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Memo to Women Screenwriters: Man Up!

by Nancy Nigrosh
April 14, 2014 3:46 PM
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Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham

Why do so few scripts written by women receive high ratings on The Black List? This is mainly a problem for feature scripts, but highlighted television pilots also project a dim ratio.

As a service, The Black List has consistently been ahead of the curve but presently, it's right in sync with 2013's bleaker-than-usual, dismal "celluloid ceiling" report. Is the shrinking percentage of women screenwriters now seen as just business as usual, a reflection of our societal malaise? Or are women screenwriters actually doing something to fuel the inequity?

I doubt an old school research tool like listing all writers by their first initial would change the numbers much. It's the genre-skirting "logline" that gives the women away, demonstrating what separates the girls from the boys. These self-congratulatory summaries border on dimorphism which, in the animal kingdom, distinguishes between male and female appearance.

An illuminated "premise," on the other hand, has to work to gain advocacy with lasered, clear-cut genre as its engine. Agents prefer the term "premise." A solid premise indicates something durable that actually has a shot at getting across the Hollywood player minefield, while a weak one won't make it through the many hoops it takes to get all the way to the bank.

Megan Ellison
Megan Ellison

The Bechdel Test launched 1,000 righteous infographics illustrating the tried-and-true -- and sometimes false -- business model of male-centric "programmers," clearly labeling blame on male decision-makers.  What if those charts and graphs were interpreted another way? What if they were seen simply as stats for a losing team? If that were so, why wouldn't that team re-think its overall strategy? Instead of a self-pitying document, why not make the annual Celluloid Ceiling report an occasion for a call to arms?

Instead, women marginalize and dig themselves further into girly ghettos like the well-intentioned Athena Film Festival. Read their selected "winning" script loglines and weep.

However, maybe all isn't lost. Some women have accumulated serious cred and it'll be fun to see what they do with it. But what they need in order to push ahead are scripts.

In 2014, Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison became the first woman, and only the fourth person in history, to receive two Best Picture nominations in a single year, for "Her" and "American Hustle," whose star Jennifer Lawrence has so far totally escaped the second sex box. "White House Down" writer Laeta Kalogridis enjoys a robust career flexing her ability to wield Ocham's razor, as does Kathryn Bigelow. But this is not a long list of serious women players. 

Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling

Women are finding easier footing in TV. "Orange Is the New Black" and "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan loves a good crime while "Grey's Anatomy" exec Shonda Rhimes kicks silk-sheet-covered ass. In Ann Biderman's neo-noir, LA-set "Ray Donovan," women are just as strong and complexly weak as the men. There are also those who're impressively talented enough to invest in, and redefine, the traditionally safe real estate of "womantic" comedy, from Tina Fey and Mindy Kalling to the baddest "it girl" of them all, Lena Dunham.

Are women writers afraid of being "typed"? The fear of being typed based on looks is a reasonable concern that women are all too familiar with, but fuzzy genre identification or outright genre-switching is a recipe for failure, since professional identity isn't a shape-shifting guessing game. This is well-known in television, where writers and producers are deliberately in sync, while studios are unanimously clear about the primacy, and necessity, of genre, which their infrastructures need in order to thrive. Audiences show up for male and/or female superstars who earn accordingly. Ironically, screenwriter Paul Schrader's observation that "a screenplay isn't a work of art. It's an invitation to other artists to collaborate" fits the television model better than it does for feature films, which have long been his wheelhouse.

Even the women on studio greenlight committees exploit the gender parity for their own gain, so the ball is ultimately in the writers' court. If there were more plentiful scripts written by women with clearly identified genre skills, the gender factor could disappear, as it does with novels, journalism, music, photography or any other creative discipline. The formula for what works is really about the writer's ability to compete. As in any thriller, when the protagonist's existence is threatened, the only chance to survive is to use killer instinct. Rip a page from the "Veronica Mars" playbook, hold the door open for yourself and don't let the ceiling hit you on the way in.


  • Vita | April 20, 2014 12:56 PMReply

    As I reflect on the recent Pulitzer Prize announcements and note that it is a woman who has won Best in Literature and Best in Plays and that all four finalists in Theatre were in fact women, I consider how women have so clearly dominated these fields of creative writing while seemingly lagging behind in script writing. Fewer woman simply feel inclined to write scripts and more to write books and plays. Boys have driven the box office for some time on Friday nights but we all know that is changing. Girls are going out together on weekends and no longer waiting for a date while boys have begun to stay home - aka the X Box Factor- to play games. More women go to plays and read fiction. Maybe it's as simple as this: when girls dominate the box office, more films will be written by women. The future is coming.

  • GKN | April 18, 2014 6:09 AMReply

    Have to agree, those 'winning' loglines are dreadful, and do represent the self-pitying vein too many women fall into with their scripts (although Showtime seems to eat them up, don't they?) The other dreadful vein I see too frequently is the 'girls aping male action-figures' type of story. The trouble with both is an obvious lack of maturity and confidence. But surely you know as well as I that scripts avoiding both, and with more interesting things to say, do not get produced more easily produced because of it. Was told again just this week that one of mine (which he qualified as a 'masterpiece' on first read) will never get produced in today's market (after trying for 6 months. And I've been at it for 2 years, just on this one). You can only sell what's been seen a hundred times. So, much as I deplore it, I can no longer fault people sticking to clichés and stereotypes quite so stridently.

  • Jennine Lanouette | April 16, 2014 1:34 PMReply

    I beg to differ: There are two ways to look at lack of female representation in this world. There is the women's rights perspective, which demands that women get equal opportunity and equal pay for their own benefit. Then there is the gender balance perspective, which strives for more female representation in arenas of power in order to counterbalance masculine impulses towards hierarchy, competition, aggression and dominance with feminine impulses towards equilibrium, cooperation, safety and communication. I'm not sure telling women to write more genre screenplays is going to significantly contribute to our dire collective need to bring the current social, economic and environmental extremes into greater balance.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | April 16, 2014 9:39 PM

    Women’s rights isn’t at issue here. There are no legislated or unlegislated restrictions to lobby California’s state government for…..women do have ‘the right’ to be employed in Hollywood. Neither is there a gender balance issue or counterbalance of masculine issues at issue since women writers have exactly the same opportunities as men to become employed.
    There could and should be more women who act like the exceptional women who are not only working but impacting our national culture, the likes of whom I’ve cited here. They have figured out how to be successful in a notoriously inopportune workplace. Nevertheless women writers, more than any other player, don’t act in their own best interests. “Man up” to me simply means facing any divergent reality, ignoring the pain, and mercilessly taking responsibility. What if I’d said “mensch up”- would that be any easier to accept?

  • L.Camino | April 15, 2014 1:59 PMReply

    Horrible title..."Man Up!" is a ridiculous term, not to mention feeds the notion that women need to gender swap in order to achieve success.

  • L.Camino | April 15, 2014 2:16 PM

    It does Nancy. Thanks for the clarification, although I still dislike the term. Your article did manage to raise some good points about defining genres, and eradicating gender bias.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | April 15, 2014 2:03 PM

    L. Camino,
    The notion I wanted to feed by the reference isn't about a gender swap but an attitude swap.
    Hope that clarifies.

