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Women are in charge: how TV production is evolving

Recent years have shown that TV programmes focused on female experiences can be as lucrative as they are timely, and a focus on this notion must be maintained if movements such as #TimesUp are to make a long-lasting change in the business, as Kaltrina Bylykbashi reports.

Recent events have seemingy led to a wave of new female-fronted and female-focused production companies. In the US, Nina Tassler has created content biz Patma, Double Yay Productions appeared out of a Kickstarter campaign in the UK, and over in Scandinavia Bigster was born out of a TV royalty trio, including actor Alexandra Rapaport and senior regional producers.

Certainly, after the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein saga began late last year and the emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it may seem like a no-brainer that women would want to climb to the helm of their industries and use the resultant spotlight on female experiences to project their creations forward. There’s one thing to remember, though: women have been leading production companies for years now anyway.

Many of the various female production power brokers interviewed for this feature have witnessed women leaders in action for many years. The difference is that projects led by women are finally being recognised as lucrative.

“Having films like Lady Bird or Wonder Woman do well is going to help more in making this change permanent,” says Lauren Grant, producer and creator of Clique Films. “It’s the projects that make money that do, because then the people who don’t care about ‘what’s right’ are going to be motivated by that bottom line.”

In the TV business in recent years, no one has shown the potential for successful projects that detail the female perspective more than Reese Witherspoon.

Her HBO series, Big Little Lies (left), has received many accolades, including 16 Emmy Award nominations in 2018, which in turn won eight, including Outstanding Limited Miniseries. The series also reached 1.9 million people for the Time Warner premium network on its final episode, making it a smash hit.

The high regard for the series has also led to Witherspoon scoring deals with streaming giants such as Apple and Hulu through her new Hello Sunshine label.

Partly, the success of such projects has been down to gradually changing attitudes, but they have also been helped by the #MeToo movement and, ultimately, big names such as Witherspoon that have backed projects.

Julia Sereny of Cardinal producer Sienna Films says: “There’s always been a tradition of producers who are female. There’s now certainly a rise in Hollywood of women actors using their influence, and insuring that there’s material that has meaning and significance for them. It’s fantastic.

“I’m not sure that the kind of shows that they develop would be made otherwise – Big Little Lies being a perfect case in point. It really was a unique and wonderfully-made show and it’s continuing, which is great. Reese Witherspoon, specifically, has been very vocal.”

The dramedy genre has particularly seen a wealth of titles emerge from female voices –shows such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Issa Rae’s Insecure (left) have achieved critical acclaim and ratings success.

These titles have almost created a form of sub-genre that is hyper-real, funny but dark, and caters to specific young adult audiences. They have also opened doors for newer shows such as Derry Girls and Can’t Cope Won’t Cope (right).

Such titles are also helping other deals close. Merman co-founder Clelia Mountford says this is one of the core reasons that Amazon this January struck a deal with her prodco, which she formed with Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan.

“They like the fact we do tell female stories because it needs more of them and has told us that, so that genre is something we’re actively developing for them.

“It’s early days, and it’s a back and forth dialogue about what fits and what suits their sensibility, but I think we’re in the right place,” she says.

While the sources TBI has spoken to are hopeful about the increasing number of titles highlighting authentic female experiences, they are also cautious that it doesn’t become the ‘hot topic of the moment’. The execs are yet to see some markers of change that would ensure truly equal representation for years to come.

The TV production business has been welcoming to women, but there are disparities in the industry: there are still fewer female directors than men, fewer projects led by female writers picked up, fewer women at the helm when it comes to financing projects, and a lack of true representation for women aged 50 or over.

Mountford (left) says: “In terms of behind the camera and crews, there is definitely some work to do for parity in the TV business.

“Sharon [Horgan] talks about this in directing. A lot of men have this in-built confidence, where they’re like, ‘I can pick up a camera, I can learn, I can do that’, whereas women are a little bit more hesitant and want to get some more training. There are also issues about having kids, taking time out, not having enough childcare, and the unsociable hours.”

Such topics require work. At Merman, the co-founders have been tackling the issue at hand by helping yet-to-be-established female directors find projects, just as they did with a series of Halloween-themed shorts for the UK’s Sky late last year. Kate Heron, Emily Greenwood and Nida Manzoor all landed work out of the project.

Sienna co-founder Jennifer Kawaja, meanwhile, believes unapologetically that until ageism for women is addressed on TV, the #MeToo movement will have been fruitless.

“I will only believe that there’s change when we see women on screen that have not altered their faces with plastic surgery,” she says. “I have nothing against surgery, but I feel until older women over 50 are on screens as legitimately as men over 50 that #MeToo has had only had limited impact because it all ties together.

“Sexual objectification, sexual harassment in the work place, how we view women, what women we put on screen, how we ask them to behave on screen, how we ask them to dress, the consistent and relentless portrayal of older men with younger women, and what we see as feminine beauty versus male handsomeness –they can all be related to this age gap.”

None of this will be possible, however, until those financing the projects believe that audiences want to see women on screen and will buy into these stories. Part of the ongoing problem, according to Clique’s Grant, is that a lot of major financiers are still male and don’t.

“In TV and film, so much decision-making power rests in the hands of men,” she says. “Even in Canada, where the creative heads of our networks are women, the bosses that allow for the final greenlight are all men.”

Part of the solution to these problems is to keep valuable conversations going, and Mountford says its also about being “pushy”, which some women can still be hesitant about.

Zoe Rocha (left), who was recently brought in by Fyzz Facility to lead its TV production arm admits she has experienced this in the past. She explains that as co-founder of LittleRock Productions, which she set up with Ralf Little, investors always deferred to him, despite the fact she had the strong financial background.

She says this happened partly due to her having a feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’, which she has since addressed. Things have changed significantly since she has started going into meetings more confidently.

Overall, despite these aspects, the former boss of Stephen Fry’s production company believes that there has been gradual progress for change in the industry. “I really feel that, from ground level, the conversation is starting to sway, as a lot of these companies are now set up by women,” says Rocha. “I’ve come into Fyzz after formerly being on the financing side of show creation to really drive forward projects. I’m really looking at female-driven projects, both because that’s what I’m interested in and also where I see that things are moving.

“With our projects, I want to make sure that we’re employing women behind the cameras, so I’m looking at writers, directors and crew. We’re addressing that at every level and that’s what a lot of people are doing. I really feel the tide is turning and it’s quite exciting actually.

“We have to be cautious, but I think that the changes are definitely here to stay.”