Straight Down the Middle

After I published the post on the blockbuster strategy, Scott Myers at GITS put in a request for a deeper dive into middle budget movies, so I thought I’d take a closer look at what successful mid (and low) budget movies have in common.

Why do we care about these mid-budget movies? Well, increasingly, studios have gravitated toward spending more money on fewer projects. These giant projects are largely, if not entirely, based on things like comic books, YA novels, or previous films. The mid/low budget space is pretty much the only place where original movies are being made. And this means that it’s the only space where original material is being bought.

Take a look at this graph that shows the breakdown of spend by different budget brackets over time:


As you can see, spend on $100 million plus movies has increased quite a bit over the last ten years. This has been particularly driven by $200 million plus movies, which has come to represent about 25% of total production spend.

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Gender Equality: Unpacking Unconscious Bias & The Fiscal Cliff for Female Filmmakers

If you’re aware of the film and TV community at all, you’re aware that we’re at a watershed moment for the discussion of gender equality in film. The white boys club that dominates creative spaces for film and TV (don’t take my word for it, just look at some DGA and WGA statistics) is being questioned, and for good reason — diverse voices in film and television aren’t just helpful, they’re essential to shaping the public’s views of how the world works, as reflected in media. This week, Megan and I were lucky enough to attend two events in LA dedicated specifically to discussing a lack of gender equality within the film and TV industries.

On Monday, we headed to the lovely WGA Theater for a panel discussing Unconscious Bias within the industry. Glen Mazzara moderated the panel, which also included Geena Davis, Shonda Rhimes, Peter Paige, Todd Holland, Callie Khouri, and Judith Williams from Google. Before the panel discussion started, Mazzara, Davis, and Williams all gave individual presentations.

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Photo credit: The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. From L-R: Callie Khouri, Todd Holland, Peter Paige, Shonda Rhimes, Judith Williams, Geena Davis, and Glen Mazzara.

Mazzara kicked off the evening with anecdotes of his own experiences in writers’ rooms including THE SHIELD and THE WALKING DEAD. On THE SHIELD, Mazzara had to help two female staff writers be heard in the male-dominated room (“I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t listening to them, that I’d been trained to listen to the male voice first”). On another unnamed show, Mazzara told us of how he was accused of “having an Asian fetish” after wanting to hire two Asian writers for a room.

After Mazzara’s equality horror stories, Geena Davis took the stage to discuss research from her Institute on Gender and Media. Three startling points emerged from Davis’s research: women only account for about 17% of all background extras/crowd scenes in animated and live action media (a similar number to the percentage of women in leadership/management positions around the US); casting women in small rolls, as extras or in crowd scenes makes a HUGE difference in terms of representation on screen (50% of all films have casts that are 75% or more male); and the best place to begin gender reform within the industry is in children’s media, as it allows us to keep children from being programmed to make assumptions about what men do and are and what women do and are. It was an incredibly thorough presentation with many more salient points than the ones listed here — I urge you to check out the Institute’s website. 

After Davis, Judith Williams from Google gave us an incredible presentation on how unconscious bias is formed. I could’ve listened to Judith talk for hours about how our brains create bias, and how that bias affects our daily lives — whether that means assuming “doctor” as a male role within society, choosing only to read articles that support our own views, or whatever patterns we downloaded from our upbringings. Judith spent a large portion of her presentation discussing traditional job and social associations as they relate to men and women — women are generally associated with liberal arts, men with science, etc. Judith was an awesome speaker, and I’d love to hear more from her.

From there, we moved into the full panel discussion. Shonda Rhimes discussed how gender and racial equality was one of the essential tenants in Shondaland, and how this leads to some tricky casting questions (“Can the idiot plumber be a woman?”) Peter Paige of THE FOSTERS suggested that writing gender and racial equality into your very first episode sets the tone for future episodes, and praised the ABC family of networks for pushing equality in all of their shows. Todd Holland of MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE discussed DGA visits to shows and studios that are failing to include diversity in front of and behind the camera, and how mentorship and trainee programs are essential to bringing more diverse voices to media. NASHVILLE showrunner Callie Khouri talked about her majority-female writers room, and echoed Rhimes’s thoughts about challenges of casting women and people of color in complex roles without sliding into stereotypes.

