The A-list stars pushing for change in Hollywood

I Too revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, civil rights drama One Night in Miami and darkly comic murder mystery The Flight Attendant have one thing in common: these buzzed-about releases have been masterminded by actresses-turned-producers. Promising Young Woman, which stars Carey Mulligan, was backed by Margot Robbie’s Lucky Chap Productions; Regina King’s film, which she also directed, was produced under Royal Ties, the regally-named outfit she founded with sister Reina, while The Flight Attendant is the first live-action project for Kaley Cuoco’s company Hello, Norman Productions.

The latter series debuted in the United States over Thanksgiving last year to considerable acclaim and finally launched on this side of the Atlantic on Sky this month. The former Big Bang Theory star snapped up the rights to the original novel by Chris Bohjalian after she was hooked in by the one-line synopsis on Amazon, and plays the anxiety-ridden, alcohol-dependent lead character Cassie, who gets caught up in a high-stakes conspiracy when she wakes up next to a dead body.

It’s a part that requires her to ricochet from party girl to woman on the verge at breakneck speed, and she pulls it off with finesse. Discussing the project in interviews, though, she has made it clear that taking the reins as executive producer gave her the opportunity to play a dramatic role that she almost certainly wouldn’t have been offered otherwise, perhaps thanks to her sit-com roots. “I kind of had to take it upon myself to be like, ‘I’m gonna do it!’ because I didn’t know if anyone else would just hand it over to me,” she told the HFPA.

In stepping behind the camera, Cuoco has joined an impressive line-up of Hollywood multi-hyphenates, including but not limited to – deep breath – Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, Eva Longoria, Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Chopra, Kerry Washington, Natalie Portman and Sandra Bullock. Over on this side of the Atlantic, Michaela Coel’s FALKNA Productions worked on her ground-breaking BBC hit I May Destroy You; Gemma Arterton co-founded Rebel Park Productions in 2016 “in reaction to largely male-dominated content, cast and crew in the film and television industry,” while Phoebe Waller-Bridge founded Wells Street Films last year after signing her rumoured $20 million deal with Amazon Studios in 2019.

What unites many of their projects as producers in the range of dimensional, diverse parts for women. It’s clear that greater creative control equates to better representation and more interesting (and less depressing) female roles: indeed, many stars have spoken about how their forays into producing arose from a frustration with the scripts they were receiving and the parts they weren’t seeing.

“I didn’t want to pick up another script where I was the wife or the girlfriend – just a catalyst for the male storyline,” Robbie said of her decision to launch Lucky Chap. Witherspoon, now perhaps Hollywood’s premier actress-producer, was galvanised to create her own roles after she met with a series of studio bosses in 2012 and asked them about the projects they were developing for women. “I think it was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30,” she told Variety. “And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy.’”

Witherspoon has used her literary nous to option female-led fiction and transform these books into feted film and TV properties (indeed, Cuoco has joked that she was surprised the actress had not already snapped up The Flight Attendant – “The first thing I asked was, ‘has Reese Witherspoon gotten the rights to this book?’” she told one interviewer). Her first success stories, with her previous production company Pacific Standard, were Gone Girl and Wild, both cannily acquired before they went on to become bestsellers (her leading role in the latter also earned Witherspoon a Best Actress Oscar nomination).

Then came her TV ascendancy: Big Little Lies, a collaboration with co-star Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films, was a game-changer upon its release in 2017, a critical hit and ratings success story starring and produced by women. Her newer company Hello Sunshine now has a slate of upcoming literary adaptations, including an Amazon mini-series based on Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid and a film of bestseller Where The Crawdads Sing starring Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones. Many of the works she options have already been featured as part of her Instagram book club (2 million followers and counting), drumming up a built-in audience that surely gives her pitches even greater clout.

Her co-star Kidman has taken a similarly literary approach to her TV projects while supporting female directors too: after teaming up with The Night Manager director Susanna Bier for HBO’s The Undoing, she will join forces with Lulu Wang for an adaptation of The Expatriates, a novel by Janice Y.K. Lee, and with Reed Morano for Pretty Things, based on a book by Janelle Brown. The advent of streaming and the rise of prestige TV has almost certainly created more opportunities for female-led projects, with the proliferation of new platforms like HBO Max and Hulu and the exponential drive for new content. Unlike many major film studios, the streamers have been more willing to throw their considerable financial firepower behind women: look at Amazon’s mega-contract with Waller-Bridge, or HBO Max parent company Warner Media’s eight-figure deal with Insecure creator Issa Rae’s Hooray Productions, announced this week.

