HOLLYWOOD TRAILBLAZER SUSAN CARTSONIS:
WHY WE NEED MORE WOMEN IN FILM
By Elena Townsend-Lerdo
June 19, 2020
Susan Cartsonis is a Hollywood producer and outspoken advocate for the representation of the female perspective in film. Her latest company, Resonate Entertainment, is focused on creating outstanding and lucrative films for female audiences. In 2000, she was named by the Hollywood Reporter as one of the top five grossing producers of the year. She has produced such films as Freaky Friday the Musical (Disney), Carrie Pilby (The Orchard), Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (Netflix), Beastly, The Duff, Aquamarine, No Reservations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and What Women Want, among many others. Her latest film is a dance movie called Feel the Beat starring Sofia Carson which premiered on Netflix on June 19.
You’ve always advocated for more female-led films. What motivated you to champion that cause? Why is it important?
"It’s important for women to see themselves reflected in the journey of the protagonist of a story."
It’s important for women to see themselves reflected in the journey of the protagonist of a story. As women, we are very empathic and have no problem identifying with the male protagonists. But if the central character is a woman, and she has the agency and even heroism that the male character has, then the experience is all the more powerful.
Women are half -- actually, OVER half -- of the population. We buy over half the movie tickets, and actually influence ticket sales more than men because we often choose the movie in a couple situations, or for kids. So, why shouldn’t movies reflect our experiences? Why shouldn’t movies star women? And if a movie is to star a woman, then aren’t women sometimes and often the best and most qualified people to write and direct those stories? It’s also important to think about costume, production design, and cinematography. All of the design in a film is influenced by the central character. Wouldn’t a woman be a great choice to interpret, enhance, and support female characters? I think so!
What female protagonists did you identify with on TV or film when you were growing up?
1. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
2. Samantha in Bewitched
3. Anne Marie in That Girl
4. Fanny Brice in Funny Girl
5. Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career
6. Giulietta in Juliet of the Spirits
7. Norma Rae in Norma Rae
How hard is it to find the right female-driven stories to turn into films? What do you look for in a story?
It’s easy to find female-driven stories! They’re everywhere, and because I’ve made so many of them, I've become kind of a magnet for them.
What are the biggest barriers to getting more female-driven stories told by female-led film teams?
Movies cost millions of dollars to make and millions of dollars to market. Men often control the purse strings. Choosing which movie to make, however, is not as much a business decision as it is a visceral one; Movies are produced through the belief that they will be great films. So, if a man is reading a script about a female-specific experience and doesn’t relate to that unique experience, then he is less likely to stake his professional life on that story. He might emotionally connect to it once it’s a movie—but in conceptual or script form, it’s often a challenge to convince men to take that leap of faith.
There’s a prejudice that female-led teams won’t be “balanced.” This is perhaps fueled by a fear that there will be too much emotionality on set. Sometimes even female decision-makers veer away from multiple women leading a movie. I find that the right mix of people and the right team is what really helps the movie succeed. Teams that are at least half female, in my experience, are very happy and very well-run. As women, we are natural collaborators and are more often focused on collective success, which makes for a great atmosphere on set for both men and women. For the record, there are monstrous and awful women as well as men—-but in a team that is gender-balanced, I’d bet on the women to refuse to tolerate bad behavior.
We need more female-led media companies and more women making the green light or money decisions on movies. That, along with recognizing the power of the female audience and the importance of inspiring, entertaining, and empowering women and girls, will help us reach gender parity. I recently formed a company with two partners -- a man and a woman -- making us a “majority female-owned” company!
I’m also a big believer that where women lead, all inclusion follows. We tend to think about the good of the whole party and its members. Again, there are horrid women who only think of themselves, but in general, women, either through nature or nurture or maybe even because they understand what it is to be underestimated, are inclusive of all kinds of people.
"We need more female-led media companies and more women making the green light or money decisions on movies. That, along with recognizing the power of the female audience and the importance of inspiring, entertaining, and empowering women and girls, will help us reach gender parity."
"As women, we are natural collaborators and are more often focused on collective success, which makes for a great atmosphere on set for both men and women."
In what ways is it easier or harder now for women to break into film directing and producing compared to when you started out?
It’s so much easier! But making media is hard. It’s a competitive business -- regardless of gender -- and it’s just plain tough to get a movie or show made because you have to find the right financier/distributor/partner(s).
When and how did you decide to get involved with film? What was your first film job?
I made my first film at 12 as part of a school project. It was called Alice’s Nightmare and it was a riff on Alice Through the Looking Glass—but Alice woke up in contemporary America and experienced all sorts of social ills. It won a prize and I was hooked. I’m forever grateful to my teacher, Mrs. Emery, for getting me hooked on filmmaking. I had directed my student movie, so my first dream was to be a director. But the only female director I had heard of at the time was Lina Wermuller, who had made a movie called Swept Away, so I figured the barrier to entry was too hard. I also wanted to be creative (as opposed angry and bitter as directors are often portrayed) so I made a conscious choice to express my passion through producing and writing.
I was an extra on the set of A Star is Born --the old one starring Barbra Streisand-- when I was a teenager and lived in Arizona. I got to see producers at work, and even saw some women running the show. I found out a few years ago that the first assistant director was Laura Ziskin, who later became a good friend of mine. She was a superb producer, ran a studio, and was a big supporter of other women in entertainment. Seeing her on set inspired me to feel that I could run the show, too.
My first film job was working at a literary agency called The Kohner Agency. I worked for a female literary agent named Roberta Kent for 9 months. This created a great network of friends for me in the business (with whom I’m in touch with to this day!). As an agent, you get to see the world as the intermediary between the “buyers” of material, or the people who hire writers, directors, and actors, and the “artists” who the agent represents. That job gave me a platform from which to launch my career. I liked the writers I worked with, and became determined to learn more about writing. After getting a job for a director and a producer, I ended up going to grad school at NYU for Dramatic Writing. After grad school, I got an internship reading for 20th Century Fox, and was quickly hired full time. Within 9 months, I was offered a job as a junior executive. I took the job and stayed for 10 years, after which I became a producer.
I have loved each and every one of my jobs. They were hard, but I learned a lot about business, writing, packaging, marketing, and how to make films and build teams. I left each job as soon as I stopped learning -- which I think is a good rule for life in general.
"I left each job as soon as I stopped learning -- which I think is a good rule for life in general."
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? Is that the same or different from the advice you’d give young people today?
I would say that this is not a dress rehearsal; This is your life. So, do what you really want to do, work hard, and try to learn from the best people you can find. Take the worst job with the best people—and make yourself indispensable. Say what you want. Be bold. Focus your desires so that other people can know what you want and conspire to help you!