While all the panelists were wonderful, this evening was tough in that everyone in the room was in agreement regarding equality issues within the industry, but only a few concrete solutions were given — more women in crowd/extras scenes, focusing on children’s media, and WGA/DGA mentorship and trainee programs focused on employing diverse folks. As Mazzara expressed in his opening remarks, part of the issue in solving the equality puzzle is that everyone blames each other, and no one takes responsibility: studios blame showrunners, showrunners blame agencies, agencies blame studios. It is incredibly important that these conversations are happening, but as we’re a problem-solving society, it’s hard to walk away from them with more questions than answers.


Last night, we headed to Beverly Hills to see The Sundance Institute and Women in Film: LA present findings on a massive study about films from the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance based on the gender of their directors. Professor Stacy L. Smith from USC presented the sobering findings: of 1300 top-grossing films released 2002-2014, only 4.1% were directed by women, or about 23.3 male directors for every female director. For the rest of the findings, I’m going to let this incredible, sobering study speak for itself. It’s essential reading:

  • Females directed one-quarter of the films in SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition between 2002 and 2014. Of the 208 U.S. Dramatic Competition films at SFF between 2002 and 2014, 25.5 percent had a female director (n=53) and 74.5 percent had a male director (n=155). This translates into a gender ratio of 2.9 to 1.
  • Gender did not play a role in receiving theatrical distribution out of SFF Competition. Of the 208 SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies, 177 received domestic distribution (85.1 percent) and 31 did not. Female-directed films (88.7 percent) were just as likely to receive distribution out of SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition as male-directed films (83.9 percent).
  • There are differences in the types of companies that distribute male- and female-directed films. Movies with a female director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than female-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/ Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach.
  • Theatrical density was not related to director gender among SFF films with Independent distribution. Male-directed and female-directed SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition films with Independent distribution were equally likely to be shown in 1-75 theatres as to be shown in 76-250+ theatres.
  • At the highest platform of theatrical distribution, above 250 screens, male directors outnumber female directors by a factor of 6 to 1. Among films distributed by Studio Specialty/Mini Major companies, a greater percentage of male-directed films (32.1 percent, n=18) were shown in 251+ theatres than female-directed films (21.4 percent, n=3).
  • Gender is related to the types of stories told by directors in SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition. Three-quarters of all SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies featured drama, comedy, and/or romance, with female-directed films (92.5 percent) more concentrated in these genres than male-directed films (69 percent). Lead character gender was also associated with director gender. Male-directed films were more likely to feature male leads whereas female-directed films were more likely to feature female leads.
  • The director gender gap is at its widest in top-grossing films. Across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors (n=59 of 1,433) were female. This calculates into a gender ratio of 23.3 male directors to every 1 female director
  • The prevalence of females decreases notably when moving from independent to mainstream film. In 2014, there was a 25 percent difference between the percentage of female directors at SFF (26.9 percent) and the percentage of female directors across the top 100 films (1.9 percent). This is almost double the gap observed (12.7 percent drop) in 2002.
  • The results from this study demonstrate that female directors set out on a course that confirms and triggers a stereotype that may affect the deals they make and the opportunities they are offered. As such, the choices female directors make early in their careers can have lasting financial consequences.

There were, of course, qualitative findings to their study as well: “The previous phases of research have established the fiscal cliff women face as they move from independent to more commercial fare. To continue this inquiry, the qualitative section of the report uses data from 59 interviews (39 male, 20 female) with buyers and sellers who had, on average, 17.5 years of experience in the entertainment industry. We also conducted interviews with 41 female directors. Buyers and sellers were asked about the reasons for the lack of female directors in top 100 films. Respondents could mention, question, speculate or hypothesize about the topic. The major barriers that emerged were consistent with results from previous phases as well as other research. Those impediments were:”

  • Perception of a Gendered Marketplace
  • Scarcity of Talent Pool and Experience
  • Women’s Perceived Lack of Ambition
  • Industry Gender Imbalance
  • Little Support and Few Opportunities
  • Competence Doubted

