Film and television

Time for gender parity in creative industries

Unleashing the creative power of women in film and virtual reality
Photo: Boris Brückhäuser

In a recent interview with Stylist magazine, actress Susan Sarandon said she didn’t believe Thelma and Louise would have been made if it had been pitched today.

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The cult classic about female friendship was written by a woman and starred two female leads, and went on to be nominated for six Oscars, making both Sarandon and Davis bona fide stars. But it would have most likely been nixed in today’s risk-averse movie industry.

Sarandon points out that “There are still many more male executives making these decisions,” adding that “whereas women can see a woman or a man in a leading role, I don't think it's as easy for a guy to see a woman in a leading role and say 'I'll get behind that.’”

Actress Jodie Foster echoed similar sentiments in an interview with Variety magazine. “Studio executives are scared, period,” she said. “This is the most risk-averse time that I can remember in movie history.” In this climate of fear, executives are more likely to lean on what is familiar. “You’re going to go with the guy that looks like you,” she said.

Investigating inequality

It’s actually gotten so bad that the U.S. federal government is investigating sexism against directors in Hollywood.

Despite the progress that has been made, gender parity continues to be a long way off and anti-female bias continues to restrict the access of women to key decisions being made in board rooms in LA or anywhere else.

Examples of the problem are piling up, from a recent Nancy Drew reboot being nixed by CBS executives because it “tested too female,” to worldwide panic experienced by many because the new Ghostbusters reboot features an all-female cast. It seems that some are simply unable to see women in lead roles as anything but exclusionary and limiting in scope, financially unviable, and certainly not representative of all (man)kind. Movie executives continue to curiously believe that women represent only themselves, while men somehow represent us all.

And these attitudes are not limited to U.S. studios. According to a recent report by non-profit organization Women in View on the Canadian film industry, women represented only 17 per cent of directors, 22 per cent of writers and 12 per cent of cinematographers in a sample of 91 feature films produced between 2013 and 2014.

A bold step for gender parity

That’s why it’s so extraordinary that the National Film Board of Canada recently announced that it will commit 50 per cent of its production budget to films by women.

“I’m making a firm, ongoing commitment to full gender parity, which I hope will help to lead the way for the industry as a whole,” said government film commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur. “We’re funded equally by Canadians who are men and Canadians who are women.”

It’s really that simple. If women comprise half of the human population and half of TV and film viewership (in many cases, they comprise even more than half of primetime TV audiences) why should they not be represented and why should their stories, concerns, and points of view not be reflected in popular storytelling?

The future of gender parity

The NFB intends to invest in implementing these necessary changes in order to achieve gender parity over the next three years. And it’s already started putting its money where its mouth is. On May 30 and 31, it will be organizing a public roundtable in Montreal, in collaboration with the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership (Montreal’s Entertainment District) and MUTEK, an organization that promotes electronic music and the digital arts. It will bring together 16 of the leading women from the virtual reality industry to explore the field’s creative potential.

It will be preceded by an invite-only creative brainstorming workshop on May 27 and 28, which I will have the pleasure of hosting and facilitating. Female VR experts from the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, and Canada will come together to brainstorm and create on the topic of movement, and more specifically in three distinct creative areas: Creating communal experiences, existence in public spaces, and creating an experience of the real. The results of this creative workshop will be unveiled during the public roundtable.

Since virtual and augmented reality is the next big frontier of filmmaking and digital storytelling, initiatives like these are beyond welcome — they are absolutely necessary. Right now, a mere 21 per cent of people involved in the VR industry are women. It’s vital that women’s voices are amplified and pushed to the creative forefront in an industry that is still in its formative years and is expected to produce the kind of disruptive technology that will soon completely alter the way we interact with technology.

According to Goldman Sachs, VR and AR are expected to be the next generation computing platform and they’re predicting that by 2025 the VR and AR market will reach $80 billion, roughly the size of the current desktop PC market. It’s vital that industry software, hardware, and the narrative content represent women as well.

It is commendable that the NFB and its partners understand the responsibility that they have in promoting gender parity and taking the necessary steps to move women to the forefront of creative roles in interactive digital media production, facilitating accessibility to the industry for them and other women.

Real change starts with being represented. Here’s hoping that the NFB sets the example, and launching pad, for others to do the same.

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