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Why Women Should Write Screenplays

June 27, 2013, 5:24 PM

This week, Business Insider wrote about a study reporting the sad news that women are just not selling screenplays at the rate of men. In fact, they’re grossly being left out of misogynistic Hollywood:

According to Suzana Orozco’s analysis of recent sales of spec scripts — scripts written with no deal in place (hence speculative) — women make up a smaller percentage of those sales than any time in the last two decades.

While the spec script market as a whole has cooled from its heyday of the mid-1990s, the impact on female writers has been even more severe.

Between 1991 and 2000, women accounted for 14 percent of spec script sales.  The numbers remained high in 2001, 2002 and 2003 as women sold more than 20 spec scripts each year.

Since then the bottom has fallen out (see the chart below). Only three times — 2004, 2007 and 2009 — have female scribes sold more than 10 percent of specs. Female writers sold the same number of scripts in 2001 as they did in 2011 and 2012 combined.

Between 2010 and 2012, the last three full years this has been measured, scripts written by women constituted just 9 percent of sales. [Emphasis mine.]

Why so low? The usual suspects (pun intended) have been blamed: women like to write romantic comedies—a genre that isn’t in high demand in a Hollywood ruled by epic futuristic apocalyptic space action adventures.

And there’s also the problem that, in Hollywood, the prevailing dogma is that it takes a famous actor, not a famous actress, to get a movie funded. So it’s largely assumed that women screenwriters want to write about women protagonists—and who’s going to want that script? It’s difficult to fund. Actresses don’t sell movies. (Ironically, Calli Khouri’s Academy Award-winning screenplay for Thelma & Louise is held up in screenwriting classes as the gold standard.)

A few years ago, I took on the quixotic journey of writing a screenplay. I was motivated to do so because the story—a Soviet thriller—was inspired by my beloved grandfather’s memoir and the stories he used to tell me about surviving Stalin’s famine in Ukraine that starved to death millions. So I was on a mission. Eventually, after years of hard work and rejection, my script was finally optioned—“rented” for a few years—to an Academy Award-winning production company.

Along the way, I met other women who wrote screenplays. Tellingly, none of them wrote romantic comedies. They were writing historical dramas driven by complicated male protagonists, gruesome horror stories, dark comedies staring serial killers, and stoner comedies. In fact, I also met quite a few macho straight men who were passionate about writing romantic comedies.

The point is that it’s not the subject matter that’s keeping women screenwriters out of the Hollywood system. Not at all. Anyone who believes that is ignorant.

The study also said that “women have better luck selling books and TV shows than film spec scripts,” according to Business Insider. Why is that? For years women have had role models to look up to in literature and television: from Jane Austen to Marcy Carsey (Roseanne; That 70s Show) to Marcy Kauffman (Friends; Dream On) and Tina Fey. There are certainly famous women screenwriters working today; Diablo Codey and Brit Marling come to mind. But they're the minority, according to this latest research.

For those aspiring to break into an industry it makes a big difference if you can see “your kind” already achieving great things in that industry. It’s classic identity formation psychology. When we see others like us—in my case, other female screenwriters—succeeding, then it seems more likely that I can navigate and succeed in that industry. Unfortunately, I was writing a historical thriller—a genre dominated by old white men, often old British white men. This only fueled my conviction that I had to succeed with my script. My project became not only driven by my love for my late grandfather, but also my desire to help other women.

My education of becoming a screenwriter consisted of reading countless scripts. The vast majority were written by white men. When I studied to become a journalist and a book writer, I had a far more diverse education. Isn’t it time that women and people of color sold some scripts? And isn't it time that producers around the world helped them?



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