This new cohort of female stars taking the lead in developing their own projects is by no means the first actresses to seek greater creative control behind the camera, though. All the way back in the silent era, when industry power structures were less entrenched, “there was no codifying of what the rules were, so you could call yourself [a director or producer] as a woman,” explains Helen O’Hara, film journalist and author of Women vs. Hollywood. “There was nobody arguing with you about, ‘Oh, that’s too prestigious a role for a woman, that sounds a bit suspect.’”

Mary Pickford, the silent film icon nicknamed ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who became the first-ever actress to secure a $1 million contract in 1916, was a “fantastic example of someone who had sway over her own films,” O’Hara says. She became a producer just three years into her lengthy career, overseeing all aspects of her films from the cast and crew to the script and the edit. In 1919, she co-founded the ground-breaking distribution company United Artists, which would wrest control (and profit) away from the studios and give it back to directors and performers, along with future husband and fellow Hollywood idol Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and director DW Griffith. She and her husband then launched the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, where they would exclusively shoot their movies; even as her acting career waned with the advent of the ‘talkie’ era, she continued to produce projects for United Artists, remaining partners in the company with Chaplin until the mid-Fifties.

Pickford’s case remained an unusual one, though, especially as the studio system solidified. Some big-name actresses would launch production houses that only lasted the course of one or two films, like Bette Davis’s BD Productions or Hedy Lamarr’s Mars Film Corporation; most would focus their attention on their own star vehicles (it’s also worth noting that these opportunities were largely afforded only to white actresses).

Others were producers in all but name. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the studio system was at its peak, many stars would have clauses in their contracts allowing them to pick and choose scripts and talent. Take Pickford’s one-time daughter-in-law, Joan Crawford. “If you look at somebody like Joan Crawford and [1954 film] Johnny Guitar, she was certainly instrumental in putting that together,” O’Hara says. “She doesn’t get credited as a producer but she found the book and got the script written and presented it to the director, and it went from there.”

Since then, the figure of the star-slash-producer has “waxed and waned in terms of popularity and power,” O’Hara says, nodding to the Nineties, when stars like Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore, Queen Latifah and Alicia Silverstone set up successful production outfits. Recently, though, the most significant shift has been a widening of parameters: actresses are no longer focusing their producing efforts entirely on star vehicles for themselves, instead of using their platform to create opportunities for or collaborate with other actors, writers and directors, especially those from groups that the industry has historically under-served.

“We never started a company to be a starring vehicle for me or to be a platform for me to chase my dreams,” Robbie told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “It was really that we wanted to expand what female stories and female storytellers could do in this industry, and I don’t need to be onscreen for that to happen.”

She concedes, though, that her “platform can also open some of those doors” for first or second-time filmmakers who might otherwise struggle to get their projects off the ground, and clearly takes her role as a mentor seriously. In 2019, her company launched a screenwriting lab for women writers in collaboration with Birds of Prey scribe Christina Hodson; one year on, five out of the six participants had sold an action feature pitch to a major film company; the sixth sold a television series. She is not the only star to head up such a scheme. In October Emmy-winning writer and actress Lena Waithe, who has produced films like Queen & Slim and The 40 Year Old Version, launched a 10-month mentoring programme for aspiring actors, writers and creative executives through her production outfit Hillman Grad Productions. “The hope is to populate the industry with people that otherwise wouldn’t have access to it,” she said. 

What has caused this sea change? Along with the proliferation of opportunities driven by streaming, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the cultural shift catalysed by the Me Too revelations and subsequent Time’s Up movement, which brought some of Hollywood’s most influential women together with a shared aim. “A lot of actresses started talking behind the scenes furiously during that period,” O’Hara says. “I think a lot of this new era of cooperation, of not seeing Hollywood as a zero-sum game, came out of that because they started to see, ‘right, we can not just compete for the one decent female role every year, we can make sure that there are 10, even 100 decent female roles’. They just realised their own responsibility as rich, powerful, independent women to try and do more to change the circumstances around them. I think they’ve realised they might have more power to do that than they were led to believe.”


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