The ChangeMakers List:
30 Women Who Saved
Entertainment in 2020
By Mary Murphy & Michele Willens
It was a year like no other. Cameras were turned off, theaters went dark, deals were halted and dreams were put on hold. And then there was the necessary reckoning engendered by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The entertainment community took on the role of second responders: Reunions of TV and movie casts and virtual performances of all types raised awareness of and funds for heroic health care providers. At the same time, almost every media entity looked closely at staffs and projects to make sure that the reel reflected the real.
At The Wrap’s third annual Power Women Summit, we inaugurated the ChangeMakers list, comprised of women who not only survived a challenging year, but soared. Many more could be included, but we selected a group, ranging in age from teens to octogenarians, which includes executives who said yes to stories that mattered and producers, directors and actors who brought those stories to life. And there are those who influenced in short, spirited, socially distanced ways.
We salute women who managed to make impact in an unforgettable 2020, and who will no doubt continue to do so as we enter a new, and let’s hope much better, year.
It was apparently not enough that she won a Supporting Actress Oscar in 2019 for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and an Emmy (her fourth) in 2020 for playing a masked cop fighting racism in HBO’s acclaimed limited series “Watchmen.” Regina King has now made her feature directing debut with “One Night in Miami,” based on the true story of the night Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay (soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali), Jim Brown and Malcolm X spent drinking, arguing and discussing their roles in society.
It took some chutzpah to run a set with all those alpha males — but just as she’d vowed in her acceptance speech when she won the Golden Globe for “Beale Street,” King made sure that the talent she hired for her film was as diverse as possible: more than 70% were women, people of color or members of the LGBTQ community. “I almost wish that I’d have done it and then talked about it, instead of making that promise in my speech,” she told TheWrap. “But it’s good that I came out and said it, because I think it helped inspire other people.”
She was born in Beijing and yet may have just directed the most American of movies. Chloé Zhao won the Golden Lion Award this year at the Venice Film Festival (the first woman in a decade to do so) for the new drama “Nomadland.” Zhao and her star, Frances McDormand, spent four months traveling the American West in an RV in preparation for the Searchlight-distributed film about people cut adrift in the economy. And talk about your one-two punch: In February, Zhao’s next film, the superhero story “The Eternals,” will be released. Among other things, it is the first Marvel film to include an LGBTQ relationship.
A graduate of NYU, Zhao, 38, is clearly on the path to more recognition. One fan among many is Ava DuVernay, who says it all: “Her work shines so bright, it burns my eyes.”
Courtney A. Kemp
Courtney Kemp may have prompted the biggest TV series question since “Who killed J.R ?” In this case it was “Who killed Ghost?” in her Starz hit series Power. The series just concluded its final season, and Kemp is creating a “Power” Cinematic Universe with four upcoming spinoffs.
The “Power”-verse has always been driven by violent, corrupt male characters, but ironically, the audience is mostly female. With Kemp at the helm and female writer-producers in the rooms where it happens, her shows have featured female-driven narratives, especially her 2020 spinoff “Power Book II: Ghost” featuring a gun-toting Mary J. Blige and Naturi Naughton. But since one network isn’t enough, Kemp also has plans to develop a New York-based cop drama for HBO.
Alexis Martin Woodall
Alexis Martin Woodall is the president of Ryan Murphy Productions, which had a remarkable 2020. It produced “Hollywood,” a fictional look back at the industry’s early years; “Ratched,” a limited series about Ken Kesey’s monstrous nurse; the tenth season of “American Horror Story;” and the second season of “The Politician.” Not stopping with the airwaves, the company produced a Netflix version of the Broadway play “The Boys in the Band,” Murphy directed the upcoming musical “The Prom” and by November, the company was back in production on six different projects.
