An interview with founder Melissa Silverstein

In the early days of blogging, Melissa Silverstein came to two realizations: Films weren’t speaking to her and nobody was really talking about that on the internet.

In 2007, she founded the website Women and Hollywood, which has become one of the leading online advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, as well as a treasure trove of resources for filmmakers, students, cinema lovers, and activists.

A speaker and consultant, Melissa is a leading expert in women’s issues in pop culture. Numerous media outlets sought her insights into the case of producer Harvey Weinstein, who was recently sentenced to 23 years in prison for his terrible abuse of women in the film industry.

A writer, speaker, and marketing consultant, Melissa is considered a social media wizard, especially on Twitter, where she once broke the news that Ava DuVernay would be the first African American woman to direct a movie with a budget of $100 million. 

In 2010, Melissa and Kathryn Kolbert founded the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College. The event is a weekend of films that tell the stories of female leaders. It celebrated its 10th anniversary at the end of February, squeaking in just before coronavirus-related event cancellations began. 

Melissa has been named to Variety’s New York Power list, received the Marie C. Wilson Emerging Leader Award from the Ms. Foundation for Women, and was chosen to be a film envoy for the U.S. Department of State’s American Film Showcase. In 2013, she published In Her Voice: Women Directors Talking Directing, a compilation of more than 40 interviews.  

In the midst of a global pandemic, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders, Melissa was gracious enough to chat with me about Women in Hollywood’s efforts to “pivot” during this time, the negative press that inevitably surrounds women-led films like Birds of Prey, and how to keep hope alive, even after the Me Too and Time’s Up movements seemed to fizzle. 

Melissa Silverstein

You are the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, a website that advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in the film industry and serves as an invaluable resource on the subject. You’re also a writer, speaker, consultant and one of the leading experts on this topic. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me! 

When did you become interested in film? What sparked that interest?

I have always been a pop culture person and I have worked on women’s issues for my adult life so it was a natural fit combining the two things I care most about.

When and how did you first become aware of the gender disparity in Hollywood?

When I started Women and Hollywood, it was partially because I was noticing that films weren’t speaking to me. It was also when blogging was coming to the fore. So I just started researching and realized no one was talking about anything related to women. So I just started asking questions.

Why is this issue personally important to you? 

Because films and TV are our communications tools. They are how we see the world and if women are missing, then half the story is missing.

Melissa Silverstein in conversation with filmmaker Ava DuVernay at the 2015 Blogher Conference in New York.

This is a broad question, but in your opinion, where are we at when it comes to women and Hollywood in 2020? What still needs to change?

So many things need to change. This pandemic is an opportunity to think through some of the systems that are broken but I can’t seem to tell if anyone in power is actually thinking about this.

You founded Women and Hollywood in 2007. Tell me a little about the early days of the website and how it’s evolved since then.

The site pretty much sucked at the beginning. But once I found my voice it started to change and grow.

What are some of the major changes related to women in Hollywood you’ve seen since you founded the initiative?

The fact that people actually are talking about the issue and that there are many programs trying to figure out how to bring about change. It’s also something that no one in a decision making power can ignore.

Has the coronavirus pandemic affected the way you’re currently doing things at Women and Hollywood?   

It has affected everything. We are pivoting. Trying to do more email interviews with women directors to help support the online release of their films. We are doing picks of the day. We are doing crowdfunding posts for films that have been affected. Anything we can do to help support people in this difficult time.

Women and Hollywood contains tons of great resources related to women in the film industry, including statistics, lists of databases and women critics, recommendations, and interviews. Why is it important to compile all this information and put it out there?

Because information is power and when information is available then you can make the case for the need for change.

You’re also the artistic director and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Congratulations! This year’s festival squeaked in just before all the virus-related cancellations began. What were some of the highlights for you from this year’s event?

Here’s a little video:

https://vimeo.com/402324183

We had a great festival and it feels like a dream now that it actually happened.

It must take a massive amount of work to direct a festival. What are some of the biggest challenges of putting an event like this together?

You have to raise money, you have to curate, you want to create the best program for the people who attend. There is a great team who helps put this together. Everything is a challenge, but everything is a joy.

Athena Film Festival founders Katheryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein with Jodie Foster.

You’ve said that women in the entertainment community are the “keys to their own success.” What does that mean?

It means that there are an abundance of women and that for years, if not decades, the goal has been to keep women separate to try and pit women against each other. I call bullshit on that. Men have the Boys Club. I have now created the Girls Club.

You must have a lot of thoughts about the 2020 Oscars, which shut out women directors and generally left a lot to be desired in terms of diversity and representation. Care to share any of them?

Sure — it’s bullshit. The system is broken and it excludes women and people of color. Women are demanding change and finally we are starting to see it.

When the Me Too and Time’s Up movements began a couple years ago, I felt very optimistic and fired up. I confess, though, that when those movements seemed to fizzle a bit, I became quite discouraged. You’ve spoken about how “change does not come easily.” How can we keep from losing hope that things will change?

Social change is hard. This is not just about women getting jobs in Hollywood. This is about reframing the stories that dominate our culture. This is a revolution.

One of my frustrations over the last few years has been seeing the way the media often reports and talks about female-led and created films, as if they expect them to fail. We saw it with Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel and, most recently, Birds of Prey. What are your thoughts about that? 

We have been so brainwashed to see this in a certain way that when things fall outside the typical boxes people have a hard time processing them. We need to keep seeing these movies directed by women at the top of the business and over time, once we hit a critical mass, some of the issues we see now will disappear.

In 2018, Women and Hollywood hosted an event celebrating the accomplishments of women in film in London.

Along with running Women and Hollywood, you’re known as a Twitter and social media expert. I imagine you must get a lot of pushback for your social media activism on behalf of women. How do you deal with that?

Twitter is the best and worst. I try not to take the trolls seriously. I keep my focus.

You’ve said one of the best things moviegoers can do is buy tickets to movies by female directors. What else can your average geek do to contribute to change?  

Arm yourself with information.

Since this is a blog for geeks, I must ask you about your personal fandoms. What are some of your favorites?

So this is not my area of expertise. I am a musical theatre nerd. I watched Star Trek a lot when I was a kid and Battlestar Galactica.

What are some of the women-centric or women-created projects that should be on our radar this year?

Read Women and Hollywood to find out.

If readers want to support Women and Hollywood, what’s the best way they can do that?

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