The first thing that Mynette Louie wants to make clear is that this is a for-profit enterprise. She’s talking about her new company, Gamechanger Films, which attracted attention last month when it announced that it would exclusively finance narrative features directed by women.
“It’s not a charity,” Louie, president of Gamechanger, explains. “It’s funny, because a lot of people assume that we are a grant fund initially, so we make it very clear that this is the first for-profit fund for women. We’re very commercially minded.” The new company, founded by producers Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, and Wendy Ettinger, and led by Louie and producer Mary Jane Skalski, aims to fully or partly finance narrative features budgeted under $5 million in the next few years. The partners were driven by the gender imbalance among mainstream feature directors, an imbalance that is anecdotally hard to miss but also backed up with research–the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University revealed that only 7% of directors on the 250 top-grossing films over the last four years have been female.
When you start talking about the combination of affecting social change–which Gamechanger, from its name to its mission, is very much about–and making a profit, some people get nervous. But Louie, who won the Piaget Producers Award at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year, is confident she knows the industry she’s trying to change.
“Hollywood speaks in terms of money, and I think that we can convince them that women can make films that perform just as well as men can,” she says. “The more we can perform and do well financially and recoup financially, then the doors will start to open for women in the more traditional sources of financing–equity financing and studio financing. That really is the hope. That is why we decided to do this as a for-profit and not as a nonprofit.”
Louie’s partners in Gamechanger include women and men who have financed or executive produced a number of Oscar-nominated and financially successful films (a quick sample includes titles like Brooklyn Castle, The Queen of Versailles, How to Survive a Plague, Pariah, The War Room, and Afternoon Delight, among many others). And you don’t call your company “Gamechanger” unless you’ve got a pretty clear plan for how you’re going to make a difference in the industry. Here’s what Louie, co-founder Wendy Ettinger, and the rest of the team have in mind.
Without turning to Google, name the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman. If you guessed Kung Fu Panda 2–congratulations (also, we’re impressed). While Jennifer Yuh’s entry in the continuing adventures of Po the Panda grossed a none-too-shabby $165 million domestically, that’s good for the 208th biggest box office take of all time. Avatar–or even Despicable Me 2–it’s not.
Louie attributes the fact that you have to scroll to #208 on the list of the highest-grossing films to find the first one directed by a woman to intrinsic bias on the part of studios. “It’s pretty sad,” she says. “There’ve been a lot of studies done on this, and I think the primary reason why women directors feel stalled in their careers is they feel that the doors to financing are closed to them. Most of the decision makers, when it comes to financing, are men. So I think there is this gender bias, whether spoken or unspoken, that’s sort of there underlying that financing structure.”
There are plenty of problems in the way Hollywood relates to women. There are issues of representation behind the camera, but also issues with the depiction of female characters, the things that the camera, and the industry, tend to focus on with actresses, the general tendency to tell stories with a strongly male point of view. And Gamechanger isn’t really trying to change all of them.
Wendy Ettinger is a founder of Gamechanger, and she’s worked on movies that address all of those concerns. She (along with Gamechanger founder Julie Park Benello and senior advisor Mary Jane Skalski) earned an executive producer credit on Dee Rees’s 2011 debut Pariah, as well as on socially conscious documentaries like Brooklyn Castle and Orgasm Inc.. But with Gamechanger, the focus is just on the one problem that they can solve with money: Female directors aren’t given the opportunity to direct movies, but if you fund movies directed by women, they will be. “The take is like with any job,” Ettinger says. “A woman doctor is not necessarily just going to treat women patients. The focus here is just on women directors. That’s the mission, and that’s the full mission.”
As Louie puts it, trusting women to pick their own projects is part of respecting them. “We want to support the women director’s voice as a unique artist–whatever stories she wants to tell. If she wants to have male protagonists, if she wants to make a shoot-em-up ‘masculine’ movie, then she should be allowed to,” Louie says. “Male directors are allowed to tell whatever stories they want to tell.”
