This Changes Everything: Fighting Systemic Sexism in Hollywood

In 1991, Thelma & Louise debuted. “This will change everything,” thought actress Geena Davis. Finally, a movie about women devoid of stereotypes, a movie that would lead to many more female buddy-movies, to real stories that wouldn’t misrepresent women, their needs and desires. But almost 30 years later—and despite being shaken by #MeToo and Time’s Up—Hollywood still has a long way to go. Tom Donahue’s feature documentary This Changes Everything uncovers the roots of this systemic gender discrimination and digs deep into the history, empirical evidence, and persistent forces that generate sexism in the film industry. The stories are told by some of Hollywood’s leading voices, including Davis, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Taraji P. Henson, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes, Maria Giese, Yara Shahidi, Chloë Grace Moretz, Amandla Stenberg, Alan Alda, Sandra Oh, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Rose McGowan, Judd Apatow, and Rosario Dawson. The documentary reveals the long legal battles fought by women in the industry to uphold Title VII, which bans employment discrimination, and seeks pathways to end discrimination within and outside the industry, in Hollywood and through its export, the world. 

This Changes Everything premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and comes to U.S. theaters as a Fathom Event on July 22. The documentary is not the first time Tom Donahue has taken on powerful institutions or sexism in Hollywood. Boxoffice spoke to the director about his film, sexism, and taking action. 

How did This Changes Everything come about?

I’ve been a feminist since I was ten years old. I grew up in a very conservative household and the word “feminism” was a very bad word. I was a big fan of the show “M*A*S*H” and the lead was this guy named Alan Alda. He kinda became my hero. He played Hawkeye Pierce and I learned everything I could about him and I found out that he called himself a feminist. I was amazed by that, that a man would admit that he was a feminist. At first I didn’t understand it and I looked into it and I learned that he was fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment and I thought, “Wow, Equal Rights Amendment? What’s that?” I started learning about all this stuff through the activism of a man and realized that I was a feminist too in a household that supported Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And I realized that through the power of the media, my own consciousness was raised.

So, I did a movie for HBO called Casting By about a female casting director pioneer named Marion Dougherty. Marion had never had the recognition she deserved. At first I thought I was just doing a tribute to Marion, but as I got into that film, I got into the whole history of the entire casting industry in Hollywood and realized that profession never got recognized either, they were treated like glorified secretaries and why? Because the membership of the Casting Society of America is 75 percent female and the Directors Guild in America, which is mostly male, won’t even allow casting directors to have the term “casting director” in the main titles. They were stripped of even having that, and instead they get the credit “casting by” as if they’re just making lists. That was my introduction to the roadblocks women face in Hollywood and that was 2012 to 2013. That did very well and I had a publicist approach me in 2015 over coffee and just say, “I loved the film.” This was post Sony hack, talks about equal pay were in the air, and Jennifer Lawrence was talking about Bradley Cooper making more in American Hustle, and Patricia Arquette had just given her big speech at the Academy Awards. So, it was in the air. And so [the publicist] asked my producing partner and I, who is also male, “Would you consider doing a documentary on the larger issues facing women in Hollywood?” We didn’t bat an eyelash. We were like “Of course, we love that idea.” We just needed to figure out how do we raise the money for it, how do we make that happen. So we spent an extra year raising money.

Originally my plan was to make a documentary about workplace discrimination in Hollywood, but how would that appeal to a general audience? Who’s going to care about the trials and tribulations of a few thousand women in Hollywood? Then I realized that this industry has an outside impact in the entire world in the way that women are represented on-screen and that’s totally connected to the fact that women don’t have opportunities as storytellers. Even matriarchal societies like China are getting affected. Their movies in the past have women, there’s women war heroes in World War II movies, but now they’re copying American action movies and there’s more of a gender imbalance in China than there were in the early local films. That’s a terrible influence we’re having…

So, I needed to connect the dots between on-screen and off-screen representation and the person who could do that for me the most was Geena Davis. I pitched her CEO, “Could we bring Geena on board? She could come on as an executive producer.” We could use her data, but most importantly I wanted to tell her story and how she evolved from a Victoria’s Secret model into an accidental feminist and learned that data was maybe the key to turning this around. They agreed and I met with Geena in 2016. And meanwhile at the end of 2015, I started doing interviews with our own money. And then #MeToo and Time’s Up exploded and Donald Trump got elected and everything kinda changed. We went from a lot of the women being skittish about going on camera to saying yes. A lot of big names agreed to come after the #MeToo movement.

How did you approach them initially? Was there more reluctance to talk about the issue before #MeToo?

No, I wouldn’t say there was a lot of reluctance. You never know why they say no. A lot of people say no because of scheduling. A lot of people say “Yes, maybe,” but someone would be in Singapore shooting a movie. It’s hard to get everybody. We got over 180 people, so I can’t complain.

You said you were a feminist since you were 10 years old, you’ve already adressed the topic of sexism with Casting By, and there are so many women in the film in front and behind the camera. What do you say to critics who would complain that a documentary about women in Hollywood, urging studios to hire more women behind the camera, was itself directed by a man? 

I became a feminist because of the activism of a man and I’m hoping that my film, being directed by a man, can be seen by men, young boys who go, “Oh, this is directed by a man. I want to fight for women the way he does.” I think there needs to be a film out there that is speaking to boys and men as well as women. And there’s a lot of films out there on the subject that are directed by women, even silent-era filmmakers who never got their due. I believe very strongly in that alliance and you see that in the film: A male studio executive steps up to make change. Men have 80 percent of the resources in this country and women have 20, even though they’re half the population. Without the involvement of men to fight on this issue, I don’t see how change can happen. Without all genders getting together to hold hands and say, “We’re going to make change.” And I was not in a position to hire a female director. I had no money starting this, I did this all for free. It wasn’t until a year well into the film that I got financing.

