By Carolyn Gray Anderson
One of the leitmotifs at last week’s Velocity conference was the obligation women have to help other women — help people in general, as keynote speaker Jane Wurwand pointed out — as far as keeping workplaces diverse. “Pull a woman in behind you when you move up so that there is no void,” she said. Hollywood is notoriously white and male, and the annual Women’s Business Leadership Summit included a special panel for industry veterans to talk about what’s changed for the better since they embarked on their careers and where they feel like they still face roadblocks.
Karla Ballard Williams, founder of YING Bank (whose motto is Currency for Humankind), moderated the panel, which included: Lisa Erspamer, an Emmy-nominated media executive who co-founded Happy Street Entertainment; EVP and head of international at Media Rights Capital Mali Kinberg, whose knowledge of several languages led her, following a Ph.D. in literature, to a career in foreign film sales and distribution; and Susanna Fogel, a comedy writer, producer and director whose first feature, Life Partners, will soon be followed by a second.
Williams is co-chair of the 41st Annual Gracies, an awards show supported by the Alliance for Women in Media, where Williams serves on the board. She was previously SVP of Participant Media’s TAG division, a social-action agency leveraging the power of storytelling to drive impact, and she served as the global account lead for Sony Pictures Entertainment on rebranding and strategy engagements for Latin America. She is an appointee to the United States Federal Communication Committee on Diversity in a Digital Age.
She opened with, “We’re sitting here with women who have killed it in entertainment.” So, why the dearth of women still?
Fogel, who started out as an actor, believes “diversity is the new normal.” She said she thinks the conversation — albeit dominated by white men — is changing. Still, when she found it hard to get traction directing her own creative projects compared to men with similar credentials and talent, she said she found more willing male mentors in Hollywood than female. “There aren’t many ‘old school’ female directors,” she said, which made it difficult to find the kind of sponsorship men are frankly more available for.
When the question of this year’s Oscars came up, Erspamer observed that Academy voters have been essentially the same group for nearly 90 years, and Fogel said that the oversaturation of a “big movie” market has contributed to the “degeneration” of the award. The panel agreed that changes have to be made at the level of the Academy, and that studios need a mandate to address leadership imbalances. “It’s good to have that conversation on the front page,” said Kinberg.
At the heart of the discussion were new platforms and new stories taking shape as women insist on participating.
Erspamer, with 20 years co-executive producing the Oprah Winfrey Show under her belt, said, “I believe that media can inform. You have the opportunity to speak to a lot of people at one time. That’s what I think is so powerful about the various platforms available in entertainment today.”
And those new, more democratic platforms contain valuable content now. Streaming is changing the economics around which films make sense theatrically. This makes it possible to actually sell films at Sundance in ways that were previously impossible — and, encouraging on that score is that Sundance Institute labs and other initiatives are approaching a 50/50 gender split.
Kinberg agreed that the ways films are transacted worldwide now opens new possibilities in foreign markets, including those whose target consumer is, increasingly, young women. But expanded opportunities for women behind the camera correlate with much smaller budget films.
But post-Lifetime, post-Oprah, what are the “new” stories women are telling? Fogel said that documentary projects are more lucrative now than they used to be. Erspamer described such narratives as “smart nonfiction,” saying, “There’s nothing like seeing the actual person whose story you’re telling. There’s more opportunity today in the unscripted space.”