While Murphy is the name, Woodall plays a pivotal role in this year of the pivot. “Ryan and I have an almost preternatural connection,” she says. “We talk multiple times daily about everything under the sun, but we also both know when to give the other the space to complete what’s in front of them. I make a zillion decisions that never go in front of him, because I know what the goals are and he trusts my tastes and instincts to get them done.”
It was a good year for female documentary filmmakers: Kirsten Johnson won the Critics Choice Documentary Award for “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Garrett Bradley won raves for “Time” and Dawn Porter had both “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “The Way I See It.” Then there is Liz Garbus, former Oscar winner and Emmy nominee. She adapted Michelle McNamara’s book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” for HBO as a limited series. Sadly, McNamara died before the book was published. Her husband, Patton Oswalt, said she would have been pleased. “The documentary was exactly what we wanted it to be,” he told TheWrap, “the focus being on the victims and the hunters, and the way this insect haunted them. Liz was able to leap back and forth — sometimes across decades — without ever losing her footing.”
And along with co-director Lisa Cortes, Garbus also gave us “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a film about voter suppression that focuses on Georgia politician Stacey Abrams. “From the pandemic to the fate of our democracy, it feels like everything has been on the line in 2020,” said Garbus, who also finished her narrative feature debut, “Lost Girls.” “I think 2020 has taught us to take nothing for granted, that living in a compassionate society requires all of us to spend our time working on what really matters.”
Dawn Hudson & Christine Simmons
As the chief executive officer (Hudson) and chief operating officer (Simmons) of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, they led that organization’s year-long responses to both the COVID-19 crisis and the one on systemic inequality. They spearheaded task forces whose goal, they wrote, “is to make sure that conversations are being had about what women and people from underrepresented communities are being thought of for key positions.” The Oscars will also look different in the future, thanks to the Board of Governors passing new rules requiring that films contending for Best Picture meet inclusion standards both in front of and behind the camera–an initiative, the Academy said, that promises to “widen and reflect our diverse global population in both the creation of motion pictures and in the audiences that connect with them.”
As executive vice president and manager of entertainment banking at City National Bank, Henderson secured for her clients some 6,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans worth more than $800 million. Henderson said “the blizzard” of those who needed help was more than she’s seen in her 40 years of banking. More will be needed, but without these 2020 funds, many companies that make up the lifeblood of Hollywood would have doubtless closed their doors.
The Women of NBCUniversal:
It is a network run by women, including Bonnie Hammer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal, and Lisa Katz, president of scripted content, across the company’s eight networks and platforms. There are more, but we especially tip our hats to these leaders:
Susan Rovner, Frances Berwick
For the first time, NBC has two women at its helm. In just the last few months, Susan Rovner has been named chairman of entertainment content and Frances Berwick has been named chairman of entertainment networks — not only for NBC’s broadcast operations but for all the entertainment platforms in the NBCUniversal television and streaming portfolio: NBC, USA, Bravo, Oxygen, Syfy, Universal Kids, E! and Peacock.
Pearlena Igbokwe, a Nigerian-born graduate of Yale with an MBA from Columbia University, was elevated to chairman of the Universal Studio Group in September 2020. “When I came to this country as a kid, one of the ways I learned the culture and language was by watching television,” she told TheWrap.”I was just completely fascinated by it and I watched way too much of it. I got to college and saw a listing for a summer associate at NBC 30 Rock. My mind was blown that they paid you to work in television!”
From NBC, she moved to Showtime and then back to the NBC fold, and to Universal Television in 2016. “I knew how impactful television was,” she said, “and I made it my mission to become a decision-maker in this industry.” Her mission now, she said, is to “start breaking down silos among the individual studios and create a more collaborative environment among all of our teams. Even during this pandemic, where we’re isolated from one another, we are working much more collaboratively than ever before.”
