Nina Jacobson is an anomaly, and she's not happy about it. She's a powerful Hollywood film executive who worked at several studios before starting her own production company, Color Force. It's a rare level of achievement for a woman in Hollywood.
Jacobson is acutely aware of gender disparity in the film industry. It extends from studio executives to the casts and crews on set — even to the fictional protagonists in movies. As Jacobson told The Frame, when she was getting into the film industry it was presented to her "as fact" that male protagonists were universally relatable, while female characters could only appeal to other women.
Color Force's claim to fame, "The Hunger Games" franchise, has done a lot to debunk this claim. Based on books written by Suzanne Collins, and starring a strong female lead, the movies are wildly popular, having so far grossed more than $2 billion worldwide. The finale to the series, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2," was released on Nov. 20.
Nina Jacobson spoke with The Frame's John Horn about what she thinks the movie industry can do to equalize positions for women and men.
You became an executive in Hollywood in an era when women were told they would identify with male protagonists, but boys couldn’t identify with female protagonists. Does “The Hunger Games” prove that idea is rubbish?
I was told exactly that. It was presented as a fact, as though some scientific study had been done that indicated that clearly one-half of the population would be unable to relate to the other half, unless that protagonist were male — in which case, 100% of the audience could. It’s so stupid. And yet it was presented as something you needed to know. And I am thrilled, frankly, to be part of something that is a debunker of a truly stupid, ridiculous premise. It’s so clearly sexist. It’s just sexism disguised as fact, which is really pernicious.
Jennifer Lawrence has been a big part of that conversation on a number of levels. What do you hope the takeaway is from "The Hunger Games" about how women can lead movies and be given equal pay and screen time with men?
To be part of the conversation, [there are] movies like “The Heat,” “Frozen, “Spy,” “Bridesmaids” and “Inside Out." There have been actually a handful of very successful movies with women at the center of them. And even going back to something like “Titanic.” That was a movie driven by female interest. I think that hopefully these last few years are part of a watershed moment in which some of that sexism disguised as knowledge is finally revealed to be sexism. And that the financial opportunities made possible by getting to the other side of that bias are now there in hard and fast numbers for everyone to see.
[But] those numbers have been around for a while. So what’s happening? It sounds as if whatever the code was to not talk about gender disparity has been loosened. People are now talking about the issue. Do you feel that change is happening?
I do, actually. First of all, the breaking of the silence is a huge part of it. What I thought was so interesting about Jennifer Lawrence's essay was the fact that she talked about your own willingness as a woman to be unlikable, or be perceived as unlikable.
Which I think is a really great taboo to take on . . . [It's] a huge step forward in terms of making sure that women are also challenging ourselves to go out on a limb and not worry that we’ll look bad for demanding parity, which is why the talk really does matter. The more public the conversation, the more inclusive it is, the more women who are in positions to make demands feel empowered to do so. Now, you have a lot of women who are just not in that position yet. How do we get them there?
I was part of a workshop that Sundance and Women In Film did. Although it won’t be announced until next year — what some of the actionable plans are — I actually felt more encouraged and confident coming out of that. It focused on what we [must] do to push toward the 50/50 prospect. Women should comprise 50 percent of the roles in movies in the same way that they comprise 50 percent of the population. Although nobody expects to get there tomorrow, we certainly won’t get there at all until we all start putting our heads together and making actionable plans — not just talking about it.
What does that mean for you as a producer?
I’ve been very mindful of late of saying, every writers' list you may have to [expand]. You end up making writers lists based on credits. Therefore, if you’re looking to make a big action movie, you’re going to have a list that skews male. But then you put the pressure on to make sure that at the very least, you’re pushing toward 50/50. Or at least get to 30/70. Make the list, make sure you’re meeting with women. You still end up having to hire the best person for the job. No person benefits from being treated as a charity case. But as a company we should make an effort to be more balanced. And that’s a start.
What’s the role of the talent agencies in all of this? They make these lists you’re describing. Should they be more proactive?
I think they’re mindful of this conversation. They were at the workshop. There were some incredible statistics coming out of Sundance in terms of the number of women . . . [who] are actually working, versus their male counterparts. That’s where their agents can come in. They can take that talent and make sure to surround each person with a team of people who can help her build and sustain a career.
One of the most interesting things in the Maureen Dowd article [in the New York Times Magazine] was [producer] Kathy Kennedy saying that she’d not received one incoming call from a woman saying, I want to direct "Star Wars.” So it’s also on us as women to have the courage to go out on a limb, and to make sure we’re asking for what we want.
Some of Color Force's upcoming projects include a film adaptation of Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," a movie with an all-Asian cast called "Crazy Rich Asians," and the television series, "American Crime Story." The first season of "American Crime Story" chronicles the trial of O.J. Simpson, and it premieres on Feb. 2, 2016.