Except for the parts where the film overtly urges action, your presence is discreet and objective. You give the people you’re interviewing a lot of space. Was that a conscious choice to highlight your position as an ally?

In all my films, I don’t have a narrator. There’s not an intentional manipulation of the voices. I let them speak for themselves, I just arrange them in a way that makes sense narratively. When you have all these amazing women and some men talking about these issues so eloquently, you just want to stay out of the way and let them speak. I just gave them a platform, the rest was up to them. 

Something that comes up a lot in the film, and that gives irony to the title, is that there have been a lot of films people believed would change the status quo. As studios realize that gender, ethinic and racial diversity can be lucrative—as seen through commercial hits like Crazy Rich Asians or Wonder Woman—do you think that this will bring about significant change?

I think that there is something of a tipping point that happened after #MeToo. Diverse content is produced, much more than I’ve seen in a long time. But I’m also cynical that when you have such a male hegemony that’s controlling the media empire in the U.S., it’s very hard to break that up. It’s very hard for those men to give away that power. So if you have 100 men in a position of power and you’re gonna ask four of them to step down to women, these men are not going to want to. So, it’s not even that these men see that they can make more money by having women write these stories, it’s that they don’t want to give up the jobs. And that’s the problem. We’ve all seen for a while that these movies can be popular and profitable, but there’s a denial because no one wants to give up the power to make space for those women and those people of color to tell their stories. One other thing that I wanted to say is to warn against complacency, even among men with “This thing [#MeToo] is going too far” and then there’s this conservative backlash that happens and we just go back to the way things were, which is how they are now. If the playing field just moves a little off from white men, they feel like a revolution is happening.

And as you show in your documentary, there have been so many efforts to change that in the film industry, in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, but these efforts are seldom discussed…

I learned so much in making this documentary. I learned about the original six [a group of six female directors who encouraged the DGA to launch a class action against studios for their discriminatory practices], but I had never heard of their story before. Their story wasn’t even told by the DGA until Maria Giese, who was at the DGA at the time, dug up their story and she named them the “original six” in a blog entry. She created the myth of the original six through her writing. There was this woman, this female director, who pulled that history out of nowhere because they had been kind of erased. 

The overall contribution of women in the history of cinema since the silent era has been erased. 

I had coffee yesterday with the chief archival person at AFI and they’re doing a whole shifted perspective on the silent era, where they go through all these credits of all these films and they’re figuring out how many women or who the women were who contributed to these movies in those years. It’s going to be a fascinating project. 

Had Maria Giese’s and the ACLU’s investigation already begun when you started filming?

It had already happened and that’s what I thought the movie was going to be, that I’m going to do a movie about workplace discrimination because of the equal pay controversy and the ACLU investigation that had already been triggered. What hadn’t happened yet was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s [EEOC] involvement—that was while I was making the film and Maria had reported that to me. I thought, “Who outside of Hollywood is gonna care?” And I realized the key was to get someone like Geena Davis involved to talk about on-screen representation and its effects in the world.

What can be done for more inclusivity, diversity, and representation from the industry’s side but also the public’s? 

Everyone should do whatever they can. What can you do in your own life to make change? For me, it was making this film. Now I want to get this film out there and I want to show it to every studio head, the head of every network and streamer, I want to have conversations around it at universities, among different stakeholder organizations. There’s a lot of things the audience can do. We can use social media, we can tweet out about the issue, we can donate to groups that fight for these issues. We can make sure our daughters and our sons don’t go to see movies that vilify, demonize, delegitimize, or abuse women. These are things we’re all responsible to do to break apart the patriarchy as it currently stands. 

What policies can help achieve that in the industry? 

Title VII has its limitations, because as we head into this gig economy in the 21st century where people are freelance, the EEOC can’t actively enforce Title VII against independent contractors—only against W2 employees—which means there’s an increase in TV director employment among women and people of color. But what you don’t see is any change in the number of women who direct big Hollywood films, because those directors are independent contractors. So, what the ACLU and some other law firms are trying to do is get legislation passed that would adapt Title VII so that it can be enforced for independent contractors too. That’s a big thing that the government can do.

Documentaries have been faring well in the last couple years. Why do you think they’re doing so well lately? 

Just like this new women’s movement came out of the election of Donald Trump, people are hungering because there’s all this emphasis on “fake news.” People can’t believe anything that’s been posted online on social media. There’s that feeling that documentaries still represent the truth because the filmmakers are taking these deep dives over years to get to a kind of truth and something authentic. People need that kind of authenticity right now. Secondarily, when I’m in a cab, and I’ve been making documentary films for many years, and the cab driver asks me what I’m doing, I say, “I’m a documentary filmmaker.” In the last four or five years, it goes like this: “Oh my God! I love documentaries! I never really watched documentaries until I got Netflix.” The advent of streaming has brought documentaries into the mainstream.

This Changes Everything will premiere on over 1,000 screens. Why did you decide to go with event cinema and Fathom for the release? 

Event cinema is a way to break new ground for documentaries. When we premiered in Toronto in September, we were one of the few documentaries that was put in the Roy Thomson Hall with about 2,000 seats and we almost sold it out. And I think that Fathom saw what Toronto saw, which was that our film could appeal to a broad community of people interested in the issue. That it shouldn’t be niched as a specialty documentary and be released in small theaters in New York and L.A., that it could broaden out to the rest of the U.S.

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