5 Lessons From Sarah Jessica Parker and the Producer's Guild Panel
By Olivia Armstrong
On a recent sunny Saturday in New York City, The Producers Guild of America presented Produced By: New York, a day-long forum at the Time Warner Center featuring some of film and TV’s game-changing creatives.
“The Power to Shake It Up;” a panel moderated by Dr. Stacy Smith of USC Annenberg School of Communication, included Sarah Jessica Parker and Alison Benson of Pretty Matches Productions (Divorce), Jessica Chastain and Kelly Carmichael of Freckle Films (upcoming The Division) and Producers Guild president Lori McCreary (Madam Secretary). Here are five things we learned:
1. You have to look for talent in new places.
“If we look at the top 100 films of last year,” started Dr. Smith, “Women are less than 30% of all roles. This hasn’t changed since 2007 and it hasn’t changed since the late 1940s.” Audience members let out audible groans. “TV is better,” she went on. “But women are only clocking in about 40% of all speaking characters and 40% of all series regulars. It is depressing, but all of our panelists run companies-- they’re part of the solution.”
Part of the solution, according to producer Lori McCreary, is looking in new places for talent. “I love that there’s this whole pool of untapped talent that we can discover,” she says. “It is a gold mine out there.” Alison Benson added, “I rely maybe 1% percent on agency lists. They’re always the same. We rely heavily on producers and talent we’ve worked with, as well as word-of-mouth. The good thing about New York is that it’s not a one-industry town. You can consider literary talent, playwrights, comics, and short story writers — we’re mixing it up.”
2. “Prickly” is OK.
Divorce, which Sarah Jessica Parker executive produces, has more females than males behind the camera, in both the director’s chair and in the writer’s room. While this is a milestone for women in comedy, Parker suggested telling the unvarnished story of a middle-aged woman who suddenly wants out of her marriage was a hurdle of its own:
“When the show premiered, it was curious how many people kept asking me if I was concerned Frances isn’t likeable. I thought they meant because she had an affair and they objected. But Tony Soprano was a murderer and we loved him. I liked that Frances was unlikable sometimes. I was really drawn to her prickly, withholding, exacting nature.”
3. It’s not just about money.
When asked about the financial obstacles that come with kicking off a new film, Freckle Films’ Kelly Carmichael mentioned a different blocker. “I’ve had people tell me: ‘My director wants you to come produce something with him, but I know you have kids, so how is that going to work?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, my husband also has the same number of kids.’” She laughed off the memory: “The directors want to work with me. The actors want to work with me. Let’s just get to work.”
4. Ask. For. The promotion.
When the discussion shifted to climbing the career ladder, actor and Freckle Films founder Jessica Chastain said women need to start fighting for themselves in the office. “A man will ask for a raise when he feels he’s 40% qualified and a woman won’t until she feels she’s 97% qualified,” she said. “We need to stop apologizing. In any industry, a woman should feel the confidence to come forward and put herself up for the promotion.”
5. Not getting that job could be a blessing.
Dr. Smith finished up with a question about “failing forward”, asking each of the panelists to share a point when failure was actually a positive. “I’m grateful for the things that have broken my heart,” says Parker, regarding the acting jobs she didn’t get. “It doesn’t define me. What defines me is a work ethic and the ability to be resilient and maintain my love of acting.”
Divorce is available to stream on HBO.