With a new awards season underway, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences hosted a luncheon Wednesday supporting female filmmakers and celebrating the women behind Greta Gerwig’s upcoming “Little Women.”
The event, held at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, drew much of New York’s filmmaking elite and many of the faces likely to be seen throughout the coming season, including actors Constance Wu (“Hustlers”), Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) and Meg Ryan; producers Christine Vachon (“Dark Waters”) and Jane Rosenthal (“The Irishman”); documentarians Barbara Kopple and Laura Poitras; and “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el.
Gerwig, actor Laura Dern and producer Amy Pascal — all collaborators on “Little Women” —discussed the hardships and joys of getting a female-led production made in an industry that has made improvements in gender parity but still lags woefully behind in equality.
Pascal, the former Sony Pictures chief, noted that today there are just as many women running studios (one, Universal’s Donna Langley) as there were when she took over Sony two decades ago.
“Nothing’s ever any different,” said Pascal. “So how do you get a movie made like this? Everybody says no. You ask everyone else again and they say no. Then you just beg someone and make it impossible for them to say no because you have a script that is so spectacular and is so accessible and is so different and modern, and a director who just made the most amazing first film.”
Gerwig’s acclaimed first solo writing-directing effort, 2017’s “Lady Bird,” ultimately led to her becoming just the fifth woman ever nominated for best director at the Academy Awards. But none of that had happened when Gerwig first met with Pascal on “Little Women.”
“Greta came to us and said ‘I’m the only one who can do this,” recalled Pascal. “She said, ‘It’s all about money and women and freedom.’ That’s it.’
“I just imagine when I go meet with people who have the power to get things done, I say, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? They say no,’” said Gerwig. “So I tell them I’m the best.”
Wednesday’s event, part of a women’s initiative by the academy begun last year, was a moment, amid the sparkling heights of the Rainbow Room, for encouragement, inspiration and female solidarity.
“I look around and I think: We are unstoppable,” said Dawn Hudson, chief executive of the academy.
Since 2015, the academy has grown its female membership from 25% to 32%. Earlier this year, its new class of inductees reached gender parity for the first time. In 10 of the 17 branches — including directing, writing and producing — more women were invited than men.
But studies have also shown the industry isn’t changing so much. Last year, just 8% of the top 250 films at the domestic box office were directed by women, a decrease of 3% from the year before, and below even the levels of 1998.
To help urge on a new generation of filmmakers, the academy has been giving fellowships to young women aspiring to Hollywood. On Wednesday, Hudson awarded the fourth such fellowship, which includes a $35,000 grant, to Eliana Pipes, a Columbia University graduate currently studying theater at Boston University. In London on Friday, she will hand out a fifth fellowship.
Researching “Little Women,” Gerwig said, made her realize that the difficulties of being a woman getting a film made today aren’t so different than those Louisa May Alcott faced publishing her novel in 19th century New England.
“What was astonishing to me was how parallel Louisa May Alcott’s experience was to the experience of trying to get a film about women off the ground today. Her publisher didn’t know that it was any good. And she didn’t really think it was any good,” said Gerwig. “It took other women saying they were interested in it, and I think that happens today in all offices.”
Dern was still buzzing from seeing “Little Women” (to be released Dec. 25) just the day before. She said the production was plainly different than most.
“As we’re longing for change in all these areas, to show up on set, to show up in rehearsals and see that the space you created was not only incredibly embracing and collaborative and safe, but I saw women everywhere,” said Dern, who plays Marmee March. “I saw the choices you were making each day to lift up and support other female artists, collaborators, crew.”
Gerwig said those cast and crew decisions weren’t based on anything but talent.
“Female filmmakers, female storytellers, female collaborators, you hire them because they’re the best ones,” said Gerwig. “That’s why you hire them.”
The male perspective of the industry, they collectively agreed, has given rise to some absurd myths about women, among them the “difficult” actress, the “emotional” director or “infighting”-prone females.
“Have you ever been on a movie set with a bunch of men? They’re fighting all the time,” said Gerwig to laughter and applause. “But when women display any emotion at anything at all, they’re like, ‘She’s crazy.’ If women have an argument on the film set, it’s no different than men having an argument on a film set.”
The Oscar-winning filmmaker and journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy concluded the afternoon with rousing remarks drawing on her hard-fought experiences in her native Pakistan.
“I see every single day that young women are changing the way they see themselves,” said Obaid-Chinoy. “And film is empowering them to do that.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP