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Melissa Silverstein

by Xenia Shin

Melissa Silverstein. Photo courtesy of the Athena Film Festival.
Melissa Silverstein. Photo courtesy of the Athena Film Festival.
My cameraman and I are in New York, searching at the last minute for a space to film our interview with Melissa Silverstein, the Brooklyn-born-and-raised, Barbara Streisand-idolizing, feminist firebrand who founded the Indiewire blog, Women and HollywoodOur original shooting location has fallen through, and I’m discovering there is an unknowable number of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Locals crack up when I pronounce Gowanus [gu-WAH-nes, as I later find out] with a reference to human anatomy. I’m from L.A., alright?

We finally manage to get a space in Bushwick. The relief is short-lived when, hours later, a heart-stopping e-mail from Melissa informs me it will be a nightmare to get there by 6 o’clock from Park Slope: “I thought the interview was in DUMBO.” [Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, for us non-Brooklynites.] I am momentarily stunned, as a behatted elephant flies languid circles in my head, flapping giant-sized ears.

Women and Hollywood

Soon, geographical confusions are dispelled, car transportation is arranged and, happily for us, Melissa Silverstein arrives; her first time in Bushwick! she announces.

When I’d originally suggested on the phone that we shoot the interview in the offices of Women and Hollywood, she replied: “My bedroom is my office.”

In person, she seems amused by my misstep: “People think Women and Hollywood - not to burst anyone’s bubble - is a big operation. I get e-mails all the time, like ‘If you could have someone at Women and Hollywood take care of blah blah blah…’ I’m like reeeally? OK!”

“But it’s really not a big operation, even today. There’s a news editor; there’s an intern. We have some funding from an investor — a supporter is a better word for it — and we make a little bit of income from the advertising.”

It should be understandable that, erm, I might have asked if her assistant could send me her availability, because Women and Hollywood IS big. In the landscape of women’s issues, Silverstein’s voice is powerful because of its laser-like focus on gender representation and diversity in the entertainment industry.

Melissa with Kitty Kolbert, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, and Jodie Foster, recipient Laura Zaskin Lifetime Achievement Award (Photo: Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival. Credit: Jodie Chiang)
Melissa with Kitty Kolbert, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, and Jodie Foster, recipient Laura Zaskin Lifetime Achievement Award (Photo: Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival. Credit: Jodie Chiang)
In addition to the blog, she has been raising the visibility of women filmmakers through her column on Forbes, her book, In Her Voice, a compilation of interviews with forty women directors, as well as the International Women’s Festival Network, a clearinghouse of women’s film festivals. Women and Hollywood made it to Forbes’ 100 Best Websites for Women list for three years in a row, where it was rousingly described as “Melissa Silverstein’s call to arms.”

The mission of Women and Hollywood, she says, is:

 “to highlight women’s voices. That’s one of the things I discovered early on. Put women out there because there are not enough role models that will talk about these issues and that are seen visibly in public. Studies have shown that when you ask people what a director looks like, they basically describe Steven Spielberg.”

So how does she fight this semiotic battle against the director as beard and baseball cap? “We put out as many women’s faces as we can. If a woman gets a directing deal, I’m always going to write a post about that because so few women have opportunities to direct in Hollywood.” The numbers are abysmally low. 

“Statistics show that only 6% of the top 250 grossing films in 2013 were directed by women,” she says. “So we really need to keep pushing that and pushing that and let people know that we need more opportunities for women’s voices to be heard.”

The Flamethrower

Melissa started working with feminist organizations (the Ms. Foundation, the White House Project, the Women’s Media Center) out of college, and was, even then, the torch-bearer for pop culture.

“One of the things I always brought to the table was to talk about how you can reach people through pop culture. So, going to all these meetings I would say, ‘Did you watch this show on TV? Have you see this movie?’ And people would look at me like I was crazy. But I would always say this is how people live; this is what they connect to; this is how they’re accessible; and you can talk to them about issues through media.”

I ask her what she thinks about the feminist backlash (e.g., #womenagainstfeminism). 

“Feminism has gotten a bad name because it’s actually done a really good job. It’s really hard to make change.”

“I’m a third wave feminist,” she adds. “I’ve been working with this issue since the early ‘90s. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever calling myself a feminist because feminism means that you want equality — that’s all it means. I think the world will be a better place if women have a bigger voice in leadership.”
Melissa with Kitty Kolbert, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, and Jodie Foster, recipient Laura Zaskin Lifetime Achievement Award (Photo: Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival. Credit: Jodie Chiang)
Melissa with Kitty Kolbert, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, and Jodie Foster, recipient Laura Zaskin Lifetime Achievement Award (Photo: Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival. Credit: Jodie Chiang)
She feels fortunate to have been in New York around the women who birthed the women’s movement and who have been working on change since the ‘60s and ‘70s:

“I’ve been in their houses; I’ve had drinks with them. I’m a very lucky person. But I also know that this is their life. They have been doing this for 50 years.”