  • Katerina Curtis | April 15, 2014 1:47 PMReply

    To Nancy Nigrosh: Nancy as a writer/director with appropriate cohones, having sweated years to create a visceral film about our society, am pleased to read your article but wonder whether we women really support each other. How do I get featured in Indiewire when I can't get even through to anyone? Most women's forums say ' tweet us'. Most media outlets direct your mail in spam. I can't even post link as it takes it to spam. So allow me to direct you to kickstarter, on the feature film Marriage. If you can't even reply to this message Nancy, then its a case of words not actions and words never changed the world. Please check it out. Thank you , Kat

  • Nancy Nigrosh | April 15, 2014 2:23 PM

    I can see from your kickstarter page that you definitely have the makings of a film I’d want to see. I don’t agree though, that words can’t change the world, because all action – good or bad - is generated from words. That’s why writers have such potential to help effect all kinds of cultural influence, for the better or the worse, one reader (or viewer) at a time. NN

  • HW | April 14, 2014 9:03 PMReply

    This really has nothing to do with the types of movies women buy tickets to see and nothing to do with female executives and everything to do with the pool of aspiring screenwriters from which the Black List is selected. This pool is overwhelmingly male, something like 70%-80%, which is consistent with the male-female ratio of applicants to the Nicholl Fellowships.

    Why is the pool of aspiring screenwriters so predominantly male? It's actually an interesting question, but this article completely misses the point and doesn't really offer anything useful to the discussion. There is no Male Gaze Bias selecting scripts written by men over those written by women, for whatever reason women just aren't writing scripts.

  • HW | April 15, 2014 12:39 AM

    This stuff is pretty easy to find. I can't post a link, but just go to the Nicholl Fellowship's webpage and click on "By the Numbers." So far in 2014 about 2,400 primary applicants have been men and about 800 have been women. Math is math.

  • Jon | April 15, 2014 12:23 AM

    Prove it

  • GurlSad | April 14, 2014 7:55 PMReply

    here's the reality: women and men go see films that are masculine. women see films that are feminine but not men. if female filmmakers really wanted to kill the inequity, try writing a film that is gender neutral. I'm a woman, btw.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | April 15, 2014 1:56 PM

    That men don't see films that are feminine wasn't the reality in the past when films ruled the entertainment roost. There were just as many women as men who commanded star status, and all of them had huge followings of both men and women. Most of the amazing actresses from that past have been forgotten so nobody references them much. Of all the women who used to wield considerable power in Hollywood, the greatest example would have to be Mary Pickford, who co-founded a studio, United Artists, as an equal partner to three of the most powerful guys in the business at the time, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith. In that sense there were once days when films actually were gender neutral because the audience had such a big appetite for both genders. The only folks who can possibly make this true again are women screenwriters since clearly male screenwriters have created the unbreakable male-centric reality you cite. All of the women I referenced in the article are creating work that includes and invites a male audience.

  • Whatever | April 14, 2014 7:07 PMReply

    Wow. I think this writer is seriously misguided in the opinion (not supported by any real statistics) that women aren't writing genre work. The fact is, they are. Women go to film school in EQUAL NUMBERS to men, and it's clear from the minimal statistics of successful women we have available to us that they are definitely writing genre pieces (look to TV to see women in writers' rooms ranging from Game of Thrones to The Wire). But look beyond screenwriting to female writers IN GENERAL, and we come across literally thousands writing in mystery, noir, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, and other "hard genre" literature across the board. So it's easy and petty and ridiculous victim-blaming to assume that women are just "not writing" the right kinds of things. As a professional reader, who reads thousands of scripts and novels each year, it is VERY CLEAR to me that women ARE writing genre novels, films, and TV pilots in droves.

    First, women in Hollywood are generally EXPECTED to write rom-coms or romantic dramedies (as a woman who prefers writing action thrillers, I find this gross, but it is what it is). So there's some pre-existing ghetto-ization there. Women are expected to NOT be able to write genre projects, so are generally not even put on lists for OWAs when those projects come up (or when many projects come up).

    Second, they're not receiving nearly the same amount of mentorship or guidance that men are in the film industry. You can literally watch the trickle-off effect immediately after schooling, where men are promoted over women, are given more funding for projects, and are trained in more hands-on approaches.

    It's extremely myopic to blame the victim of the pre-existing social structures FOR those structures existing, however.

