits to a couple of bases. At that point we were starting to learn about the Lioness program and identified names and individuals.

DS: Because the Lioness program happened below the radar and on the ground in Iraq and it wasn't a formalized program, in a way we knew more about the story than the army did here.
W&H: Do you think they keep themselves in the dark because of the controversy regarding women in combat. Is there a disconnect between the reality of the battlefield and the political conversation?
MM: The question is who is having those conversations here. Those conversations and policies are driven by congress and the folks in congress, like Duncan Hunter, who felt strongly about pulling women back from certain roles in 2005 are civilian politicians. They don't have day-to-day working knowledge of what is going on in Iraq. I think the army does know but they can't afford another big debate and they can't afford for Congress to say you need to pull them back.

DS: The whole issue of women in combat is one that is uncomfortable in the culture. It does reflect a disconnect because on the one hand there are people who might respond well, fine, ok. But there are factions in the country for whom this is really an uncomfortable subject.
W&H: In your material you say that the program is still publicly denied and they are not properly trained. There was one woman in your movie Shannon who really doesn’t have the services she needs and by publicly denying the program, and by not providing services it is another way of keeping the women invisible.
MM: We are hoping that people will see this film as not about Iraq but about the women soldiers and their experiences. Our interest is in telling the story from their point of view and putting it out there for people to respond to and talk about. We want to acknowledge what they have been doing and to hopefully move the conversation along to bridge this disconnect between the policy and reality. It allows them to be taken seriously in political terms, it allows them to come to the table politically.
W&H: I've seen a bunch of the Iraq movies both fiction and non-fiction and your movie feels different. Those films overwhelm you with the battles and this seems to be more about the human aspects of war.
DS: Even though the events that trigger our narrative are in Iraq our goal was to create a film that reflects back more to our own culture. In some ways its less about Iraq but it is about the "gray zone" that these women have had to occupy where they are not officially trained to go into combat and as a result, they don’t get the specific kinds of services that they need because they are all created on a male model.

MM: We were really interested in their qualities, their competences, their abilities to overcome the challenges they faced both on the battlefield and then at home to have to take care of sick parents and children. We wanted to look into their multifaceted lives.
W&H: You mentioned that people come up to you thinking that women have been in combat because some Hollywood movies (Courage Under Fire, GI Jane) have portrayed women on the battlefield. That seems to be another disconnect between what movies teach us and what really exists. How do you have that conversation?
MM: We see the film as educating people. Most people say either I had no idea or I saw that film with Meg Ryan and I thought women have always been doing this. For us its been interesting because its been either one reaction or the other. We see this film as educating people in addition to telling a compelling story. We are educating people about something very few people know about.
W&H: When did you start working on this movie?
DS: About three years ago.
W&H: And you just finished it?
DS: Yes.
W&H: Have you worked together before?
MM: No, this was our first project together.
W&H: How did the work relationship come about?
MM: We were friends through the writers room and we were talking about the war and were noticing that women were there but were never reported on in and significant way except for the Jessica Lynch incident. It was a very organic friendship and collaboration. It took us time for us to decide what we wanted to do and then to raise the money and do all the research.
(Women in photo: L to R: Specialist Shannon Morgan, Major Kate Guttormsen, Specialist Rebecca Nava - photo credit: Yori Irisawa)

May 6, 2008

Sex and the City - Will it be the Biggest Women's Movie Ever?

Building on this thread over at cinematical Will 'Sex and the City' Quietly Become Summer's Biggest Hit?, I must respectful disagree about the word quiet. There is nothing quiet about this movie. People are going nuts. (Update- heard from the folks at Fandango and Sex is the top selling film, selling more tickets than Indiana Jones -- which comes out earlier -- and is the most visited page on the site.) In fact, they've been going nuts since the film was shot, where people were lining the streets during the shoot.

