Jane Rosenthal wasn’t mincing words about the slow growth of women’s representation behind the camera in Hollywood: “The statistics are bleak,” she said Sept. 20 at the Through Her Lens luncheon, presented by Chanel at New York’s Locanda Verde restaurant in the Greenwich Hotel. “The numbers have hardly budged over the years, despite assumed progress.”
Indeed, even as conversations about women-helmed projects have heightened in recent years, Rosenthal pointed to industry figures gathered since 1998, noting that the percentage of women directors, writers, producers and cinematographers since then had only increased by four percent. “More than two decades and an increase of only 4 percent? You’ve gotta be kidding me,” added Rosenthal, the CEO and co-founder of Tribeca Enterprises, host of the annual Tribeca Film Festival, set for June 7-18 in 2023.
If she sounded frustrated, the reason was partly to illustrate why programs like Chanel’s Through Her Lens are imperative. “You don’t find many companies that really want to take the time to mentor women filmmakers and see it through to fruition,” Rosenthal told The Hollywood Reporter. “If we can’t help each other and bring each other up, nobody else will, and that’s what’s extraordinary about this mentorship.”
This is the eighth year that the iconic French brand has supported women in film via its Through Her Lens initiative, which partners with Tribeca Studios to identify five teams of women — a writer/director paired with a producer — who are seeking funding for their short-film projects. Teams participate in three days of workshops, master classes, peer networking and one-on-one mentoring sessions to both present and refine their projects; at the conclusion of the juried program, a total of $100,000 is awarded across the five teams, with one team selected to receive the full funding to produce their short film.
Hollywood heavy hitters participating in this edition of Through Her Lens include actor Annette Bening, who is serving as a program mentor, and writer/director Patty Jenkins, who is leading a master class focusing on directing and the challenges of being a woman in the industry. “Within an industry that’s driven by money, it’s very easy for people to model what the future is by past performance,” the Wonder Woman director told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. “Obviously we’re seeing that we need to celebrate and encourage more diverse voices and that those voices can succeed. That’s why Chanel making this effort to help people develop that themselves and take their first step into the industry is huge and something I really believe in.”
Paula Weinstein, chief content officer for Tribeca Enterprises and a Through Her Lens juror this year, pointed to Chanel’s commitment to the program by noting that it’s never positioned as a marketing opportunity. “They don’t advertise around it; they’re really in this to support women,” she said on the red carpet. “We have a lot of terrific partners who use their voices and open doors in many ways, but Chanel is just different. They keep it very separate and don’t look for a lot for themselves around the giving.”
Through Her Lens also offers Chanel an opportunity to celebrate its own history in film. Gabrielle Chanel famously worked with Samuel Goldwyn in the early 1930s, designing costumes for films like 1931’s Tonight or Never, starring Gloria Swanson, and later worked with Jean Renoir on 1939’s The Rules of the Game. Fast-forward more than 90 years, and Chanel’s considerable clout as a high-wattage fashion brand not only shines a spotlight on Through Her Lens, it also attracts a healthy contingent of women in the industry to both participate and support the program. Also at Tuesday’s luncheon: Myha’la Herrold, Katie Holmes, Grace Gummer, Zosia Mamet, Eve Hewson, Jennifer Morrison, Alexandra Shipp and Thuso Mbedu, with the latter three women serving alongside Weinstein as Through Her Lens jurors.
“When I arrived in New York last night, I looked at the program and thought how much I’d love to participate in all of these events myself, to work with the incredible mentors and attend the master classes,” said Morrison, whose next project is to direct four episodes of Peacock’s Dr. Death. “This is an industry in which nobody really tells you how to start or how to figure out what to do next. There are no rules, and everyone has a different journey and a different path. That’s why programs like this, offering mentorships and experiences, are so important. It helps to democratize the artistry of what we’re doing.”
Mamet — who’s about to publish her first book of edited essays, titled My First Popsicle: An Anthology of Food and Feelings — agreed. “When big companies like Chanel, which have a lot of eyes on them, are able to highlight a program like this, it benefits everyone,” she said. “And in a partnership with Tribeca, I also look at it as the most quintessential New York mash-up. They’re continuing to double down to support this initiative, and it sends a message we need to be reminded of, and it’s a good reminder.”
Mbedu is a first-time participant of Through Her Lens, but as a co-star opposite Viola Davis in The Woman King, she’s also enjoying the success of a high-profile project that focuses on women both in front of and behind the camera (Davis is another producer of the just-released film inspired by true events). “I’m so happy for Viola and [director Gina Prince-Bythewood],” Mbedu said of the film’s much-touted $19 million opening weekend. “It was my first feature film and an amazing experience, but even after I had begun training for my role, both Gina and Viola were still fighting to make this project happen and to prove the worth of the project. So for the [opening] weekend to turn out the way it did, I am breathing more easily for these two incredible women, while it also proves that audiences want these stories.”
Shipp likewise had only good things to say about recent work with a woman director: Greta Gerwig, who directed the Love, Simon actress in her Barbie movie alongside star and producer Margot Robbie. “Greta is a brilliant director, and it’s crazy to think there are so many talented directors out there who aren’t afforded the same opportunities because they’re women,” Shipp said ahead of Barbie’s expected July 2023 release. “My No. 1 priority is to work with women, queer people and people of color; I want people like me to see that onscreen and know it was made for us, by us.”
The women attending Tuesday’s event roundly agreed that, while these and other success stories rightfully should be celebrated, the goal to create parity in the industry is far from realized. “I find that we get a push in the right direction, and then it stops, and it’s all men again,” Hewson said. “We need more programs like this. It’s about keeping the conversation going and creating a sense of community. That’s how we all succeed — the industry most of all.”