Hollywood Leaders Discuss Gender Parity, Theatrical Windows and COVID in Variety’s Power of Women Conversations

Diane Garrett
·4 min read

Normally, Variety’s events and marketing teams would be busy preparing for our annual luncheon celebrating the accomplishments of women in Hollywood at this time. But these are not normal times, as we are all painfully aware. With the ongoing pandemic making large gatherings problematic in the greater Los Angeles region, our team pivoted to a virtual gathering bursting with top talent and executives, spread over two days.

Variety’s Power of Women Conversations will stream Oct. 28 and 29, and features entertainment industry leaders including Ann Sarnoff, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group; Sia; Jennifer Lopez; Jessica Chastain; and Lena Waithe. During their conversations, they offer insights on pressing issues facing Hollywood, from gender parity and inclusion to the challenged theatrical marketplace. Figures including Stacey Abrams and Arianna Huffington will address issues such as the upcoming election and female leadership. The conversations, presented by Lifetime, are free but require registration in advance.

During her keynote session with Variety co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton, Sarnoff discusses the studio’s recent reorg and its plans for big movies such as “Wonder Woman 1984” in the wake of “Tenet’s” relatively low-watt theatrical debut in the U.S., where so many theaters are still closed, compared to greater traction internationally.

Lockdown “accelerated our thinking, I would say, but I don’t think it changed the strategy,” Sarnoff says in her taped keynote conversation. “We had to be more creative in terms of the movies that we had finished. For example, we launched the movie ‘Scoob’ digitally and had to make that decision, which wasn’t quite so simple back in March, when you were thinking about it.”

She says Universal’s decision to make “Trolls World Tour” a premium VOD offering in April influenced the studio’s decision the following month; at the time they made this decision, no one was certain how long pandemic shutdowns would last. Not long after that, Sarnoff gained oversight of freshly launched HBO Max, as well as four basic cable channels including TBS, under a massive studio reorg.

She calls HBO Max “a future-facing delivery system,” but cautions that “the linear networks are going to be around for quite some time.”

During the #Represent roundtable, “The Old Guard” director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Rashida Jones and Waithe discuss the challenges for women of color in Hollywood with fellow participants Yara Shahidi and Mara Brock Ali. Thanks to Netflix’s reach, Prince-Bythewood’s female-led action film has been distributed to 190 countries, and racked up 78 million views its first four weeks of release.

“The more that we can have successes like this, I think it’s just going to help us as a people,” she says.

Growing up in Hollywood, Jones watched her father, Quincy, a prolific musician and producer, refuse to let anybody’s perception of him as a Black man limit him, and she hopes to use her own power as a writer-producer-performer to help others in her community.

“[Quincy] just refused to stay in one lane and did what he wanted to do with all of the skill and hard work that it takes to do that, and just kept pushing, pushing people aside pushing boundaries,” says Jones. Now in a position of power herself, “I can bring other people along, and I hope to continue to do that.”

In her Variety Conversation, Chastain talks about creating her own opportunities — and speaking up about inequities, pay or otherwise. “I’ll tell you, shame is a powerful, powerful weapon, and I am not above using it,” she says in her taped conversation with producing partner Kelly Carmichael. “So if there’s someone who isn’t being fair and just, I will a hundred percent believe that they need to be called out.”

Chastain became a producer to develop projects she wanted to see. Her mantra for fellow creatives: Ask yourself: “What can you do to move things along on your own?”

“Pen15” writer-stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, meanwhile, joke about the squeamish challenges of playing middle-schoolers on the Hulu show in their session with Chelsea Peretti.

Says Erskine: “You just have to always look for that truthful thing that you think no one else is going to relate to.”

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