The only thing that's been quiet is the fact that none of the plot details have been revealed. I'm on the internet all day long and I have found nothing. I've never seen anything like it for a film about women. It's like people actually want this film to succeed. Writers like ones in the NY Post and the NY Daily News have written reviews without revealing anything; bloggers and who are usually so keen on breaking news about plots are not writing anything either. I bet that part of it is that the guy bloggers who are usually the news breakers really don't care much about the film film because it is well, about women.

The film is ironically being released by New Line which is going out of business and will be subsumed (after the requisite job losses) by Warner Brothers run by Hollywood's resident admitted sexist, Jeff Robinov (see my earlier posts on him: Do Women Matter to Hollywood?)

So I'm thinking, can this be the biggest women's film ever?

What's interesting to note is that in the summer one really big film opens on each weekend. Women's films are never considered really big, but this film is, because there is no real competition opening on its weekend. Granted, Indiana Jones opens the week before and there will be many people still wanting to see that film, but Sex and the City has its own weekend. That is a story in itself.

I've looked at the numbers of how other women's films have opened and I really think this movie can break the records. I think that the film (depending on how many screens it opens on) can open with 50 m.

The top grossing opening weekends of movies starring women are:

  • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - 47 m (Angelina Jolie)
  • Charlie's Angels- 40 m (Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Lui)
  • Sweet Home Alabama- 35 m (Reese Witherspoon)
  • Panic Room- 30 m (Jodie Foster)
  • The Devil Wears Prada- 27 m (Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway)
  • Erin Brockovich- 28 m (Julia Roberts)
  • V for Vendetta- 25 m (Natalie Portman)
  • Flightplan - 24 m (Jodie Foster)
  • Mean Girls- 24 m (Lindsay Lohan)
  • Double Jeopardy- 23 m (Ashley Judd)
  • 27 Dresses- 23m (Katherine Heigl)
  • Princess Diaries- 22 m (Anne Hathaway)
  • Freaky Friday- 22 m (Lindsay Lohan, Jamie Lee Curtis)
So, as Oprah said on her lovefest for the film last week, (and she also said that she has never not shown the ending of the film to the audience) take your girlfriends and head to the theatres on May 30th.

Women will make or break this film. Because of the big buzz and hype this film can be a changemaker. We have the added bonus in that the film is supposedly really good.

I am psyched, a movie about women, the celebrates women, that's actually a good movie. Can't wait.

Stay tuned for part 2 - a discussion of Sex and the City and feminism

The Business of Being Born Comes to DVD

In case you missed this film in limited release this past winter, the film is now out on DVD. Here is a rerun of an interview I did with director Abby Epstein and my review.

If you are in NY, both Abby and Executive Producer Ricki Lake will be signing copies of the DVD today, at 1pm at the Borders in the Time Warner Center.

Purchase the DVD at: The Business of Being Born

Women & Hollywood: How did you become involved with this film?

