Lynda Obst: Hollywood has learned nothing from the success of "Bridesmaids"

The author of "Sleepless in Hollywood" on why women are so underrepresented on screen -- and why there's hope yet

Published June 3, 2014 11:15AM (EDT)

      (Amy Stuart)
(Amy Stuart)

This piece originally appeared on DAME.

Dame Magazine Lynda Obst has been racking up experience in Hollywood since the ’80s, producing such pictures as How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysContactThe Fisher King, and Sleepless in Seattle with her good friend Nora Ephron. But about eight years ago, she noticed a major stall-out in Tinseltown. Suddenly it was a lot harder to get movies made with central female characters. She chronicles the disappointing shift in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, weaving her experiences around insightful interviews with industry titans like Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount, and former Fox head Peter Chernin.

In the new system, which she calls the New Abnormal (because, let’s face it, Hollywood is permanently weird), mega-franchises aimed at 14-year-old boys are king. Romantic comedies or other pictures more hospitable to women are few and far between. A recent Annenberg study tracking gender in 500 popular films from 2007-2012 underscores it even further: Only 29.9 percent of 4,379 speaking characters in the 500 films were female. Behind-the-camera stats are worse: 83 percent of all directors, writers, and producers were male.

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So where are all the ladies at? Obst says we’re right here, waiting for Lalaland to get a clue. “When you hit the right bell, we’re Pavlovian. We know when it’s the right movie and we show up,” Obst says. “The problem is that they don’t ring the bell enough!” But there are some happy chimes off in the distance, as Obst told DAME in an interview last week.

You write that 2012 was the worst time for female-oriented projects in the business, perhaps in history. What’s going on?

It was all Marvel, Michael Bay, Pirates of the CaribbeanLone Ranger super-mania. It was just the most man-movie period I’ve ever lived through. I say three cheers for every woman executive who is surviving it now. Three cheers to Nina Jacobson for finding The Hunger Games in all of this. We began, women in this business, by being able to read. Now you thrive by knowing comic books. It’s a challenging time.

How do you make a smash in the New Abnormal?

A smash has been redefined. Now it needs to be a billion-dollar baby. I made a couple of small smashes in my day that made like $100 million domestic. Or $300 worldwide, like Sleepless in Seattle, but that’s not really a smash anymore. Studios aren’t happy unless it makes close to a billion dollars. So in order for something to make a billion dollars, it needs to have enormous pre-awareness, which means that the whole world needs to have heard of it already. You need something like Batman or Harry Potter or Twilight. It has to have a huge built-in fanbase and awareness around the world.

According to the Annenberg study, women “are grossly underrepresented on screen in 2012.” Sounds like the New Abnormal isn’t a very kind system to women?

It’s true and I’ve experienced it firsthand. Even before the New Abnormal, studios were gearing their movies towards boys because boys went out in droves in the first weekend and that’s when studios make the most money. But then the DVD market collapsed, and that was supporting all the romantic comedies. The international market replaced DVDs but romantic comedies don’t benefit from that model. By and large, our romantic comedies don’t travel. Each country makes their own romantic comedies.

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In your book, you talk about the prized international markets in China and Russia. What are those countries interested in?

They love special effects: 3-D and IMAX. They love seeing the technological breakthroughs that only American movies can provide. Romantic comedies really suffered in that new model. Also, they’re all one-offs; you can’t make sequels. So when you have one-offs dying and being replaced by movies intended to be franchises for the foreign market, that means our women’s movies are going to go by the wayside.

What about women-oriented successes like Bridesmaids?

When women’s movies succeed on a large scale here and internationally, like Bridesmaids, we expect more movies like this to get made but it didn’t happen. All that happened is that Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy became stars. That’s all the studios knew how to do. They didn’t say, “Oh, women go to movies in droves when they see funny women.” That wasn’t the lesson.

So what are the rays of hope for women in the industry?

In the last few years, a couple of women’s franchises have been made—Twilight and The Hunger Games. Women were in the leads and women went to see them. One of them [Twilight] was even directed by a woman, Catherine Hardwicke. So there is a change in the air. You have to look at the good parts. There are the small apertures and you have to get your fist in there and then your whole body in there and then push. That’s what we have to do. And then drag a lot of other women through with us.

Is TV a ray of light for the ladies especially? We have Claire Danes, Connie Britton, Julia Louis-Dreyfus all digging their teeth into juicy roles.

Because that’s where the writers went, and actors and actresses follow good parts. When you’re not doing drama in movies, and you want to do drama, why not follow the good parts? As my brother says in the book, Where is Claire Danes going to get a part in the movies like she got in Homeland?

But does TV make as much money?

Television makes far more money than movies. If you look at profits at any given studio it might be $5 million for film versus $500 million in profits. It’s extraordinary. So TV is far more profitable. Movies are more glamorous but it’s always operated on a much smaller profit margin. That’s why the DVD collapse was so catastrophic. But syndication for the studios in TV is incredibly profitable.

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So that does bode well for women, to have important roles on and off the screen in a highly lucrative industry.

Yes, there’s always parts for actresses, there are new shows every year and the writers are there. And most of all, women are watching.

What’s a good survival strategy for women in film right now?

You can’t fight the times but you can find properties out there that fit the times. Michelle Raimo found an offbeat book that she completely believed in, Silver Linings Playbook, and she got it to the right director. It made almost $200 million dollars, all while ignoring the market. Nina Jacobson looked right at the market, read an exciting book with a female lead and went for it with The Hunger Games. You have to follow your guts and never give up.

By Margaret Wappler

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Bridesmaids China Dame Gender Harry Potter Hollywood Lone Ranger Russia Sex Twilight