    Much of the existing stats DO have to do with preconceived notions; women are trained not to apply to things until they feel 100% qualified. Men are trained to apply when they feel only 30% qualified. So - some of that DOES have to do with readjusting social programming (and some of that programming, sure, probably does tell women to write about princesses and white knights and difficult parenting/relationships).

    That said, problem isn't that women aren't writing the "right kinds" of stories. Women are writing all kinds of stories.

    And, at the end of the day, we should have space in Hollywood for both romantic dramas and high-action sci-fi "space operas." As a professional reader, good writing is good writing - no matter the genre, style, tone, or concept. It's all the execution. And that has nothing to do with gender.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | April 15, 2014 1:33 PM

    Thanks for your very detailed response.
    We agree, pretty much (though not entirely)...the 'loglines' I see from women writers generally fall into the ‘ghetto’ categories or meander into being non genre specific. Women writers have also told me how they “hate to be typed” and avoid a writing business plan that would offer transparent assessment of their best literary skills. There is an astounding belief the business should allow for unfettered attraction to any and all genres depending on the writer’s mood.
    The women who do succeed are the ones who identify early on clearly with a single genre and completely master it, live it, breathe it and in doing so, find their professional community. In an effort to be unmistakable, I’ll offer male writer/director Ang Lee as an example of what to actually do to succeed, since so few women have followed this foolproof formula. His consistent genre is love story: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution; Sense and Sensibility; Life of Pi, etc. Everyone knows exactly what he has to offer as a storyteller, he wears it on his sleeve.
    Look into the careers of virtually any of the very successful woman in this town and it’s the same clearly marked track. Armed with that creative clarity and professional community (male and female), these souls exercise formidable personalities who show up with a just as clear public identity. They are all very educated about the business (something screenwriters get typical short shrift in film schools), including a solid grasp of what agents actually do, and bottom line, they charge ahead and get ahead, meaning they don’t hit their heads looking up.

  • HW | April 14, 2014 10:33 PM

    I would offer a few corrections. Not sure of your source re: women going to film school in equal numbers as men, but it's not really relevant because film school includes everything from producing to costuming to production design, and the issue here is the pool of aspiring and pre-professional SCREENWRITERS, which continues to be predominantly male regardless of overall film school figures.

    Second, not sure the point about men and women having different standards about feeling qualified to do something is relevant to trying to become a screenwriter, because the bar is SO LOW. There is literally no barrier to entry to something like the Nicholl Fellowships. Submit your script online and pay $40 or whatever. That's it.

    The level of "mentorship" and "guidance" required to try screenwriting is also nonexistent. Ask the winners of the Nicholl Fellowships and the writers on the Black List how much professional mentorship and guidance they received before their big break. For most of them the answer is virtually none. They sit in front of a computer and write. And write. And write. And eventually they write something good and someone notices.

    You make some valid points about climbing the film career ladder in general -- for instance become a producer or agent -- but screenwriting is a different animal from those types of careers.

  • KILL THE MEN! | April 14, 2014 4:23 PMReply


  • C Craig | April 16, 2014 3:20 PM

    Nancy, I have always admired Ang Lee as someone who continues to explore new genres, not as someone whose "consistent genre is love story: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution; Sense and Sensibility; Life of Pi, etc. Everyone knows exactly what he has to offer as a storyteller, he wears it on his sleeve.”

    Just googling Ang Lee + genre I immediately found David Minnihan's excellent article in Senses of Cinema, where he supports his comment that "Lee is known mostly for his chameleon-like diversity whereby each film is an entirely different genre and subject from the previous one. However, every choice he makes further refines his singular exploration of the relationship between society and the individual, or outsider. "

  • me | April 14, 2014 4:19 PMReply

    I really don't understand what's happened to the word "female". "Memo to female screenwriters.." sounds so much better

  • hmm | April 19, 2014 7:42 PM

    Try telling this to any of the organizations that are supposed to help women get a foothold in the industry... there's a very negative attitude towards genre in the indie film community, which perpetuates women making amazing films that will never get them hired for a studio film.

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