Abby Epstein: Ricki Lake and I became friendly when I directed her in "The Vagina Monologues" Off-Broadway. We stayed in touch and I knew that she was planning a homebirth for her second child, although at the time I thought she was completely nuts! A few years later, Ricki had finished her talk show and relocated to LA so I stopped by to see her new house and have a visit. I had just completed my first doc "Until the Violence Stops" about the worldwide V-Day movement and Ricki was looking to start a "dream" project about midwives and birthing. I was completely ignorant on the topic but intrigued by Ricki's passion, so I asked her for some reading material and she gave me a book called "Spiritual Midwifery" by Ina May Gaskin. Then Ricki showed me the home video footage of her homebirth (which we use in the film) and I was completely blown away. We began from there.
W&H: How did your involvement with the film effect your own birth experience?
AE: On the one hand, I was very fortunate having spent 2 years researching birthing options in NYC before I became pregnant. I was not only a highly informed customer, but I had attended several births and did not have any more fear about the birth process. So, I felt like I had all these amazing people to choose from when it came time to selecting a provider (of course not all of them took my HMO, so that limited me a bit) But on the other hand, I was put in a position where there became pressure to include my birth in the film - which I resisted. I had no interest in turning the cameras on myself and was unsure whether we were in fact going to document my birth until the very last moment.
W&H: Explain why you chose the title The Business of Being Born.
AE: Truthfully, we couldn't think of anything short and catchy. None of us really loved the title but it seemed to encompass the broad range of aspects we were looking at in the birthing "business."
W&H: It seems that you and Ricki are both on a type of crusade here - using the film to help educate and organize women to take back their own bodies and their births. Did you ever expect the film would morph into this type of movement?
AE: We never expected that the film would have such an impact on mainstream birth culture. I think we suspected that it would hit a nerve, but we honestly just wanted to put the information out there in a bold way - not watered down. It all stemmed from Ricki's personal experience and grew organically from there. But we have definitely started a movement along with other writers and activists - Jennifer Block's book PUSHED was published at the same time we premiered, which was amazing. I think we are on a crusade to inform, but not to convince women to have natural births or homebirths. The modern woman wants information and options - but no one should feel pressured or regretful about their choices.
W&H: There seems to be a lot of women directing documentaries these days. Why do you think that is?
AE: I think that documentaries often have more substance than features and women are attracted to material that is potent and meaningful rather than commercially viable. Of course, there is also the fact that docs are low-budget and don't pay well (if at all!) so there is less competition.

But mostly I think that docs are usually self-generated passion projects where a director can have total control and women are organized, not afraid of hard work and always like a bit of control!
W&H: What's next for you?
AE: We are still opening the film in major cities (Chicago, Seattle, Boston, DC) so I am busy with that until April. Then, I am planning some vacation time with my family! Ricki and I are in the midst of writing a book based on the movie which will come out in April 2009 and a follow-up DVD that will accompany the book. We are also hard at work on our website - turning it into a resource for birth information and options. So, I will still be busy with all things BOBB for a while and then I plan to direct an independent feature film. I'd like to get back to working with actors and writers, which is truly what I love.
Review: The Business of Being Born

May 5, 2008

Welcome to the New, Post-Female American Cinema

That's the title of the lead article in the NY Times summer movie preview and I gotta say it sure looks like Manohla Dargis has been reading this blog cause everything she writes in this piece I've been writing about since the day I started blogging. The piece is great and reiterates the point that Hollywood has given up on women especially in summer. (It's worthy to note that things don't markedly improve throughout the rest of the year, especially not for studio movies -- which are the movies that most Americans get to see in their towns. Indie movies might make it to cities with art houses or are released under a banner like "AMC Select" or Regal's "Cinema Art" Both the $150 million hit Juno and the current Then She Found Me were released in this pattern.)

The question is what can be done about it, and does anyone with any power care?

Some quotes from the piece and my analysis:

