By Steven Zeitchik
9:00 AM EDT, September 27, 2013
NEW YORK -- Can money solve a Hollywood gender imbalance?
That's the question posed by a new film fund that aims to boost the number of female directors.
The fund, called Gamechanger Films, will exclusively finance movies directed by women, The Times has learned.
According to an announcement scheduled for Friday, Gamechanger aims to fully or partly finance up to 10 narrative feature films in the coming years, in budgets generally ranging from $1 million to $5 million, across all genres.
“Hollywood speaks in terms of money, so our goal is to use that same language,” said Mynette Louie, an independent-film producer (“Children of Invention”) who will serve as president of Gamechanger. “We want to shift the balance, to effect long-term change and increase the number of women directors.”
The fund, which organizers say is the first of its kind, grew out of studies such as one at San Diego State University titled Celluloid Ceiling that found that women were vastly underrepresented behind the camera.
For example, though women constitute roughly 50% of U.S. film-school graduates, the study found, they composed only 7% of directors on the top 250-grossing Hollywood and independent films over the last several years. A Sundance Institute-sponsored study conducted by USC's Annenberg School reached similar conclusions.
Money for Gamechanger was raised by the New York-based female-oriented fund Chicken & Egg Pictures and the New York-based film-investment group Impact Partners.
Impact has been behind some notable documentaries in recent years, including the 2012 Sundance darling “The Queen of Versailles.” Chicken & Egg's principals backed movies such as Dee Rees' drama “Pariah” and Jill Soloway's Silverlake marital tale “Afternoon Delight.”
Principals from the companies said cash for Gamechanger comes from a range of equity investors. Though some have socially conscious missions, Gamechanger is a for-profit enterprise.
The company says it will focus solely on scripted features, in part because documentary films, which require less up-front investment, already see a greater proportion of women directors. On the other hand, those investing in scripted movies tend to be less willing to put up money for a film directed by a woman.
“There's an unconscious prejudice in which people just don’t feel confident giving their money to women filmmakers and getting their money back,” said Impact co-founder Dan Cogan.
The idea is that by financing these films -- and earning a satisfactory return -- Gamechanger can change that perception.
In a season when movies by and about blacks are undergoing a renaissance -- ”Lee Daniels' The Butler” recently crossed $100 million at the box office and Steve McQueen's civil rights drama “12 Years a Slave” was the toast of the recently concluded Toronto and Telluride film festivals -- the time is right for more films directed by women too, founders say.
But most independent narrative features aren't successful, either failing to find a mainstream audience or a commercial distributor. And if a few of Gamechanger’s movies fail, it could reinforce negative stereotypes.
Gamechanger principals reply that box-office success is not the only goal.
“When creative executives get in a room and go down the list of possible directors for a movie that's already financed, they simply don't see many women to choose from,” said Mary Jane Skalski, a veteran feature producer (“Win Win,” “The Station Agent”) who is serving as a senior advisor to Gamechanger. “If we get more women making movies, there will be more people to consider from that list. On some level it's simply a numbers game.”
Organizers declined to offer details on the first projects, but Impact chiefs Cogan and Geralyn Dreyfous said that production on one film financed by Gamechanger is already underway in Iceland, with two more set to begin shooting in the next several months.
Science-fiction and horror are expected to be among the genres on the Gamechanger slate. And though Louie cited “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone” -- both movies by and from women -- as models for Gamechanger films, stories about or starring women are not a prerequisite. The selection committee -- which includes Louie, Skalski, Cogan, Dreyfous and Chicken and Egg's Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger -- will give equal weight to scripts focusing on either gender and on any subject.
Unsolicited submissions will not be accepted, Louie said. Instead, Gamechanger is mining relationships in the agent and manager community to find projects. Gamechanger principals will generally not serve as producers on the films.
The actresses Ellen Barkin, Geena Davis and Julia Ormond are among those who will sit on the company's board.
The new fund could draw criticism from some who question whether it amounts to a quota system. But those behind it say that the system needs just such a jolt. The recent 7% female-director figure is actually down from 9% in 1998. Last year, the only woman on the list of the 25 highest-grossing movies was “Brave” co-director Brenda Chapman.
Such small numbers means the films themselves also contain a narrower perspective, say Gamechanger’s founders. “This is good for women directors but it’s also good for the culture,” said Chicken & Egg’s Parker Benello.
Several female filmmakers have seen their stock rise in recent years, including Lisa Cholodenko, whose 2010 dramedy “The Kids Are All Right” grossed $21 million and was nominated for best picture. And the independent-film stalwart Nicole Holofcener is off to a strong box-office start with her latest, “Enough Said.”
Meanwhile, Kathryn Bigelow saw her bomb-defusing drama “The Hurt Locker” win the best picture Oscar in 2010, while last year her wartime thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” was nominated for best picture and made almost $100 million at the box office -- in a genre that few women have directed in before.
The 2011 Kristen Wiig vehicle “Bridesmaids” — which grossed $288 million globally — was seen as a breakthrough. But that movie was directed by a man (Paul Feig). Besides, Gamechanger founders say, women should be able to direct movies that aren't simply comedies about getting married.
“We don’t feel that the goal here should be more stories about women, or more stories about women in particular genres,” Skalski said of Gamechanger’s mission. “Would you say 'Yes, women should be doctors but they should only be gynecologists?’”
[For the Record: An earlier version of this story said that the 7% female-filmmaker figure came from a UN and Geena Davis Institute study; while the number is cited in that study's materials, the figure originated with the Ceulloid Ceiling study conducted out of San Diego State University.]
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