The first British woman to head up a major studio gave us franchises like “The Fast and Furious.” But in 2020, Donna Langley may have saved — and been saved by — a species of animated characters who live in perpetual happiness until threatened. Langley, chairman of Universal’s Filmed Entertainment Group, audaciously decided to release “Trolls World Tour” via premium video on demand, bypassing theaters as the pandemic shut them down. The film earned Universal $100 million in streaming revenue, but infuriated theaters. Negotiations ultimately led to AMC Theatres and Cinemark agreeing to a reduced three-week time period for a new film to play in a theaters before going online (with exhibitors sharing some of that streaming revenue). Langley’s accomplishments also include making a five-year deal with Jordan Peele.
It may not be Rudolph Giuliani’s favorite movie, but a lot of others obviously disagree. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” has been watched by tens of millions of Amazon Prime subscribers, and the one it makes happiest is likely Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios. Being part of a global retailing powerhouse has made Salke well aware that, particularly during a time of pandemic, the goal is building on Amazon Prime’s streaming brand. She is thinking globally, as in deals with Nicole Kidman, Gael García Bernal and Brad Pitt’s Plan B. Not to mention staying in tune with the Black Lives Matter movement: Salke nabbed Lena Waithe from Showtime, has a nine-episode adaptation of “The Underground Railroad” from Barry Jenkins coming soon, and bought Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” opening shortly.
In the pre-COVID days, Salke flew to London to meet with Steve McQueen, who was looking for a streaming outlet for his “Small Axe” collection of films, which were set to air on the BBC. When he told her about his “very unique standalone movies,” she told TheWrap, she was sure the films would appeal to the diverse community of Prime viewers in more than 240 countries and territories. “I ended up going down the rabbit hole to do research and I realized that these are stories that needed to be told.”
Throughout her career at Twentieth Century Fox TV, at NBC Entertainment and now at Amazon, all companies in a moment of a downturn when she arrived, Salke delivered the same mandate: “Take big swings.” It was something she learned from her former Fox boss, Peter Chernin, who told her,” I would rather you do something big that fails than make something that plods along in obscurity.” Hence, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat.” “It was a big decision,” she said. “I had a stomachache. Sacha said it needed to be released before the election. People need to laugh at the stress and it turned out to be just what the doctor ordered” — for the country, and for her tummy.
It has been a year of musical chairs for female industry executives, but the most perfect fit yet may be Bela Bajaria’s being named head of global TV for Netflix. Her personal story alone is global and cinematic: She was born in London, spent her early years in Zambia and moved to the U.S. at the age of 8. Her move to Netflix followed a successful run as president of Universal Television, where, among other shows, she greenlit “The Mindy Project,” the first show to star a South Asian woman, Mindy Kaling.
The goal in her new post is not to spread the American way of life, but to expose Americans to the lives of others. The numbers prove that we are watching content in foreign languages, especially during a year like 2020. Netflix’s “Money Heist,” the Spanish thriller about the robbery of two of Spain’s legendary banking institutions, for example, reached some 65 million viewers in its four seasons. “Historically, Hollywood exported content to the world,” Bajaria told TheWrap. “Now we are telling stories from all around it.”
As a youngster, she rarely saw anyone that resembled her on a screen. “Growing up an Indian woman in America, I was never seeing myself on TV until (Parminder Nagra played a doctor on) ‘ER,'” she said. “Now, getting to be a part of all this story-telling, to see that happen, is wonderful. I go to the Netflix office in Mumbai and there are smart female executives. These are women who have worked in India as long as I have worked in America.”
Her show selection is varied. Kaling is executive producing “Never Have I Ever,” which 48 million households watched during its first month, 70% of them outside the U.S. Bajaria also brought the German show “Barbarians” to Netflix, as well as “Unorthodox,” a liberation story inside a Hasidic sect, and the reality show “Indian Matchmaking,” which she called “an interesting exploration of relationships through a different lens for a global audience.”
Is Bajaria the definition of the American Dream? “I am from an immigrant household,” she said. “When parents come to America with a dream, you feel a responsibility to make good on that. Somehow, I knew my frame of reference was different, I knew it was an asset. I did not try to assimilate or hide that part of me.”
