When was the last time that every major film studio, every broadcast network, leading cable networks and streaming services all agreed on something? Maybe ... never?
Well, we can report that they’ve all agreed to meet with a group called ReFrame — an initiative designed to get more women hired in Hollywood, both behind the camera and on screen. (The complete list of participating studios and companies is below.)
ReFrame comes after years of research documenting how the entertainment industry continues to be dominated by men, most of them white. Even though women attend film schools in equal numbers with men, they don’t get the same opportunities as their male counterparts once they graduate.
The theories are multiple: from unconscious bias to “an old boys club” mentality. In a recent New York Magazine interview, David Letterman blamed “inertia” for the fact that CBS didn’t hire a woman to host his show after he retired.
The two women leading the ReFrame charge are Cathy Schulman and Keri Putnam. Schulman is an Oscar-winning producer and the president of Women in Film. Putnam is executive director of the Sundance Institute, which puts on the annual festival and training labs for up-and-coming filmmakers.
There are four key parts to ReFrame: 1) Researching the financial benefits of making entertainment by and about women; 2) Awarding a ReFrame stamp of approval to films and TV shows that hire a certain percentage of women in the cast and crew; 3) Creating a mentor/protégé program; and 4) Sending a team of 50 ambassadors to visit film studios and TV and cable networks to share resources and talk about meaningful ways of including women in all aspects of the industry.
These ambassadors include people like actress Maria Bello, “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig; “Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson and “Orange is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan. The ambassadors will talk with senior executives about how to be more inclusive in the projects they approve and whom they hire. As Cathy Schulman told The Frame's John Horn:
Why might it work? To be honest, there's a leveraging part of all of this. Frankly, if [ReFrame ambassadors aren't satisfied with what they hear] ... I think those advocates could [take] their business elsewhere. So although we don't want to be shaming and threatening, because that's not productive, we need to be imperative. We need to say, This isn't good enough.
As of now, Schulman and Putnam tell The Frame that the commitment from the below companies to meet with ambassadors is just that — a commitment to meet. But, as with anything in Hollywood, getting in the door is half the battle.
TV networks and companies that have agreed to meet with ReFrame
- Fox Networks
- A+E Networks
Film studios that have agreed to meet with ReFrame
- NBC Universal (both the film studio and television network will participate)
- Warner Bros.
- Twentieth Century Fox
- CBS (both the film studio and television network will participate)
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Cathy Schulman and Keri Putnam about the thinking behind ReFrame, what they hope will come from the meetings at studios and networks, and why, in today's America, they feel hopeful that real systemic change is possible.
Hear the interview with the play button above or read the highlights below.
On the concept behind ReFrame:
PUTNAM: The idea to make change in a complex system is, you have to attack different aspects of that system at the same time. For example, you might hear the argument that there aren't enough women to hire that are ready for the jobs. That's the pipeline. And our protégé program is going to be one way that we try to address the pipeline question. Then there's the business case [that] making movies for, by and about women is not as commercial as making movies for men. That's a conventional wisdom in terms of how movies are financed. And so the research, as well as the ReFrame stamp, are going to look [at] what the business case is and what the audience side is. Then the third side of the system is the culture — the leadership and the culture. You have to work with an organization that incentivizes culture change because it's easy to confirm your own bias and the way you make decisions. It's natural. It's easy to get stuck with the processes that you've had for a long time. You really, within a culture, have to incentivize change with some defined practices. And that's where that very robust toolkit is going to come in. So — business case, culture change and pipeline — those are the three parts of this system that ReFrame is designed to affect. The idea is to intervene on all of them at once in ways that can then allow the system to shift.
On what ReFrame ambassadors will bring to meetings:
SCHULMAN: Ambassadors have spent about a year of training to prepare themselves to go into these meetings. The ambassadors are people they do business with every day, whether it be the head of a studio, network or agency — or the kind of writers, directors and producers that people know in their home. So [hypothetically] if you're at Paramount and in comes a group — and it will probably be three people and always a diverse group of people and a group of people you generally do business with — that group will be sharing everything we've learned over the last year-and-a-half about change, projects and tools that work. They'll be asked to essentially sign a pledge that they are willing to try these tools. And we are open to helping them with other tools they may want to [use] with or without us. And we're there to stay — not to just drop something on their desk and say, Now, go for it.
On the role that managers and talent agents play in perpetuating the lack of inclusion in Hollywood:
SCHULMAN: They are the single group that we've added to those companies that can make financial decisions about content. We have a number of agency partners as ambassadors, specifically to be able to address the agencies starting with the biggest ones, with CAA and with WME, with UTA and with ICM. All of those people are partnered into our core group to help us with this aspect of the problem.
PUTNAM: When we did our research with USC a few years ago, part of that was narrative research where they conducted interviews, which were anonymous but reported in the findings. The agent said, The lists aren't diverse because the studios aren't making those hires. The studios say, We aren't making those hires because the lists aren't diverse. So it ended up being a finger-pointing exercise, and that's so unproductive. So I think the idea of getting everybody to the table to really join in on an effort is another reason this approach is a good one.
On why women whose films go to Sundance don't get the same opportunities as men:
PUTNAM: When they leave Sundance after that first film and go out and try to get a second project or get a second film financed, what we're finding is they're meeting the business that has a sort of codified idea of what's commercial. It has these entrenched practices that if a man has made a small film, it shows potential. For a woman to get that chance, she has to have actually done it before. I think it's about understanding whether people are making decisions based on people they're comfortable with and look like them and sound like them and feel like, That kid reminds me of me when I was younger and he has potential — versus looking at some objective criteria when they hire and understanding that the women who've made these movies at Sundance have just as much potential as the men.
SCHULMAN: This is what brings us right back to the fundamental core issue, which is: Until decision-making tables are diverse, this will continue to happen. That's why our culture change toolkit becomes such an enormous part of this and also will be the hardest part for people to enable. It really starts with each person. This is why we have to get like-minded individuals and peers at the senior level [as ReFrame ambassadors] into direct conversations with those people to start changing that decision-making table.
PUTNAM: I want to emphasize — obviously ReFrame is a women-focused project — that these ideas apply for people of color — for people from all sorts of underrepresented groups to get chances to tell their stories and have an opportunity to be hired. This is a very intersectional effort.
On why they're hopeful now:
PUTNAM: I find cause for hope in the many incoming calls from people wanting to be involved from within the industry. I find cause for hope in looking at talent like Ava DuVernay or Marielle Heller or others that have come out of Sundance — Jill Soloway — who have gone on to great success. I think what we've seen is a cracking open of an awareness of this problem. Five years ago, when we started our research, the biggest impediment was that people didn't believe there was a problem.
SCHULMAN: I'm encouraged by a lack of fractionalization I'm feeling. This could be due to what's happening in the White House, but for the first time I feel like so many different diverse groups, including women, are holding hands and saying, Enough! And that we need to make change and we're not going to be a country that looks like we're bigoted or one-sided.