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In the Picture: Diversity on Screen and the Importance of Telling Women’s Stories

On Nov 25 + 26, over 100 speakers will come together at the Melbourne Town hall for Breakthrough, a new gender equality event by the Victorian Women’s Trust. Breakthrough is all about bringing big ideas, leading thinkers and passionate change-makers to the fore. Whether you’re new to the gender equality issue, or an expert in the matter, Breakthrough explores the realities facing us all, and steers us towards a brighter, fairer future. Tickets are on sale now >


speakers_suemSue Maslin is an award winning screen producer and Adjunct Professor of the School of Media Communication, RMIT University – and a Breakthrough 2016 speaker! A woman of many talents, Sue also heads up her company, Film Art Media, which produces and distributes screen content across many platforms and is currently Patron of Women In Film and Television Victoria (WIFTVic) – she is also Producer of the award-winning film, The Dressmaker (2015). Victorian Women’s Trust volunteer, Lauren Meath had the chance to interview Sue and talk about why getting women’s stories out there and on our screens is one of the major focuses of her work. 

Lauren Meath (LM): As someone who has been working in film for a number of years, have there been noticeable improvements for women working in film? Has anything stayed the same?  

Sue Maslin (SM): I’ve been looking at the number of women both behind the camera and in front of the camera now for thirty years, since I was involved in setting up Women in Film and Television (WIFT) in Victoria. What we found all of those years ago when the last formal surveys were conducted, was that women were severely underrepresented in key creative and technical positions. So, by that I mean the number of directors who were women, the number of producers and the number of writers- particularly behind the camera.  But we also looked very closely at the number of women who were in lead roles, that is, driving the stories, the key protagonists in films on screen.  Again we saw a severe under representation. So fast forward thirty years to now, there’s a groundswell of interest in this same concern with underrepresentation, and we’ve seen marginal improvement – very, very little.  Over those years, the statistics now show 16% of all directors are women, so still well short of the numbers that it should be. We’ve got around 23 % of all writers are women, and around 32% of all producers. These are particularly important roles because they drive the kind of stories that we see on screen and it influences our culture. So it’s just patently absurd that there are so few women in these key creative roles.

The real difference between back then and now is that there’s a growing awareness of the importance of having women in leadership roles. So that is, the people who are actually green lighting the projects, who are on the programming teams or who are deciding what goes into cinema screens every week, what goes on television screens, what goes on to all of our devices predominantly are men. That focus is something that is very, very welcome and that’s what we’re trying to change because it’s all very well to encourage more women writers, producers and directors, but if their work is not being green lit, and is not getting to audiences, then it’s an absolute waste of time. The other area that has not changed in thirty years is the number of women protagonists on screen. That is, the women who are in lead acting roles, or whose stories are driving the work on screen. So back thirty years ago, it was less than 25% of all stories that were driven by women, it’s still the same today.  So that’s a real cause for concern as well.

LM: Getting women’s stories out there and on our screens seems to be a major focus of your work. Why? And was this always your aim?

SM: It is an important issue and it has always been my aim to have more women’s voices heard and more women sitting around the table deciding what should go on our screens because it affects our culture. It affects the way that we see the world. Most of the media that we engage with on screen ask us to look at the world through male eyes. It’s been written by men, produced by men, directed by men and are stories about men. We see this as normal, it is not normal. It’s not reflective of the real world experience. And even while work on screen is in the world of heightened reality – often fantasy, our dreams and desires – that makes it even more important that there should be a women’s perspective and a women’s voice on screen. So yes, I do see it as incredibly important that we start to shift this perspective. And it’s not just what’s happening on screen. You know, it’s fascinating to look at the work, for instance, that has been coming out of the United States where they’ve looked at when films or television are released, who are actually the critics, the film critics writing about that work? Meryl Streep led the charge last year when she actually got some researchers in to break down the gender balance across all of the major reviewers in the States. They came up with a figure that was 85% male and 15% female reviewers. So even when women do get to make work then its released in an environment which again looks at that through a largely male perspective.

Long before a film reaches the screen, a producer has to actually raise the money and convince the market place that there’s an audience for that film. So in the case of Japanese Story and in the case of The Dressmaker, it was a really tough thing, because I’m  going out into a market place that’s very much skewed towards wanting films that are led by male stories and male actors. So the crazy thing is that even in the case of The Dressmaker, from the title you know that this is a film that’s largely skewed female and unabashedly so. I would get the response ‘sounds like a really interesting idea Sue, but it’s very female skewed’ – as if that’s a negative. And I talked to a number of distributors, and the distributer I ended up working with was Universal Pictures because they were the only company that was interested in seriously talking to me about women as a commercial demographic. Being a woman, I know that women go to the movies, we love going to the movies and we go to the movies in groups, we take our friends, we talk about movies, we take our partners, husbands, whatever, but women do go to the movies.  Yet our tastes and our sensibilities are not being catered for. I was really fascinated to talk to Universal who jumped on to this and have had a string of films going back to MammaMia!, Bridesmaids, Fifty Shades of Grey, Trainwreck, you name it, where they went after that female audience and these are really high-grossing movies. So I was thrilled in the end that The Dressmaker was released and it became a hugely successful commercial film. One of the most successful Australian films ever, the eleventh highest. Literally just coming outside of Crocodile Dundee, Mad Max all of those boysy films, The Dressmaker is right up there with them. And we’ve been able to demonstrate, quite clearly, that there is a commercial market place for films that are unabashedly targeted towards female audiences.

LM: Right now, women seem to be kicking goals both on and off screen in Australia. Are there any women in film or women-led projects that you are excited about at the moment? Why?

SM: What I’m especially excited by is the fact that there’s a whole range of women-driven funding programs around now, because there’s a real genuine engagement and interest in getting behind stories by and about women. For instance, Screen Australia launched its ‘Gender Matters’ program late last year and took away all of the normal barriers that usually sit in place that really cut women out, and said we want you to come forward with your ideas; for film, for television, for online digital work. They were overwhelmed by the response, like hundreds and hundreds of projects came through in this one-off special fund to try and kick-start women led projects and a lot of really, really exciting projects are now in development. It will take another two to three years before we start to see these films actually on our screens because it just takes that long, but the exciting thing about that is that the market place can no longer say ‘oh we’re just not getting enough of those kind of projects coming through’ anymore, they cannot use that excuse anymore. So that’s the thing I’m most excited about, that there’s just this groundswell of really exciting new work that will come onto screens over the next two to four years.

LM: Lastly, what makes you hopeful that we will break through gender bias in the arts?

SM: The thing that makes me hopeful is that this is no longer a marginal issue. It’s a central issue that’s been taken up by men and women alike and it’s across the board. That’s the thing that gives me hope. That, together with the realisation that women are a driving force in audiences. There’s a lot of women out there that will respond very strongly to screen content that’s targeted towards them and has gutsy, interesting, complex female characters. You know, that is a game changer and if we can now couple the audience drive and demand for these together with change in the leadership of having more women at the table deciding what gets made, that’s where we’ll start to see genuine change going forward. I hope in the next twenty years we will see equal numbers of male and female driven projects on our screens and an equal number of male and female stories.