Francesca Orsi & Amy Gravitt
And in 2020, the Emmy goes to … Francesca Orsi, Executive Vice President, HBO Programming, whose teams celebrated Emmy wins for “Watchmen,” “Succession,” “Euphoria” and “I Know This Much Is True.”
And with the recent success of series including “Perry Mason,” “Lovecraft Country” and “We Are Who We Are,” Orsi’s role overseeing drama series was expanded in 2020 to include HBO films. She’s also a board member of Extraordinary Families, a foster and adoption agency.
EVP Amy Gravitt, meanwhile, is a former lieutenant in the U.S Navy who now specializes in comedies at HBO. “I’ve always been impressed by how Hollywood crews operate and how the collaboration of so many people with specialized skills mimics what I saw on the Connie (USS Constellation),” said Gravitt, who was responsible for developing 2020’s cult hit “I May Destroy You” and for developing and overseeing Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore’s acclaimed comedy series “Insecure” as well as “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the first series to have a cast and writers’ room of entirely Black women.
It was a good but tough decision-making year for the woman who, in August, became CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group. Sarnoff watched Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” disappoint over the fall and has since announced that “Wonder Woman 1984” will hit theaters (such as they are) and streaming simultaneously — as will the whole slate of Warner’s film slate in 2021. The move is enormously risky and the industry watches closely — will what’s good for the new HBO Max be good for the future of entertainment?
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions,” Sarnoff told The Wrap. “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”
Talk about a comeback. “The Life Ahead” is Sophia Loren’s first screen appearance in 10 years, and it comes more than half a century after she burst on the scene in 1961, winning the Oscar for “Two Women” and going on to star opposite a who’s who of leading men: Cary Grant, Paul Newman and, most memorably, Marcello Mastroianni. That explosive duo took us through love, marriage, and divorce Italian style.
In the current film for Netflix, she portrays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who takes in a 12-year-old street boy from Senegal. It may be the unlikeliest and most touching love story of the year, directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti. “The most surprising thing about her is how she approaches every film as if it were her first,” Ponti told TheWrap. “Not one bone of her being or craft has been jaded by the decades of work, and this is what keeps her performances fresh, spontaneous and always new.”
Javicia Leslie is sexy, spiritual and will soon be making her debut as The CW’s Ryan Wilder, a.k.a. Batwoman — the first proudly Black (and bisexual) woman to play the superhero. Though she has had other roles (most recently in the Netflix movie “Always a Bridesmaid” and the CBS series “God Friended Me”), this is the big one, and Leslie still remembers waiting for the final decision. “I was so stressed that day,” she said. “Then my manager called, and I was sure it was to tell me I didn’t get it. And then I heard, ‘May I speak to Ryan Wilder?’ I started crying.”
Just as she is about to serve as a hopeful role model for others, Leslie had a variety of heroines and early groundbreakers of her own, including Justine Baker, Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone. “They used their craft as their message,” she said. “When it dawned on me that I would be the first with this role, I realized that is something that will affect young girls. Ryan is part of the underrepresented and the minority, and they always need a superhero.”
As a young girl herself, Leslie experienced mixed emotions. “In high school, I was lost, and I tried to figure out why I was so angry. So I went to church, got baptized, and when I got out of college, I realized that now I needed to get something from inside me, outside of the church. That’s where meditation comes in. It is all connected. To sit still with my thoughts, and away from my thoughts, to have peace and breath and talk to God.”
Does she tire of the labels of identity and sexual categorization so prevalent these days? “I don’t define myself,” Leslie said. “Labels are tricky and are used as a way to divide our country. But because there is a lack of representation, we have to describe and define it. If that means doing it for others, I am here for that.”
The Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” took off like a rocket, and much of that has to do with Anya Taylor-Joy, the young woman cast in the lead role of Beth Harmon. She has made chess fashionable — eBay has seen an increase of 215% in sales of sets — not to mention giving young women hope, and maybe the courage, to take on challenges in traditionally male arenas. Taylor-Joy herself told The Wrap, “2020 has been incredibly challenging for many people and, for my part, I just feel immensely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to create art within it.”
Her previous leading role, in the latest incarnation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” was a hint, but the star power emerged when she took hold of those rooks and pawns. “Anya embodied the complexity and intelligence we needed,” said casting director Ellen Lewis. “There’s a strength and intelligence and drive for her passion that makes her — despite past trauma — not a victim.”
The most sublimely upsetting show of the year, “I May Destroy You,” was inspired by the true-life experience of Londoner Michaela Coel. She turned a drug-fueled sexual assault and its repercussions into 12 episodes for BBC and HBO, after turning down a million dollars from Netflix because it wouldn’t allow her the rights to her creation. Coel wrote, produced, directed and acted in the series, called a “dramedy about consent,” which follows a young woman named Arabella from the assault to a search for some kind of closure. At 33, she has a career filled with choices ahead.
She landed her second Oscar nomination at the beginning of 2020 for “Bombshell,” but Margot Robbie really changed things this year because of what she did behind the scenes. In collaboration with Hodson Exports, Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment created a screenwriting lab for women, the Lucky Exports Pitch Program, and every one of the six participants made sales with commitments for distribution — and all in action or other genres normally dominated by men. LuckyChap is also developing two dozen different properties, including one in which Robbie will bring the iconic Barbie doll to cinematic life for Warner Brothers.
The day of her roundly applauded town hall session with President Trump in October, Savannah Guthrie had fears about policy preparation, the demeanor of the president and hosting in front of a live audience. “There were so many unpredictable factors,” Guthrie said, “but I did not prepare for the uncle statement.”
Make that the “crazy uncle” statement. Guthrie’s line — “you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle” — clearly threw off-balance a man who had no qualms about humiliating female journalists all through his presidency. “My mantra, my North Star before the town hall started, was to have sincerity and common sense,” said Guthrie, who has enjoyed great success co-hosting the “Today” show. “That statement is the kind of thing that came out of common sense.”
As 2020 wraps up, Guthrie looked back at other pivotal moments: She broadcast from home while being a mom to two young children (ages 4 and 6); underwent a second surgery to repair a torn retina after 4-year-old Charley accidentally threw a toy train at her eye; and during election week, she was on the air for 31 hours and 24 minutes, 19 of those hours on Nov. 3 and 4. “The show must go on,” she said, laughing.
Arguably President Trump’s least favorite reporter on the scene, Alcindor is the political correspondent for PBS’ “NewsHour” and a regular contributor to NBC and MSNBC. She was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, as well as earning the Gwen Ifill Award. When Alcindor memorably tried to get a response about the country’s testing, the president replied, “You should be saying congratulations instead of asking a snarky question.”
The CBS News reporter was memorably singled out by the President… for the wrong reasons. “Maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” he said to her at a news conference, after which she asked why he aimed that remark at her. At other times, he told her to “keep your voice down” and “just relax.” She did neither.
How many people not only survived but soared to fame during the pandemic? And how many did so by lip-syncing to the words of Donald Trump? Sarah Cooper did. This Jamaican-American comic-actress-author posted instantly-viral videos of her uncanny creation on TikTok. (She was such a sensation that some believed it’s why the president tried to get it banned in the U.S.) She was soon the toast of the late-night talk shows, followed by her own special, “Everything’s Fine,” on Netflix. In 2021, look for a CBS comedy based on her book “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.”
A lot of us have tried to learn to cook during the pandemic, but few get our own show on which to do it. But Selena Gomez is nothing if not an enterprising influencer. She’s taken us through her relationships (that Bieber guy) and her music. In 2020, she got seriously busy. “Selena + Chef “premiered on HBO Max in September and invited us to join her lessons alongside masters in the field. She executive produced the recent release “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” and is preparing a biopic about the first Peruvian woman to climb Mt. Everest, based on the memoir by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado.
