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Tony-Winning Producer to Women in Hollywood: Awards Are Nice, Checks Are Better (Guest Blog)

No number of editorials or angry tweets or catchy hashtags or awards will change the dynamic of women in film

I have spent a large portion of my adult life being angry about the disparity between men and women in the arts industry. That was until 2019. Because that’s when I won a Tony Award for producing “Hadestown.” Here’s what I can tell you: Awards are nice, checks are better. It was a lesson taught to me through the years by many important industry heavyweights, including Whoopi Goldberg, an EGOT winner. In fairness, one might need to experience both to really understand the magnitude of that statement, but from my experience it’s true (just ask Tom Cruise, who has only won the money).

Obviously, there has been a fantastic leap in the number of female protagonists in the top 100 films — up from 31% in 2018 to 40% in 2019 — but women still only accounted for 10.6% of the directors of those top hits. Those statistics are magnified by the fact that only five women have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar (including Greta Gerwig in 2018 for “Lady Bird”). What is interesting, however, is that “Lady Bird” made $79 million at the global box office. And even though Gerwig’s “Little Women” (pictured above) did not garner her a directing nomination, its earned over $110 million worldwide in the last month.

Even stranger, most women I know, who are not Academy nominators, overwhelmingly believe “Little Women” is a better film — its 92% Fresh Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes seems to back up my sources (“Lady Bird” only scored 79%). Only one female director has won an Oscar — Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” which made just $49.2 million at the box office. Oddly enough, most film-watching humans have much more of a memory for Bigelow’s ’90s classic “Point Break” (yes, the one with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves), which is still in heavy rotation on TV years later (ahem, residuals) or “Zero Dark Thirty,” which made $132.8 million (and for which the Academy similarly snubbed her directing work). I wonder which film Kathryn Bigelow likes more?

In fact, if you try to name the 89 male Oscar-winning directors in the 90 years of the award or their movies, most audience members barely remember they existed — while Nancy Meyers lives in most American hearts. Elizabeth Banks has directed a formative movie of our children’s future, as have Catherine Hardwicke, Betty Thomas and Patty Jenkins. Collectively, films with female directors such as “What Women Want,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Twilight,” “Brave,” “Shrek” and “Wonder Woman” have made over $4 billion at the box office.

My kids, like yours, watch many of these movies on repeat, just as I watched the big-screen version of “Gigi,” the first show I produced on Broadway. Ironically, that film was attributed to Lerner and Loewe when it won nine Oscars in 1958. As I later learned, the story was actually written by Collette and first directed on Broadway by Anita Loos. Together, the female team of writer and director cast and launched an ingenue named Audrey Hepburn, who went on to win countless awards on and off screen, and accumulated a reported net worth of $100 million.

Here’s the point: Ladies, we have money. By 2020, women are expected to control $72 trillion, 32% of all wealth — up from $51 trillion in 2015. We don’t need the man on the gold statue to come to our rescue. No number of editorials or angry tweets or catchy hashtags or awards will change the dynamic of women in film. The irony is the person who would have championed Greta Gerwig and “Little Women” and made sure she had been nominated in previous years was Harvey Weinstein, so he could use it as bait for other potential hungry female directors (but that’s another story).

For what it’s worth, I practice what I preach. In 2005, When I produced my first stage musical, a revival of “Gigi”, I made it a point to have the writer of this female narrative be a woman. The show thrived out of town and stalled on Broadway. That season’s awards produced 93% male Tony nominations across all categories that were not gender-specific.

At that time, admittedly bruised, I committed to only produce or invest in work that had a female writer or director. Over the last five years, I’ve kept that commitment. Some of my work has lost money, some has made money, some has been celebrated and some not. But in 2019 my two shows — one with a female writer (“What the Constitution Means to Me”) and another with a female writer and director (“Hadestown”) — achieved something remarkable: They paid back my investment. In additional to making me money, the latter also sent me a couple of awards. Yes, the award is impressive. It sits on my bedroom shelf, and every time I look at my Tony, I think: Awards are nice, and the impact of seeing women I’ve championed succeed is amazing. But a growing bank account is the best, it can grow more shows.

Caring about, even needing an award, gives it undeserved value. To change the dynamic, women need to embrace their economic power and care about paying it forward. Go see “Little Women” and make sure Greta’s film makes even more money than the 2020 nominated all-male best directors. It’s time to change the dynamic: Let the awards for chick-flicks be big fat checks. Let dick-flick directors have their gold statues.

Jenna Segal is a Tony Award-winning producer whose credits include "What the Constitution Means to Me" and "Hadestown." She has been honored with the Women of Achievement Award from Women%u2019s Project Theater.