The Modern Phenomena of the Actress Turned Producer

Saturday, April 9, 2022
It's no secret that women's stories in Hollywood are not treated with the same importance as men's. It's why very rarely are movies that are nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars are movies about women. That's one of the many reasons why it hurts when films directed by women have been ignored in major categories at awards shows. There's a pattern of actresses nominated for Best Actress in movies that were not nominated for Best Picture, or Director, or Screenplay. 

And that's just the awards circuit. With more and more movies going to streaming, and primarily blockbusters ruling theaters. And that overall problem is going to need more and more discussion, but it also hurts because how many blockbusters and superhero movies have female leads with strong characters? I can name five off the top of my head, and one of them is a sequel. (Actually two, since Birds of Prey is one of them, but I like to pretend the first Suicide Squad movie doesn't exist.)

But, even though awards bodies and superhero franchises don't have the biggest regard for women's stories, more of them are slowly being made, largely thanks to actresses frustrated with the roles they were being given. A lot of times this leads to actresses becoming directors themselves. But the more interesting and substantial thing is when they become true producers, more than just for themselves. 
And this is not to shade actresses who only produce projects that they're in. If they become a producer just to have some control over their own projects, good on them. But, the true test of this movement of the actress/producer is when their production companies are producing projects for others, too.

The queen of this new movement is Reese Witherspoon. She had a slow build to becoming the mega producer she is today. She produced a few movies in the 2000s, including Legally Blonde, but it wasn't until the 2010s that she became a full on producer. Her first production company Pacific Standard, which later evolved into Hello Sunshine. Her first producer credits were Gone Girl and Wild. Then, she decided to focus on television. She gave us Big Little Lies, The Morning Show, and Little Fires Everywhere. And through her Book Club at Hello Sunshine, she is selecting novels by women about women, and a lot of times getting the rights to those books to produce, like Little Fires Everywhere and the upcoming Daisy Jones & the Six, which is a great read if I do say so myself. 

But the actress turned producer that has fascinated me the most is Margot Robbie.

Margot Robbie formed her production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, in 2014 with a couple friends and her now-husband only one year after her breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street. So this was well before she was really established in Hollywood, when she was only known as a blonde bombshell. Of course they started out producing projects for herself, because the pattern seems to be as a star-producer, bet on yourself first and then you can branch out. One of those early productions was I, Tonya, which was a critical and commercial success, and garnerd her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. And she's starting to branch out. They produced the Hulu series Dollface starring Kat Dennings, Promising Young Woman, Maid, and has a host of other projects in various stages of development for film and televion, including the Barbie movie that she that Greta Gerwig is writing and directing. She also teamed up with Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson's Hodson Exports for the Lucky Exports Pitch Program, which was formed to get female screenwriters jobs writing action movies.

And so many other high profile actresses are just getting started with their own companies. Kerry Washington has Simpson Street, which she produced Little Fires Everywhere alongside Hello Sunshine. Viola Davis has her production company, JuVee Productions, Rachel Broshnahan started her own company, Scrap Paper Pictures, and its first project was Julia Hart's I'm Your Woman and the Yearly Departed comedy specials, both ready to stream on Prime. Tessa Thompson recently started her own production company called Viva Maude and one of its first projects will be an adaptation of Raven Leilani's Luster (another great read). Time will tell what projects they get made and how successful these outfits will be. 

This is not a wholly new trend. In the very early days of  cinema, before it became a true industry and the major studios formed, a lot of women had power. They were the writers, directors, producers, and major stars. (For a fuller history, I would suggest checking out Helen O'Hara's Women vs Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film.) 

In the 40s and 50s there were fits and starts with actresses trying to take more control of the projects they took part in. In the 40s when the studio system was still going strong, some of the higher profile actresses, like Joan Crawford, would negotiate script approval and director approval into their contracts, so they were really producers in all but name. That power is how Crawford was able to get Mildred Pierce made and win her the Academy Award for Best Actress. And in the 50s, stars would self-incorporate, like Marilyn Monroe did when she formed Marilyn Monroe Productions. But, she was only to make two films, Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl

And there would be fits and starts of this through the rest of the 20th Century, especially as the studio system fell and more women started to direct films. In the 90s was when the actress producer really start to become a thing, but that was really just to take control of their careers, they weren't forming companies to produce other projects most of the time. 

But that all brought us to this moment. So while there are other factors that have me worrying about the state of the entertainment industry, one thing that does not have me worried is the actress taking control and giving us stories that center them and are deep and interesting pieces of art and entertainment. 
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