Like them, she’s in it for the long haul. “When people say ‘Oh, there are 15 women directors at the Cannes Film Festival. Why are you even talking about this issue?’ I say, ‘It’s because there are 58 men.’ That’s why I’m talking about this issue.”

"I would always say this is how people live; 
this is what they connect to; this is how they’re 
accessible; and you can talk to them about issues through media.”

“You never stop when you make one step forward,” she continues. “In this business, what I have noticed over the 6.5 years of doing it is that we do make some steps forward in the larger conversation. But the numbers still don’t shift.”

“We need to keep pushing these conversations. I am going to be, as I call myself, the flamethrower. I’m going to go out there; I’m going throw the flame; I’m going start the conversation.”

The Athena Film Festival

It was on the night that Melissa brought together two legendary women that the Athena Film Festival was conceived. I ask her how it happened: 

“[Women’s rights activist] Gloria Steinem and [filmmaker] Jane Campion are two of my total heroes. When I was doing events, and when Jane Campion released Bright Star, they wanted an event and I came up with the idea. They had never met before. I was just in the right place, right time.”

“Kitty Kolbert, whom I had known from my work at the Ms. Foundation, had just come to Barnard College and started the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard. She is also an entrepreneurial big thinker and a lot of the women in the room were talking about the lack of opportunities to make the films they wanted, films about strong women. We talked afterwards, and she was like ‘let’s do a film festival.’” She and Kitty co-founded the festival, with Melissa acting as the artistic director. 

Melissa realized that the Athena Film Festival, which highlights films for and about women, was the perfect extension of her advocacy at Women and Hollywood. The festival focuses on women’s leadership in a broad sense, in the spheres of career, family and the world.

In 2015, the festival recognized Jodie Foster with a lifetime achievement award for her trailblazing presence in front of and behind the camera. Also recognized were director Gina Prince-Bythewood, HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins and Mandalay Pictures president, Cathy Schulman.

The festival closed with Difret, a film about an Ethiopian girl who resists being abducted into marriage, which Silverstein felt epitomized women’s leadership. “What we want to do is make people think about how important it is to have women’s leadership all across our culture, using films, conversations, and discussions to make people really think about this in another way.”

Barbara Streisand

I ask her how her interest in feminism started. “I think my earliest memory of this issue goes back to way before even thinking about the project, it has to do with when I was a teenager.” It was at this time, when her mother was playing Elvis records, that she found Barbara Streisand.

“All of a sudden I discovered this woman who was this amazing singer, and then I discovered all her movies.” She begged her parents to take her to see Yentl, the story of a Polish Jewish girl who dresses like a man so she can be educated in the Talmud: “I was the youngest [in the audience] by like 40 years or something and I watched this movie and I was completely transported.”

As the credits rolled, she realized, “here was this woman who was the director, the producer, the co-writer, the star! And I was amazed that a woman could do all these things. I had never even thought about all that before in all the times I had been consuming media. And that stuck in my head for a long time.”

She talks about the struggles Streisand faced as a director, even as one of the biggest stars in 1983: “They told her that if she went over budget, and it was a minuscule budget, that she would have to give back half of her acting salary.”

I am going to be, as I call myself, the flamethrower. I’m 
going to go out there; I’m going throw the flame; 
I’m going start the conversation.”

“It is very difficult for women to get into these positions,” she says, noting that Streisand has not gotten her due. “No one treats her directing as something of substance. Prince of Tides” — Melissa pauses and nods with a little look of pride — “received a lot of accolades, but she has never been nominated for an Oscar for directing.”
Melissa Silverstein. Photo: Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival.
Melissa Silverstein. Photo: Courtesy of the Athena Film Festival.
So, she continues to push: 

“We need gender equality in the entertainment business because it’s right for our culture and it’s democratic, as Jane Campion said. She said there’s something undemocratic about the fact that women are not able to get into enough positions of authority in directing and other areas, to [be able to] see themselves and tell the stories that women want to tell.”

So, You Want To Be A Blogger

When she was working at the Women’s Media Center around 2006, she became interested in the blogosphere (“people write and become experts”). She registered Women and Hollywood on Blogger, and started out posting a lot of links. She smiles: “At first it was quite awful, I have to say.”

It was when she went to a women’s blogging conference that she realized, “Oh, you really have to put yourself out there” and that she had something to say: “I think once I really owned my voice it started to take off.”

She says it’s difficult to make a career out of blogging unless you sell something, are hired by someone to blog, or ultimately sell your blog: “Blogging really is a passion project.” At first she was making no money, living under the radar with “a lot of frugality.” She did marketing for films and freelanced: “All these different kinds of things that could bring the worlds together and connect the passion that I had for this issue with ways to generate income.”

However, the passion led her to become entrepreneurial when she didn’t know she had it in her: “I look at myself now as a businessperson because I have created something from nothing. Like, literally, nothing.”

She says that as people look to Women and Hollywood more and more as a leader in the space, she’s trying to figure out how it can grow: “We’re in a new world now and you don’t have to institutionalize yourself in the same way, in the same non-profit structures that have existed before.”