“We don’t want to make Lifetime movies,” Louie laughs. “Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but do you know what I mean? That’s not the goal.”
But just because Gamechanger is intentionally neutral in terms of the nature of the content of the films they fund, they’re not unconcerned with the other issues that Hollywood may have with women.
“There have been studies done that show that, if a woman is at the helm, the characters–not necessarily the story lines, but the characters, the female characters–are more multi-dimensional and more well-rounded. I think that sort of thing will come naturally, rather than dictating that the story lines should be female-themed.”
Just because Gamechanger wants to make commercial films, and Louie and Ettinger talk about how they would be psyched to work with a woman who needed funding for a killer Jason Statham action picture, doesn’t mean that they’re looking to pander. Whether they’re funding a small film that they suspect might have some broader appeal, or pursuing something packed full of kicking and explosions, the goal of the company is to make good movies. As Louie puts it, “We want to make great movies, because I think that even if you’re looking at films just purely from a commercial angle, and you’re trying to guess what the audience wants, you’re going to fail–because what the audience wants is always changing,” she says. “What you want to do is to support the filmmaker and their vision, and help them make a great movie. The commercial success will come from the integrity of having a great movie that people respond to.”
For cynics who think that’s a naive goal, remember that Gravity managed to double R.I.P.D.‘s entire box office take in five days. And Louie can point to even less likely films that succeeded commercially. “There are so many films that, on paper, don’t seem like they would do well–a Beasts of the Southern Wild, or a Fruitvale, or a Winter’s Bone, even,” she says. The only unifying theme between the movies that made Jennifer Lawrence an international superstar, got Quvenzhané Wallis the opportunity to bring her puppy purse to the Oscars, and got Ryan Coogler’s ultra-low-budget debut to crack the summer box office top ten, is that they’re all really good movies.
And making really good movies is something that Gamechanger’s principals feel they are in a unique position to do, if for no other reason than audiences have spent the entire summer complaining that they’re fatigued by seeing the same movie over and over again–and more women working as directors means more perspectives.
“I think Fortune 500 companies are finding this as well,” Ettinger says, “When you bring in women in leadership positions, and everyone is listening to that voice and bringing it into the conversation more, then there’s going to be an interesting adjustment. Just because you haven’t been open to that before. It’s a different perspective on horror films, it’s a different perspective on thrillers. You need those voices. We’ve been depriving ourselves a little bit.”
One of the major challenges that female directors face is that every box office failure by a woman is used as evidence that audiences won’t go see movies made by women–something that their male counterparts never have to deal with. When director Lynn Ramsay left the Natalie Portman vehicle Jane Got A Gun, the narrative focused on what it meant for other women. “A lot of readers attributed this to all woman directors. ‘This is a bad thing for woman directors!’ I think that’s kind of terrible, to have her represent all women directors like that,” Louie says. “You would never say that about a male director. If a male director walked off of a film, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, all male directors are terrible,’ but because there are so few women directing, the public sort of treats it like that.”
The end result is that the stakes are very high for Gamechanger–despite the fact that a lot of what makes a film succeed or fail commercially is out of the hands of the director and the funders.
But with such a high-stakes proposition, it’s funny that when I ask Wendy Ettinger if the mark of success for Gamechanger would be if they made themselves irrelevant–because they’ve convinced studios that they should be funding films by female directors, too–she says, “Exactly.”
Obviously, there are a lot of shades between the two potential outcomes, and completely redefining Hollywood’s perception of the commercial viability of female directors by creating a seismic shift that rocks the intrinsic gender biases of a studio system that’s still largely controlled by men is not exactly a short-term project. So Ettinger, Louie, and the rest of Gamechanger seems content to take this on a piece at a time.
“Obviously, what would be great is to find this slate of films, and to make money and to grow the organization, so that we can fund even bigger films,” Ettinger enthuses. “And to make the whole thing contagious. That would be cool.”