And, frankly, it is hard to believe that anyone in a position of Hollywood power would be so stupid as to actually say what many in that town think: Women can’t direct. Women can’t open movies. Women are a niche.
Remember Hollywood is a town where its ok to be a sexist, it's even a badge of courage and why shouldn't it be -- the boy crap movies make the money. I've said this before and I'll say it again, we (women) need to use our economic power TO GO AND SEE the good female centric films. I'm not saying that we should see any and all women centric films or the bad women directed films. I don't want to see bad movies that are directed by either men or women. I want to see good movies. But if we don't support the women making good films and the good films that have female leads, we're toast. And don't think they don't know exactly who is seeing their movies. They have detailed research (like political exit polls) and know gender and age breakdowns.
Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if it’s done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves — at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame — to see just how irrelevant we have become. That’s as true for the dumbest and smartest of comedies as for the most critically revered dramas, from “No Country for Old Men” (but especially for women) to “There Will Be Blood” (but no women). Welcome to the new, post-female American cinema.
I gotta say this is a good point. There is a huge disconnect between women gaining power in Hollywood and the women appearing onscreen. My question is are there too few women in senior enough positions to have any power? Can that still be? Or are women making decisions like guys cause its all about money and not about content?
Last year only 3 of the 20 highest-grossing releases in America were female-driven, and involve a princess (“Enchanted”) or pregnancy (“Knocked Up” and “Juno”). Actresses had starring roles in about a quarter of the next 80 highest-grossing titles, mostly in dopey romantic comedies and dopier thrillers. A number of these were among the worst-reviewed movies of the year, including “Premonition” (Sandra Bullock) and “The Reaping” (Hilary Swank), the last of which was released by — ta-da! — Warner Brothers. The days of “Million Dollar Baby,” for which Ms. Swank won an Oscar, and “Speed,” which rocketed Ms. Bullock to stardom in the summer of 1994, feel long gone.
Knocked Up does not count in my book as a female-driven movie. I would count Hairspray as a female driven film but that came in at #24 and The Golden Compass came in at #39 (using stats from Box Office Mojo).
There may be more women working in the industry now — Amy Pascal is a co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment — but you wouldn’t know it from what’s on the screen. The reasons are complex and certainly beyond the scope of a seasonal rant like this one. Some point to the lack of female directors, whose numbers in both the mainstream and independent realms hover at around 6 percent. Others blame the female audience, though the success of “Baby Mama” indicates — just as the summer hit “The Devil Wears Prada” suggested two years ago — that if given something decent that speaks to their lives and lets them leave the theater without feeling slimed, women will turn out.

Among the pleasures of the movies are the new worlds they open up, but there are pleasures in the familiar too, like seeing other women bigger, badder and more beautiful than life. And whether it’s Sigourney Weaver in “Alien,” Rosario Dawson in “Death Proof” or Meryl Streep in whatever, I am there. The black filmmaker Tyler Perry has built his success partly on the truth that when audiences look up at the screen what they want to see are faces much like their own. In 2008, when a white woman and a black man are running for president and attracting unprecedented numbers of voters partly because they are giving a face to the wildly under-represented, you might think that Hollywood would get a clue.


These last two paragraphs resonate. Women will see movies that are good and speak to them. But the problem is that women (especially older women) still might not show up exactly how Hollywood wants them to show up, on the first weekend. I think that it will happen occasionally, and I am betting big on Sex & the City making it happen in a couple of weeks, but it's not something that's going to happen every weekend. So wouldn't it be good for Hollywood to pay attention to what happens in the second weekend or third or fourth? Baby Mama which was number one last week dropped off 40% in its second weekend, but Harold and Kumar which was #2 last weekend dropped almost 60%. Do movies with women have longer legs because women don't only go out the first weekend? If anyone has research, I'd love to see it.

But more importantly, we need to learn from Tyler Perry model like the article says and start our own studio. We need to make movies that we want to see and use the great marketing experts out there who know how to market to women (cause Hollywood clearly is not employing them). I'm ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need a whole new model cause at the rate we're going sooner rather than later there will be no women in the movies at all.

Full article: Is There a Real Woman in This Multiplex?

Flying- Confessions of a Free Woman

Jennifer Fox is a brave woman. She turns her camera on her life and her friends and family's lives and asks a question so many of us have asked (although probably not out loud) - what does it really mean to be a free woman today?

This six part documentary premieres tonight on Sundance at 9pm (two hours air over the next three weeks). I've only seen the beginning but I am hooked and can't wait to watch the rest. It starts off like this: "I never wanted to be a girl in the way a girl was supposed to be. I wanted to be a boy because they could do anything they wanted to."


Here is a woman taking on all the challenges of having grown up with the benefits of feminism (keep in mind she is a privileged, white American woman). She's 42 years old in the film, her best friend gets sick, and after many years of ambivalence about motherhood (because she was desperate not to become her mother) she finds herself pregnant.

This is a must see!

More info: Flying