She’s gained a fiscal sponsor through which she can accept grants, trying not to get bogged down in administrative issues: “If I have to spend my time dealing with structural issues, then I won’t be able to do my work. So we are a lean, mean, fighting machine.”

Hollywood

I ask her how to get people to pay attention to the issue of gender representation and racial diversity in Hollywood. She ponders the question: “You’ve got to get the big stars, right? You’ve got to do stuff that people do for cancer.”

“Women’s jobs in Hollywood, [this] is not cancer research; let’s be clear about that. This is not life and death here. But it is really important for people to be able to see all different kinds of stories because stories are global now.”

In fact, according to Women and Hollywood, 70% of all tickets to Hollywood studio films are now bought outside the U.S. “You have a kid in a country in Africa, and they wear a t-shirt that has a Star Wars logo or Batman logo and they talk about soccer and David Beckham and McDonalds… This is what people know — global brands. And these movies are released everywhere. So when we don’t have women involved in them, it affects the entire world.”

“The numbers aren’t moving. The conversation is clearly heightened, and has been going on at the grassroots levels for a long time, [but] until one of the studios steps up and hires a woman to direct a superhero movie, we’re still going to be having this conversation. Maybe even after that first movie gets made. There have only been four women who have had budgets of over a hundred million dollars, and they have all been animated movies.”

She notes that “this is a profound discrimination issue,” with most big players in Hollywood believing they are “just hiring the best person for the job.” When Peter Cramer, co-president of production at Universal, was asked in an LA Times interview about the scarcity of female directors at the Oscars, he responded that “The challenge on studio films is to find someone who has directed a movie of a similar size, scope and scale before.”

This is a good time to review what a catch-22 is: How can you gain that qualifying experience if - due to an unacknowledged bias - you can’t get hired? As recent research following blind auditions for orchestra seats suggests, “While explicit discrimination certainly exists, perhaps the more arduous task is to eliminate our implicit biases — the ones we don’t even realize we have.”

Silverstein points out this implicit bias in a blog post that discusses several men who bypassed the catch-22: Robert Stromberg (Maleficent), Wally Pfister (Transcendence), Robert Orci (Star Trek), Andy Serkis (Jungle Book) — all first-time directors with no prior directing experience.

Women writers face the same dilemma as women directors. If women are seen as more of a financial risk, they won’t have big enough budgets to get into enough theaters, so that investors won’t recoup their investments–perpetuating the bias against women. According to Women and Hollywood, women wrote only 17% of the top 250 grossing films of 2014. “Women are really left out, and older women in particular,” she says. “The problem is that [this] philosophy is completely disconnected from the reality of the world we live in: women buy half of the tickets; women are over half the moviegoers.”

“I also want to talk about the importance of race,” she adds. “I talk about women but I don’t want to talk about white women, I want to talk about all women. I’m clearly a white person, but what I have really tried to do at Women and Hollywood is to bring in other voices. I feel like the more diversity we have, of all women and men of color, makes us a better culture.”

She notes that when studios have diversity hires “the women do not get any of those positions. They hire a lot of men of color. So a lot of women are pushing to have a pro-active position where they hire women.”

“You don’t want to pit people who have 0.0% of these jobs against each other. Everybody should be working together. It’s not men of color versus white women. That is what sometimes this conversation seems to be. It can’t be that. Everyone needs to figure out how to get in there.”
The Magic Bullet

I ask her about the differences between making change in Hollywood and the non-profit space. She notes that with issues like economic justice or reproductive rights people work as colleagues, organizing around an issue, finding funders, and devising strategies to make change.

This is what people know — global brands. And these movies 
 are released everywhere. So when we don’t have women involved 
 in them, it affects the entire world.”

It is more difficult to make change in Hollywood, she notes, because: 

 “People get hired on films; they get hired on TV shows. You go over to your silo. There are organizations that are working on these issues like Women in Film organizations all across the world and they support women working in the business and they advocate. Their jobs are to help women get into the business.”

At the end of the day, however, “It’s the people at the studios that have to make the change.” She says her efforts to push the envelope is helped by research from institutions like Sundance, where, for example, they are researching why women filmmakers fall off the tracks after their first film.

As though she is reading my mind, she says emphatically that she also wonders “What is THE thing we can do that will make the change? I don’t have that answer. I wish I did. But I’m going to look for it.”

***

It is time to go. The folks at the co-working space invite us to join them for a beer in the garden outside, which we regretfully decline.

I ask Melissa if she ever had a moment of doubt about the path she took. She tells me: “A woman I used to work for, Marie Wilson at The White House Project, told me, ‘This is what you were meant to do.’ And it is. And in some way it is really hard to say that out loud because we are not very good, as women, at owning our power.”

“I don’t feel like a powerful person in any way but I feel like I have an idea. And it just rocks and rolls some days, and some days it’s just a slog. But I feel that it makes a difference.”

Page created on 2/26/2016 9:09:36 PM

Last edited 2/26/2016 9:09:36 PM

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Women and Hollywood - Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor, educates, advocates, and agitates for gender parity across the entertainment industry.