Geena Davis and Tom Donahue on “This Changes Everything”

Michel Martin sits down with Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis and director Tom Donahue to discuss their new film “This Changes Everything,” which tackles the need for more female representation in media.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, whether in politics or science or any other field, one thing is for sure, we need more women now. From “Thelma & Louise” to “A League of Their Own,” the Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis made her name with her strong female characters. But it didn’t take her long to realize that she was the exception and not the rule. She starts her own organization, the Geena Davis Institute, on gender in media to keep track of the imbalance. Now, with Director Donahue, she’s taking her message to the masses with the film, “This Changes Everything” which they have been discussing with our Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Geena Davis, Tom Donahue, thank you so much for talking to us.

TOM DONAHUE: Thank you.


MARTIN: So the title of the film, we start with that, “This Changes Everything.” This is something that you say in the film. So Geena, will you just tell us what the title is referring to?

DAVIS: Right. Well, it meant a little ironically. What happened was when I was in “Thelma & Louise”, after “Thelma & Louise” came out, a lot of the press was talking about, this is going to change everything. There are going to be so many more movies with women starring and everything. And I’m like, yay, I can’t wait. Didn’t seem to happen. And then maybe five years later, another movie comes out with a female star. Now, this changes everything. And it hasn’t changed in all that time. The numbers have obviously not improved for decades.

MARTIN: Every person that I’ve spoken with who have seen the film is just shocked by it.

DAVIS: Right.

MARTIN: And they just can’t believe that it is what it is.

DONAHUE: They tend to deny the problem after seeing the film.


AMANPOUR: Yes. Well, Tom, talk a little about what the problem is if you would.

DONAHUE: Sure. Well, we call the film “This Changes Everything,” because it’s about kind of why that doesn’t happen. Why don’t things change? When, for instance, in 2017 I think, female-led films made 38 percent more money at the Box Office than male-led films. And a lot of men would say to me when I was making the film, “Well, the problem is you just follow the money.” If women films made more money, of course, there would be more women films. That’s the problem. And women’s films do make more money and have, I think, over the last three years.

AMANPOUR: Let me just give some of the statistics that you cite in the film. You say in almost 100 years, only one woman has won an academy award for best director. Of the top 100 grossing films of 2017, male-lead characters received twice as much screen time as female leads. In 2018, 92 percent of the directors of the top 250 domestic releases were men. And this is according to the Center for the Study of Women and Television and Film in San Diego State University. So Geena, I think some people might hear that and go, “Oh, that’s too bad” but why? Bring me my tiny violin. Like why do I care?

DAVIS: Oh, why?

MARTIN: So why do we care?

DAVIS: No one can look at it that way.

MARTIN: They can.

DONAHUE: They will.

DAVIS: They do. And this is in every sector of society, it’s the same story. It’s just very elevated because it’s in the entertainment world. But we’re not hearing women’s voices or seeing the stories told through the female gaze when there are so few female directors. Profoundly, embarrassing few. And then on screen really is impactful, because as much as it can create a negative impact, it has the power to create incredibly positive changes like we’re talking in the movie about the CSI effect where there were so many shows — so many female forensic scientists on T.V. that women are now dominating that field because we just saw it on T.V.

MARTIN: In fact, there is a clip in the film where you talk about the fact that representation in actually entertainment can actually matter in the real world. So let me just play that clip. Here it is.


MERIDA: That’s my mother.

DAVIS: Images are so powerful that it will impact real life. In 2012, my archery coach noticed that when both “Brave” and “The Hunger Games” came out, suddenly the percentage of girls taking up archery shot up 105 percent, higher than adult men.


MARTIN: I think it was Maya Angelou who said you can’t be what you can’t see.

DAVIS: Right.

MARTIN: And you’re saying that entertainment really does matter. Tom, do you want to add to that?

DONAHUE: Yes. So I started making this movie. Originally, it was about workplace discrimination in Hollywood but I thought to myself, who is going to want to see this movie outside of the people in Hollywood. So I — that’s when I learned about the work of Geena in her institute and how important onscreen representation was.

MARTIN: Talk to me about the Geena Davis Institute which you founded years ago. And you say in the film that you were watching something with your daughter.

DAVIS: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you think that was the click moment for you?

DAVIS: I think I noticed it because I’ve been in like A League of Their Own and I became very aware of how few inspirational female characters there are in regular adult fare. And — but I just assumed kids’ media would be gender-balanced, and wholesome, and good for you, and all that. And I was horrified. For the first thing I showed her, there were profoundly more male characters than female, and it was aimed at two-year- olds. And so I thought, this is an enormous problem if we are training kids from the beginning that girls are second-class citizens. What are we doing? This is the 21st century. We should be showing kids that boys and girls share the same bicycle. So it was so horrifying to me that we would be doing this to kids that I decided I had to try to do something.

