Column: Hollywood’s labor problem is a gender bias problem


That “dream factory” label they put on Hollywood is a lot more about the “dream” part than the “factory” part. And while Hollywood’s labor concerns look to be a long way and several decimal points from the tasks and the paychecks of millions of Americans, its images and its examples influence every day how women and girls are regarded and treated, in the workplace and in the world. In his new documentary, “This Changes Everything,” filmmaker Tom Donahue works with facts and figures from executive producer Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender in Media to make it clear how profoundly women have been sidelined and marginalized in the work of Hollywood: Men still appear onscreen more, talk more, do more, are hired to direct and produce and create far, far more than women. Figures like Meryl Streep, Taraji P. Henson, Sandra Oh and Natalie Portman tell their stories to illuminate the point of Donahue’s film — what, in the end, really can change everything?


For the record:

12:33 p.m. Sept. 3, 2019In this interview, Tom Donahue wrongly says the Directors Guild of America does not publish data related to the hiring of women and men for studio feature directing. The DGA began publishing this data in 2015.

When we think of labor issues per se, we don’t automatically think of Hollywood and labor problems.

I think the image we have of Hollywood is basically generated by the media, and it’s a very glamorous image. Nobody thinks of people in Hollywood being employees who are subject to the same levels or the same labor issues or levels of discrimination as other industries.


And yet what we see in your film is that behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in a factory or an office building seems to happen all the time in Hollywood.

I think the reason for that is that there is an incredible power disparity in Hollywood. You have young, attractive, underpaid women by the thousands coming to Hollywood looking for opportunity. And you have a lot of very powerful men at the top who then take advantage of those women.

Your film is driven by data from the institute that actress and producer director Geena Davis founded. Talk about this data and the disparity in power.

When I started to do this movie, I had learned about the story of Maria Geise and her battle for equality among female directors, and that was what initially attracted me — not to mention Patricia Arquette getting up at the Oscars and talking about equal pay, and what we learned from the Sony hack about the pay disparity on “American Hustle.”

But I realized as I started making that film that a worldwide audience — even an American audience — why are they going to care about the workplace discrimination against 15,000 women in Hollywood? And it made me realize that in order to convert the audience over to a belief that this is an important issue for them, I had to connect the dots to the disparity that we see on screen that perpetuate sexism around the world.

About a year into the making of the film I learned about the incredible data that Geena Davis’ institute was researching, and the incredible disparity. It’s something that I had not really been paying attention to, even while I was doing a documentary [“Casting By”] on workplace discrimination within Hollywood. Realizing that the final effect of workplace discrimination in Hollywood is that your little boy and your little girl are seeing really sexist representations on screen, if they are seeing women at all — that it’s having it’s having a deleterious effect on your children. And I knew that that’s the point I needed to hit home in the film.


A lot of this is about income disparity at a level that people in ordinary life wouldn’t really see as a problem: Well, you’re only getting $100,000 instead of $800,000.

I think the unions need to be more sensitive not only to setting minimums but to understanding the pay disparity in films where the male and the female leads are getting vastly different sums of money for the same number of speaking roles.

Unlike a lot of working Americans today, Hollywood has unions. Where are the unions been in addressing these problems?

Well, to defend the unions, they are aware of the problems. The Directors Guild actually publishes stats on television directors and assistant directors, etc. What they don’t do, and should do, is publish the data related to the hiring of women and men for studio feature directing. That is something they do not publish. The Writers Guild also, every two years, I think, puts out a diversity report card.

What they can do is exert more influence in contract negotiations with the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers]. The AMPTP are the representatives of the studios that negotiate with the unions when the contracts come up for negotiation. I think the studios can be a lot harder in asking for gender parity, and they don’t do that because they’re fighting for a lot of things at the same time, and they don’t consider gender parity a priority.

So if you’re the Directors Guild, and say 25% of your membership is female, it’s not going to get the kind of priority that other issues might get.

This is not, as the data showed, just about actresses.

But this issue infects every level of filmmaking in Hollywood. It is systemic across the board. It needs to be addressed all the way from the corporate board representation and multi-conglomerates all the way down to the PAs that you hire, or the extras.

The Geena Davis Institute did a study about background extras and found that on average 83% of background extras were male. I started interviewing casting directors to try to get to the bottom of what happens -- how do casting directors who cast extras end up hiring more men than women? And nobody could give me a straight answer. Nobody could admit that they were the ones doing it.

Women get cast in many roles, but in your film, a job opportunity is often sexualized, it’s uncomfortable — maybe even the working conditions, especially for some young women.

You’re talking specifically about actresses. Rose McGowan says in the film that in Hollywood, on sets, we don’t have a human resources department. We are not protected. There’s nobody they can complain to. Your manager or your agent will just tell you to be quiet.

I had one actress that I interviewed who called me soon after and said, listen, I was just on the set doing a love scene. And the director made a joke for me to pull down my panties. And I was really offended, and everybody on the crew laughed.

She said, you know, before I did the interview with you, I never would have thought twice about it. I just would have put up with it. But your interview made me realize the abuse I was taking and how I was just shutting it out without really thinking about it.

Women are dealing with that kind of abuse, that kind of micro-aggression all the time. There needs to be a system in place on sets where women can anonymously — maybe via app — can report to some sort of centralized organization that’s maybe bankrolled by all of the studios, and some sort of consortium and that can be properly dealt with.

Often when these labor issues emerge in a group, there is the resort of the courts. There’s the resort of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Why hasn’t that happened to remedy some of these problems?

It’s complicated. In 1915, the Supreme Court decided that Hollywood was not protected under the 1st Amendment, that Hollywood was commerce and, therefore, it could be regulated.

That freaked out the studios, and they begged the government through their lobbying to say we can self-regulate. And they started something called the Hays Code in the early 1920s, because there were a lot of scandals happening in Hollywood, and they were continually under the threat of censorship.

That was Will Hays, the former postmaster, who brought in what some people thought of as a more puritan sensibility to Hollywood.

Exactly, which was also sexist, because we were dealing with the post-suffragette movement. There was a lot of feminism in early Hollywood, and I think about 50% of writers were female and writing about single women living their lives in big cities.

This did not go over well with church groups and small towns. So there was a lot of pressure to censor Hollywood.

Ever since then Hollywood has been really good at keeping the government out by saying, we can self-regulate. In 1969, after the civil rights legislation and Title VII, Hollywood was investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and they did discover huge disparities.

What’s interesting, though, is they didn’t even focus on gender, because there were so few women working in Hollywood behind the scenes. They focused mainly on people of color. They came up with a bunch of things I think they wanted the studios to be compliant about, but all of that kind of drifted away and nothing had any teeth.

There was an effort to take this to federal court.

There were these six incredible women called the “original six” of the Directors Guild women’s committee, who were not getting work.

They had an Oscar among them. They had two Emmys. They had a Fulbright. In the film, one of them says the only thing we didn’t have was a penis.

They all got together at a Women in Film event, and they all admitted to each other that they’re not working. And it was a revelation to hear they weren’t the only ones.

These women in solidarity started collecting the data with the help of the Directors Guild and found out that between 1949 and 1979, half of 1% of all television and movies were directed by women. Half of 1%.

They went to the national board of the Directors Guild, and the Directors Guild started talking to the studios and tried to get the studios to change these hiring practices. And then the studios stopped meeting with them.

Voluntary compliance was not working. So Michael Franklin, the executive director of the Directors Guild, decided he was going to sue two of the studios.

That began two years of a trial that ended with a judge appointed by Ronald Reagan, a woman judge named Pamela Rymer, who basically threw the case out, saying that the class action suit did have merit, that women were being discriminated against but that the Directors Guild was a flawed representative because within its own organization, directors discriminate against second assistant directors, first assistant directors, etc.

Then, to use a movie metaphor, what is the Norma Rae moment? What gets the machine to stop — at least gets the machine’s attention?

You would hope that what Maria Giese did by getting the ACLU involved, and then the ACLU getting the [EEOC] involved. Then maybe that could have made a change. But there’s no real proof that much has really changed.

What you really need are the John Landgrafs of the world [Landgraf is the chair of FX Network and FX Productions]. Even though voluntary compliance is not the way to make change, I think in this environment, with this government, it may be the only choice that we have right now. And that means we need more John Landgrafs at the top to say, OK, there is absolutely gender discrimination going on here; what do I have to do as the leader of this organization to change that and to give women more opportunities?

What’s important about the story of John Landgraf from the film is that he didn’t do this on his own. He had a female reporter from Variety who collected the data, published it in Variety and noticed that the worst offender was FX network’s hiring 89% white men to direct their TV episodes.

And when John Landgraf saw that, he couldn’t believe it. I think he actually initially argued with her; he actually, I think, initially argued with her.

But then he came around, and he realized, I consider myself a feminist. I don’t see how this could have happened under my watch. But he asked a really important question, which is, what can I do to change this? Because this doesn’t have to be our reality. And now they’re leading the charge on this issue.

Does this say that improving the lot of women in Hollywood is up to men?

I would say the majority is up to men, because men control let’s say 80% of the resources in Hollywood and maybe 80% of the businesses in Hollywood and thus do 80% of the hiring in Hollywood. So, yes, I think it’s very, very much up to men to make this change.

You started working on this film before the MeToo movement. And the title of the film is sardonic — “This Changes Everything” — because over and over, we’ve heard this has event happened, and this changes everything. What has the MeToo movement changed, and what could it ultimately take to shake things up?

Well, the title is ironic. However, it’s also not, because “this changes everything” refers also to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. When I was making the film, I had a lot of women who were reticent to go on camera — a lot of the higher-profile women.

What happened after Donald Trump [was elected] was I started to see solidarity among a lot of these women, where now they felt they had each other’s backs and they were willing to go on camera.

I think MeToo has had a great effect because it has hopefully stopped men from doing these kinds of aggressions and micro-aggressions, or at least got them to think twice before they do it, because now there’s finally consequences.

And that’s great. But what I worry about with MeToo and Time’s Up is that we’re not dealing with workplace discrimination, and in a way we’re being misdirected to talk about sexual abuse and harassment, when all these things are very, very connected. We can’t lose sight of any part of this battle.

Are we ever going to see actors on picket lines?

I think there’s no reason not to do it. Let’s do it on Hollywood Boulevard. I think that would be powerful.