Imara Jones created TransLash media, a mix of journalism and personal storytelling, to combat what she sees as the too-slow acceptance of the trans community. With degrees from Columbia and the London School of Economics, (she held economic positions in the Clinton White House), Jones is a prominent speaker, host and writer on the issues of social justice and inequality. She is a true influencer, who did not slow down even when the world did.
“Years like 2020 are revelatory,” she told TheWrap. “They show us who and what we are. 2020 was generative for me in that it underscored the importance of my work and clarified the parts of which were critical. I prefer the word generative over productive, because to think productivity, in an economic sense, when there are hundreds of thousands of dead this year seems to not grasp the impact of this moment.” And why does she think so many relate to her message? “It’s because I center the humanity of trans people and in so doing, provide a gateway to other people to both connect with us and find their own selves,” she said.
Megan Thee Stallion
2020 was a peak for Megan Thee Stallion. Known for her confidence, joyfulness, sexual lyrics and dangerously long nails, the rapper-singer-songwriter has seemingly done it all and kept her unique brand of humor intact along the way. Her hit songs included “Suga,” “Diamonds” and “Savage,” the latter just nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys. Then came her participation on Cardi B’s “WAP,” an anthem about women’s sexuality that scared parents but enthralled their offspring. And did we mention that she graced the cover of Time magazine, became a brand ambassador for Revlon, appeared on the 46th season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” and was named one of GQ’s three “Men of the Year,” a rare but not unprecedented instance of the magazine deciding that a woman earned that label?
She is only 16 but she recently became the first person to attract 100 million followers on TikTok. (Only two others, Addison Rae and Zach King, have even topped 50 million.) A former competitive dancer from Connecticut, Charli D’Amelio has become a social media sensation, appeared in a Super Bowl commercial and in a Jennifer Lopez video. An executive at UTA, Greg Goodfried, left his post there to run the D’Amelio Family Enterprises. She is the poster girl of social media, and if ever there was a year that was friendly to those who could do their relatable and entertaining thing from home, it was 2020.
Regina King/Credit: Phylicia J. L. Munn; Chloé Zhao/Credit: Jayne Wexler; Courtney A. Kemp/Credit: Elisabeth Caren for TheWrap; Alexis Martin Woodall/Credit: Courtesy Slate PR; Liz Garbus/Credit: Henny Garfunkel; Dawn Hudson/ Credit: A.M.P.A.S.; Christine Simmons/Credit: Phylicia J. L. Munn; Martha Henderson/Credit: Getty Images; Susan Rovner/Credit: Terrance Patrick; Frances Berwick/Credit: NBCUniversal; Pearlena Igbokwe/Credit: Courtesy NBC /Shutterstock; Donna Langley/Credit: NBCUniversal; Jennifer Salke/Credit: Chris Frawley; Bela Bajaria/Credit: Courtesy Netflix; Francesca Orsi/Credit: Jeff Kravitz/filmmagic.com; Amy Gravitt & Ann Sarnoff/Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; Sophia Loren/Credit: Edoardo Ponti/Netflix; Javicia Leslie/Credit: Getty Images; Anya Taylor-Joy/Credit: Netflix; Michaela Coel/ Credit:Getty Images; Margot Robbie/Credit: Corina Marie for TheWrap; Savannah Guthrie/Credit: NBC News; Yamiche Alcindor/Credit: Getty Images; Weijia Jiang/Credit: CBS News; Sarah Cooper/Credit: Getty Images; Selena Gomez/Credit: HBO; Imara Jones/Credit: Douglas Segars courtesy of subject; Megan Thee Stallion/Credit: Getty Images; Charli D’Ameliox/Credit: Instagram