MARTIN: Did you think it was as bad as it is?

DONAHUE: I started the film a year before I actually asked Geena to come on board. So I did. It really started for me at the end of 2014 with the Sony hack and finding out about the disparity in pay between Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.


JENNIFER LAWRENCE: It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal —


DONAHUE: And then Patricia Arquette got up at the Oscars and demanded equal pay. That — so it was already a conversation that started to happen when I start developing the film with my producing partner.

MARTIN: Why is a dude making this film —


MARTIN: — about women in Hollywood and the underrepresentation of women in Hollywood?

DONAHUE: It’s funny. I was a feminist since I was 10-years-old because I came from a very right-wing family. But it was television that showed me there — it was another way, and it was a show called MASH. And this guy on the show named Alan Alda, who I was learning everything about. And I learned that he was — he called himself a feminist. And for me, the word feminist was a bad word in my house. So here was my hero calling himself a feminist. So I learned through him about the equal rights amendment, about Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas and that girl and I became a fan of Mary Tyler Moore. So I learned about being a feminist through the activism of a man. And for me, it was no big deal to want to take the man until here and try to tell this story. I felt it’s my duty as a feminist, male or otherwise. And hopefully, young boys will see that a male-directed this and think I can do that too. I could do that too.

MARTIN: And you do make a point of saying in the film that 75 percent of the crew are women. And why does that matter? Like I think a lot of people have become familiar with the whole question of representation on screen. So why does the behind the camera representation matter so much?

DAVIS: First of all, for the simple fact of fairness, that women deserve to be in half of the positions, you know, and have leadership roles and also be the grip and be on the crew and, you know, use their [13:45:00] talents. Film schools are now half female. And you wouldn’t know it because of how it turns out, four percent post his school. So there’s something really deep and systemic going on.

DONAHUE: But also, Reese Witherspoon says in the film that sometimes she would go on set and it would be 115 men and she would be the only woman. So that’s why when it says 75 percent of women made this film, people actually clap at that line at the end.

MARTIN: To that point, here’s a scene from the film which speaks with that with Kimberly Pierce, the director, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Here it is.


CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: When I was 15, I did “Carrie.” That movie was directed by Kim Pierce who was my first female director but it was a massively male crew.

KIMBERLY PIERCE, DIRECTOR, CARRIE: I was being talked to and treated and questioned constantly and indifferently.

MORETZ: The biggest part of the movie is when she gets her period for the first time in the shower. And she doesn’t know it’s her period because she had never been taught that by her mother. To have these conversations with men, you’re saying like, well, I don’t think you should depict it that way and I think you should depict it this way. And Kim and I are sitting there going like, well, respectfully, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. That was the first time where I was ever like, I guess, men don’t see us women equal in this industry.


MARTIN: How is that possible?

DONAHUE: Crazy story.

MARTIN: But Geena, this has to have happened to you throughout your career? Why hasn’t it changed before now?

DAVIS: I think partly, back when I started, I wasn’t thinking about that, even. I wasn’t thinking, this is so unfair. It was just like the way it was, and, you know, being sexy and all that kind of stuff. And, you know, being harassed and all kinds of things going on, being not listened to, talked down to, all that stuff. But as time went on and I became more empowered, I started really noticing. And I think that’s — but also part of it is that my peers and I felt like you cannot complain about any of this because they won’t hire you. They’ll just get somebody else. We were made to feel very dispensable. You’ll get much less salary because you guys don’t really matter and we’ll replace you if you have any complaints. So and it wasn’t really until after Me Too and all that happened that we all realized, this is different now. We can talk about it and everybody is talking about it, you know.

MARTIN: You make the connection in the film that it’s not just about, you know, the job, it’s the conditions at the job, that it is directly connected to these vicious examples of sexual harassment and abuse that women have experienced that have now come to the fore. What is the connection? Can you talk about that?

DONAHUE: Sure. When you have 150 men on set and one woman, how is that woman protected? And there is also no human resources department that these women can go to. There’s no one they can complain to.

MARTIN: Right.

DONAHUE: They can’t really complain to their agent or their manager because they’re just going to tell them just go with it, just be quiet. Women are socialized to go along with the dominant patriarch. It’s always been that way.

MARTIN: In fact, there’s a clip for that. Can we play that?


ELLEN POMPEO: All the parts that I had been auditioning for were the girlfriend or the wife, so I did notice immediately that, oh, I get to be the lead role. I get to be a doctor. I get to have opinions, I get to be smart.

SANDRA OH: Shonda was able to make half of her cast not white.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everyone, listen up, please.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was very lucky because “Grey’s Anatomy” was developed under the network presence. She had to fight really hard to get them to put it on the air.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I called to say we were going to greenlight it, the male executive on the other end of the line literally hung up on me.