In summary: “Across three years of research, it is clear that the film industry must grapple with not only the paucity of female directors working at its highest ranks, but also the image industry leaders hold regarding female directors. To journey from gender inequality to parity, decision-makers and advocates must work to alter their perceptions about what women can and want to do in their careers. This requires moving away from narrow and limiting stereotypes to conceptions of women that are as open and unbounded as those surrounding men. By making the choice to act strategically, the industry can bridge the gap between business, advocacy, and creativity to foster an environment in which it is possible for female directors to flourish.”

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Photo credit: Sundance Labs

So what did we learn from these two evenings? How can we use them in our own lives? In our own work within the industry? Well, we learned that issues of equality are rippling through the industry, and that some major players — ABC, The Sundance Institute, WIF, USC, Google, WGA/DGA, The Geena Davis Institute — are taking major steps to make diversity a priority behind of and in front of the camera. We heard research in action as Peter Paige, after Davis’s suggestions about crowd/extras casting, discussed how he planned to work with ADs to assure equality on his own set, something Shonda Rhimes is already doing. Hopefully, the study commissioned by WIF-LA, the Sundance Institute, and USC will be widely disseminated so that we can further pinpoint just how women are being failed by the industry, and continue to develop their amazing findings (the idea of female filmmakers facing a “fiscal cliff” particularly resonated with me.)

Of course, it would have been ideal to walk away from both events with a clear set of solutions and action items, but the kind of change necessary to fix the industry is going to be slow going — Davis’s research suggested that if we continue including women in films at the current rate, it’ll take us SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS to reach gender parity. Pretty disheartening, eh?

But for every disparaging anecdote, there were glimmers of hope too, and those are what we can focus on. The more of an uproar we create, the harder it is to ignore these issues. Rhimes stressed the importance of mentorship and training within the industry (“Hire a woman or a person of color as your writer’s assistant, help them grow. The current showrunners on GREY’S ANATOMY were assistants on the pilot.”) and that’s something everyone can do, no matter what your level in the industry may be. I urge you to share the WIF-LA, the Sundance Institute, and USC study far and wide. Make sure you’re exposing any young folks you may know to diverse entertainment (may I suggest a list for that…) and talking to them about problematic or stereotypical depictions of women and people of color. And perhaps most importantly, we have to keep talking about these issues, no matter how disheartening stats like Davis’s 700-years-until-gender-parity may be.

Whether we like it or not, media is a major factor in shaping how we perceive ourselves and the others who inhabit the world around us. We must start making ALL media reflect the incredible diversity of our planet, supporting female filmmakers and filmmakers of color at every level of the industry (especially the higher ones, where they’re least represented), and become dedicated to making sure the entertainment we give our children doesn’t only rely on easy caricatures and “traditional” values. The change isn’t going to be easy — the progress will be incremental, the setbacks will be disparaging, and the victories will be constantly judged against other, bigger industry successes — but it is vital to transform the industry from within.

Black List Interview: Helen Shang

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For our fifth interview in this series, we spoke to Helen Shang, writer of CELINE and DORIAN GREY.  Helen found her manager on the site, and is now staffed on NBC’s HANNIBAL. Today, we talk to her about how the past, present, and future have shaped her screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster her journey as a writer. Since Helen writes for television, her answers are TV-centric!

The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

THE X-FILES was the show that made me want to be a writer, period.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade when I watched my first episode – I can still clearly remember how shocked and intrigued I felt watching mutant mushroom spores bursting from people’s necks.  I loved the memorable inventiveness of each case of the week, and the ongoing relationship between Mulder and Scully that made me want to tune in episode after episode.  I grew to deeply care about these characters, and started writing short stories about them myself.  My writing life sparked into existence with X-FILES fanfiction!

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?

I wrote stories throughout my school years, but didn’t seriously consider a career in screenwriting until watching HOUSE M.D.  I was in college, and someone told me that HOUSE used shots of my campus center as their hospital exterior.  So I started watching it for the cool factor of seeing my school on TV!  Of course, I instantly got hooked by the story and characters.  Seeing my daily hangout spot on TV gave television a sense of “realness”, and it really hit home that this was a job people did, and that I could be a part of it.  When a Hollywood producer alum came to speak at school, I signed up for a summer internship after my freshman year.  There, I read scripts, wrote coverage, visited the set of a TV show… and realized that I could pursue my love of writing through screenwriting.  My first TV script was a spec for HOUSE.

Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

I was a personal assistant for a writer/director, and had to make scrambled eggs for his dog.

The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

I sit down for a set period of time and write down every half-baked idea that pops into my head.  Then, from those, I pick out the ones that I can see being a TV pilot, or feature.  I expand those ideas a little more, and then ultimately choose the idea I feel most excited to write.  My manager (who I got through this site!) gives me good insight on my ideas too – for example, if there were 5 pilots this year already about X that aren’t doing so hot, then I’m probably better off not writing about X just yet.

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

In my opinion, at least for TV, thinking about whether or not the muse is in the mood isn’t really helpful when there are hard deadlines looming.  I open Google Calendar and mark down the deadline of when I have to have my script by, and then I divide up the days beforehand to see how long I need to spend on each act.  And then I write every day until I hit the day’s goals.  Sometimes it’s smooth going but sometimes I really have to force myself.  But my goal is to get a draft done, even if it’s not amazing, so that I can see the problems that exist so I can do rewrites.  It’s not really a glamorous way to go about things, but when you’re working on an actual TV show (especially as a lower level!) nobody’s going to halt production so you can work out your personal angst with your muse.  A mentor told me to get used to writing on a schedule before you’re even staffed, and I think that is a great idea. 

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

The last big impact was a couple months ago when I watched a lot of Peter Greenaway’s movies (PROSPERO’S BOOKSTHE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER and THE PILLOW BOOK.)  His films are so visually lush, rich, and symbolic.  It really got me thinking into how to effectively write visuals to set the tone, and to convey story and character. 

The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

Something creepy and darkly romantic.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

A psychologist.

Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?

I would invite novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (he wrote NEVER LET ME GO and also worked to adapt his novels into screenplays), Werner Herzog (writer/director/documentarian/legend), and David Bowie (Renaissance man whose sheer creativity transcends genre).  I feel like Kazuo Ishiguro can teach me a lot about writing characters, Werner can inspire me to live and work fearlessly… and I’m David Bowie’s biggest fan, so if I put it out in the universe enough times, maybe one day I will get to meet him!!!  Bowie picks up the check.

The Black List:

How did you first hear about The Black List?

I heard it through a few members of my writing group.

Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?

I got my manager through The Black List, so it’s been impacted very positively!  Readers at Benderspink responded to one of my pilots that I uploaded, passed it along to him, and he liked it enough to reach out to me via email.  In his email he asked if I had another piece of material, and I sent him another pilot.  During our first meeting we really clicked, and he signed me on the spot.  I already had an agent at that point, and my agent and new manager worked together to nab me my first staff gig on HANNIBAL! 

Any tips for writers interested in the site?

I would say take it seriously and upload your very best material that you are proud of, because industry people are reading and looking for new writers.  Make your logline pop!

The Black List comes to NYC!

Well, it’s official – we just announced our first NYC cast members!

If you’re in NYC, we hope you can make it out for our very first New York live read! Join the Black List team on Saturday May 2nd to watch screenwriter Jason Orley direct his 2014 Black List Script BIG TIME ADOLESCENCE with an amazing cast. You may want to buy your tickets now – seating is limited!

Zosia Mamet (Girls, The Kids Are All Right)
Alex Wolff (A Birder’s Guide to Everything)
Julia Garner (Grandma, The Americans)
Michael Gaston (The Leftovers, The Mentalist)

Tickets for are available online now at


And here are all the nitty gritty event details…

Black List Live! presents

Date: Saturday, May 2, 2015
Time: 7:30pm Doors, 8:00pm Show
Venue: The University Center at the New School
63 Fifth Ave (at 13th St), New York, NY 10003