Q. What do Lincoln, E.T., The Color Purple, War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park, 12 Years a Slave, Eat Pray Love, A Mighty Heart, World War Z, Jane Eyre, Saving Mr. Banks, Proof, Elizabeth, The Master, American Hustle, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Inception, Hustle & Flow, The Hunger Games, Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 3 have in common?
A. They were all produced by women.
Look around. Female producers are everywhere: Shepherding the new Star Wars trilogy. Bringing the latest Hunger Games to theaters. And in February, when Oscar night rolls around, 11 women could be competing to take the stage when the Best Picture prize is announced.
It’s an impressive—and improbable—feat. The large number of successful female producers working on Hollywood’s most important films today belies some pretty depressing statistics: According to a 2012 study conducted by the Los Angeles Times, women make up only 18 percent of the producers’ branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Yet women such as Kathleen Kennedy (Star Wars: Episode VII), Nina Jacobson (the Hunger Games franchise), and Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty), among others, have managed to excel in a business that is consistently maligned for the dearth of estrogen in its creative ranks. (If you think that 18 percent figure is bad, the percentages of female directors, writers, and cinematographers are far worse.) Since 1973, 65 Best Picture nominees have listed at least one woman as a credited producer. By contrast, only eight Best Picture contenders have been directed by women. That chasmic disparity can be explained, in large part, by the fact that producers generate their own work. They’re more like small-business owners than employees.
“Producers just produce,” says Emma Thomas, the woman behind husband Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and this fall’s Interstellar. “You put the team together. You put the project together. You’re driving the bus rather than having to be hired.” Put more bluntly, unlike female directors, female producers don’t have to persuade studio executives to give them a job. But that’s not the only reason they’ve been able to break through Hollywood’s glass ceiling while their sisters in other industry professions continue to crack their heads on it.
A producer’s job is complex. It can encompass everything from optioning manuscripts and hiring screenwriters to managing budgets, scrounging up financing, and wrangling talent. The tendency is to chalk up the success of women such as Kennedy—now president of LucasFilm—to the reductive notion that stereotypical female traits (e.g., patience, understanding, loyalty) simply align well with a producer’s job requirements. A more accurate reason is that there are dozens of potential paths to become a producer, and therefore more opportunities to seize.
Kennedy began her career in the late ’70s as Steven Spielberg’s secretary, but Spielberg tells EW that her “creative intuition” while working as his assistant on 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially “in the crowded streets in Kairouan, Tunisia…gaining the cooperation and participation of the people living there,” inspired him to hire her as a producer on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. She took her shot and ran with it, architecting one of the most impressive filmographies in the business.
By contrast, rising powerhouse Ellison, who produced two of 2013’s Best Picture nominees (Her and American Hustle), is heir to a financial fortune. The 28-year-old is the daughter of Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison, and in just a few years she has single-handedly altered the Oscar landscape by self-financing challenging filmmaker-driven projects that studios are often reluctant to back, including this year’s Oscar hopeful Foxcatcher.
Others took the slow and steady route. Dede Gardner, producer of Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, started her career as a location scout before delving into the publishing world as a literary agent at William Morris. Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow) began as a reader for the talent agency CAA. And Hunger Games producer Jacobson edged into Hollywood as a researcher for another female producing heavyweight, Lauren Shuler Donner (the X-Men franchise).
The rise of female producers extends beyond live action. The historically male-driven world of feature animation has experienced a virtual estrogen revolution. While Pixar still has hired only one woman to direct a movie (Brave), eight out of 10 producers on the studio’s Northern California lot are female, including the grande dame of the genre, Darla K. Anderson (Toy Story 3). “She is insanely smart,” says Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter. “She keeps the sense of camaraderie within the production, and in animation that can be for four years.”
So sexism is dead in Hollywood and we can all stop worrying. Right? Not quite. Some insiders are beginning to fret that this producer boom might go bust. Studios have been slashing the on-lot producer deals that allow young producers to evolve into the next Kennedy or Jacobson. “We have a system right now that devalues producers,” says Brad Simpson, Jacobson’s producing partner, who names acclaimed indie producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry) as his mentor and recently teamed with Gardner on World War Z. “There aren’t as many opportunities to get the training. I worry about the next generation.”
That includes British producer Alison Owen, who has crafted her career with character-driven dramas (Saving Mr. Banks) and literary adaptations (Jane Eyre). “You won’t see me doing Transformers 5,” she says with a laugh. “If you look back on professions, when they became undervalued and paid less, women tended to do better in them. Nursing used to be a highly paid profession during Victorian times [when men did it], and then when women were admitted wages plummeted.”
For now, though, that’s not stopping women from propelling their projects to the screen. This fall, Oscar buzz is mounting for films produced by Ellison, Gardner, Thomas, Molly Smith (The Good Lie), Helen Estabrook (Whiplash), Ceán Chaffin (Gone Girl), Nora Grossman (The Imitation Game), and Lisa Bruce (The Theory of Everything), among others. “When I think back to the last 20 years, to which producers have done the work that I love, yes, there are men on that list,” Simpson says. “But primarily it’s a group of focused, passionate no-nonsense women who are behind those movies.” If they can produce a sea change in Hollywood, all the better.
While there are dozens of women producing films, these eight are among the best. Their styles, tastes, and genres vary, but together they represent the breadth and depth of filmmaking talent today. Clockwise from top left:
Kathleen Kennedy: The Star Warrior
With 28 producer credits under her belt and eight Oscar nominations—including most of Steven Spielberg’s films—she’s the platinum standard for producers of either sex. Now she’s heading up LucasFilm and producing the new Star Wars movie.
Dede Gardner: The Quiet Storm
On the surface, World War Z and 12 Years a Slave have zero in common, yet both exemplify her intelligence and unerring eye. Brad Pitt may be her producing partner, but she’s become a titan on her own merits. Next: the MLK biopic Selma.
Alison Owen: The Couturier
Working with only the finest material, Owen has become a signature force in the United Kingdom, bringing her refined sensibilities to the market with films such as Saving Mr. Banks, Shaun of the Dead, and Elizabeth.
Megan Ellison: The High Roller
Her willingness to finance and produce risky material from gifted auteurs has rocketed her to the A list. Between Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, and November’s Foxcatcher, it seems everything she touches turns to Oscar bait.
Darla K. Anderson: The Animated ATM
She may not be a household name, but her movies sure are. Titles such as A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Cars, and Toy Story 3 have made her a Pixar lifer. Her movies have grossed more, on average, than those of any producer working today.
Nina Jacobson: The Gameskeeper
One of the highest-ranking studio execs (she was president of production at Disney) to segue to producer, she specializes in snagging hot literary titles, including Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the box-office-behemoth Hunger Games franchise.
Stephanie Allain: The Independent
This former studio exec, who shepherded Boyz N the Hood to the big screen, has become the formidable indie producer behind Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, and this year’s Beyond the Lights. She’s also director of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Emma Thomas: The Dream Guardian
Director Christopher Nolan is her husband, but she possesses her own exacting taste and creative instincts, and she protects his vision. Their 16-year collaboration has produced some of the best films of recent years (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception).
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Oct. 10 issue.