MARTIN: Have you felt your career jeopardized by your unspokeness about this?

DAVIS: Oh, no, actually.

MARTIN: Really?

DAVIS: Not at all. And I think it’s because what I decided to do was I wanted the research so I could go directly to the creators and share it with them in a private and very friendly way because I knew they didn’t know what they were doing. I’m sure they knew that they were making fewer films with a female lead but they didn’t — they weren’t aware that the population of the films were profoundly imbalanced, even the extras. And so that’s what I did and, in fact, it’s proven that they’re incredibly grateful and horrified and embarrassed.

MARTIN: Really? Which is why none of them appeared in this film? Is that why because no studio heads appeared in this film because they’re so embarrassed?

DONAHUE: Well, because they — even if it’s unconscious, they’re still embarrassed and I think their legal departments also said, don’t go on the record about this. It’s not going to benefit you.

MARTIN: But there are a number of women who are interviewed in this film whose careers have been damaged by speaking out.

DAVIS: Well, that’s what I was saying about earlier, it is a different time now that you actually can talk about these things and not suffer repercussions.

DONAHUE: Hopefully not. I think there’s some backlash.

DAVIS: Hopefully not. But that’s what we were worried about. Nobody complained about anything because you felt that it would damage your career.

MARTIN: Do you think it’s because your initial focus was on kids’ television?

DAVIS: Yes. I think the big advantage was that people who make kids’ entertainment do it because they care about kids. And so it was something they had no idea they were doing, and the data changed everything for them. Suddenly, they could see what they were doing, and we’ve yet to leave any meeting where somebody doesn’t say, you just changed my project. So it’s kind of working.

MARTIN: So you can see it with kids’ entertainment?

DAVIS: Right.

MARTIN: But what about for grown-ups?

DONAHUE: There hasn’t been a lot of change. There’s a lot of talk about change and there’s a lot more content being made but a lot of the diversity that happens in content is happening at the lower pay levels.

DAVIS: Oh, yes.

DONAHUE: So the cheaper shows on Netflix and Hulu.

MARTIN: Well, you do interview one executive, the head of FX, John Landgraf. OK. Let me just play a clip from him in the film.



JOHN LANDGRAF, HEAD, FX: I had this unconscious bias that we would have to be making sacrifices to hire people with less experience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They don’t care that I’m black.

LANDGRAF: And maybe that the talent wouldn’t be there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they just don’t like me.

LANDGRAF: And I’m here to say it’s there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is nothing funny here.

LANDGRAF: The minute we open our door and we say, come express it here, the work got better.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: “Feud” is so, so good.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You directed an episode of it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I did. It will be on air.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened in my professional career. Anyone who then told me or told any other journalist in the future, it’s too hard, no, it’s not. Look at what FX did.


MARTIN: You know one of the things that really fascinated me about the film is that you point out it wasn’t always this way.

DAVIS: Right, right.

MARTIN: In the age of silent films, women directed a lot of films.


MARTIN: They had very prominent roles.

DAVIS: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: Studio Heads.

DAVIS: Studio Heads.

MARTIN: So what changed?

DONAHUE: Well, two things. The coming of sound meant they needed big capital investment. So they looked east to the banks to basically the patriarchal systems in the east and so they created the studio system in the west. You putting men in charge basically driving women and people of color out. And then the second thing were unions. Unions did not allow women because putting women in the unions meant lower pay and lower prestige. So they were driven out of the unions. In the directors’ guild, there were only two women I think up until the 1960s who were members of the union.

MARTIN: So Geena, how do you stay in it though? I mean don’t you just want to throw your shoes at the screen? I mean you know.

DAVIS: Well, no, no. I’m an optimist. As defeated as one feels when you don’t see a change happening, I really do think that it can and that it will. And I think the first thing to change will be on screen. It’s the lowest hanging fruit possible. Because the next movie somebody makes could be gender-balanced. They could say, what was I doing? I always say go through the script and change it. What’s your first name? Female. But — so I think that will change and I think it will impact society, that life will imitate art. We don’t have to wait for things to turn around in real life. We can reflect the future now and it will make it happen.

MARTIN: Geena Davis, Tom Donahue, thank you so much for talking to us.

DONAHUE: Thank you for having us.

DAVIS: Thank you.


About This Episode EXPAND

Michael Mann tells Christiane Amanpour why we need to rethink what we eat and how we produce it. Maleeha Lodhi joins the program to explain tensions between Pakistan and India. Geena Davis and Tom Donahue sit down with Hari Sreenivasan to discuss their new film “This Changes Everything,” which tackles the need for more female representation in media.