Actresses and their production companies: How Vikander, Theron, Witherspoon, Portman, Robbie and more are influencing behind the camera as well as in front

Setting up a film company has become commonplace among actresses including Alicia Vikander, Natalie Portman and Margot Robbie, as a way of defying sexist bosses and retaining creative and financial control 

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 15 November 2017 12:37
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Actresses have set up their own production companies to retain control
Actresses have set up their own production companies to retain control

When Alicia Vikander launched her production company, Vikarious, last year, the Swedish star of The Danish Girl, Ex Machina and Tomb Raider was reacting against a subtle but persistent chauvinism she had encountered almost every time she appeared in a movie.

Vikander had just made four features in a row in which she played the lead. She couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t have a single scene with another woman in any of them. “That’s just nuts, really,” she said. On the films she produces through Vikarious, women will always be foregrounded. The point about Lisa Langseth’s Euphoria, the first feature made through Vikarious and in which Vikander stars, is that all the main characters are women.

“I was extremely thrilled to be on a set where I found myself working with women because I haven’t done it that much. That’s just sad,” Vikander commented earlier this autumn at the Zurich Film Festival. “I want to get the best and most qualified people for the job we do, and we had a lot of women both in front of and behind the camera. We talk a lot about this.”

Vikander is hardly the first leading female star to launch her own production outfit. This has been happening since at least 1919, when Mary Pickford, “America’s sweetheart” as she was dubbed and also Hollywood’s first “million-dollar” actress, co-founded United Artists. A famously astute businesswoman, Pickford was determined to ensure that the Hollywood studio bosses weren’t able to put salary restrictions on her. She didn’t just demand a huge fee upfront but a percentage of the profits too, as well as control over how her films were marketed and distributed.

'Tomb Raider' star Alicia Vikander launched her production company Vikarious last year

Since Pickford’s time, setting up a production company has become commonplace among female stars. It’s a way of asserting independence, defying sexist bosses and trying to take financial and creative control of a career.

In the wake of recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s harassment of actresses, it is even more obvious why these stars are forming their own companies. If they are involved in the casting and financing of their films, they won’t be obliged to take meetings in hotel rooms with hirsute moguls in dressing gowns. They’ll retain some creative control.

“We’re clearly seeing more women realising that if they want substantial roles, they will have to create them,” says Dr Martha M Lauzen, executive director of the San Diego-based Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film. “While we have seen actresses create their own production companies since the early days of film, it does seem that women who have some power in their business are now using that influence to fill the void left by largely male teams of writers and producers.”

Lauzen makes the practical point that when the writers, directors and producers are predominantly male and are making movies about their own experiences, they’re likely to come up with stories featuring male characters. By forming their own production companies, female stars can help buck this trend and ensure they get decent roles too.

Margot Robbie recently launched LuckyChap Entertainment and has made films in which she starred such as skating biopic ‘I, Tonya’ (above) and thriller ‘Terminal’ through the company

“Research has documented that films with women directors and/or writers also feature more female protagonists. According to the latest It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World study, in films with at least one women director and/or writer, females comprised 57 per cent of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for 18 per cent of protagonists,” Lauzen notes.

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Over the past 25 years, many leading female stars have set up their own production companies as a matter of course. Jodie Foster hatched Egg Pictures (“It’s feminine and about beginnings and doesn’t sound like Greek mythology,” she explained the name to Entertainment Weekly) in 1992 and made such pictures as Nell and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys through it. Drew Barrymore launched her company Flower Films in 1995 and went on to produce everything from cult movie Donnie Darko to Never Been Kissed and Charlie’s Angels.

Natalie Portman works through handsomecharlie films (named after her pet dog). Salma Hayek’s Ventanarosa Productions was not only behind her 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic Frida but also developed and produced the hit TV series Ugly Betty. Sandra Bullock founded Fortis Films in the mid 1990s “to find good roles for herself and gain creative control over the way projects evolve”, as Variety put it. Kirsten Dunst’s Wooden Spoons Productions is named in memory of her grandmother, who used to keep her in line with a wooden spoon. Lisa Kudrow’s Is Or Isn’t Entertainment has picked up several Emmy nominations for its TV productions. Jennifer Love Hewitt produced and starred in risqué TV drama The Client List through her company, Fedora Films. Eva Longoria’s UnbeliEVAble Entertainment looks to provide opportunities for Latinos.

Elizabeth Banks with John Michael Higgins in ‘Pitch Perfect 3’. Banks’s film company Brownstone Productions is behind the Pitch Perfect franchise

Charlize Theron’s Denver and Delilah Productions (also named after dogs) has been making independent film and TV drama for well over a decade. “Female-centric stories about complicated women” is how her business partner Beth Kono recently characterised the type of projects it embraces, whether grim biopics like Monster or violent thrillers like Atomic Blonde. Reese Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard has been behind such films as Gone Girl and Wild.

In 2015, Rose Byrne, the Australian star of Damages, together with four other Australian women formed The Dollhouse Collective, a company committed to “female driven storytelling”. One of its first films, Shannon Murphy’s short Eaglehawk (2016), screened widely on the festival circuit.

Byrne’s fellow Australian Margot Robbie recently launched LuckyChap Entertainment and has made such films in which she starred as skating biopic and dark comedy I, Tonya and thriller Terminal through the company.

Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919 (Universal History Archive/Rex)

Earlier this autumn, Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams launched Daisy Chain Productions, telling the British trade press that she wanted to give young talent “the opportunities that I was lucky enough to receive at the beginning of my career”. Another Game Of Thrones star, Lena Headey, turned executive producer for new refugee drama The Flood, in which she plays an immigration officer pondering the fate of an asylum seeker.

Gemma Arterton’s Rebel Park Productions has been active for several years, and Arterton has long railed against the sexism she has encountered in film and TV. “When you make films about women, you can’t get financing in the same way you would if it was a film about men,” she told one interviewer. Like Vikander’s Vikarious, Rebel Park is committed to giving female directors opportunities.

“Female stars were immediately attracted to the idea of female producers, and, as they watched us, they began producing themselves, wrapping themselves in their own leverage, which, before, had always been used by others. This was a sea change,” Sleepless In Seattle producer Lynda Obst wrote in the New Yorker this month about a transformational period from the 1980s onward when women like Dawn Steele, Sherry Lansing and, a little later, Amy Pascal, became studio bosses and when many of the most successful movies were produced by women.

Sandra Bullock founded Fortis Films in the mid 1990s to find good roles for herself and gain creative control

Even so, data gathered this summer by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television & Film for its Women in Independent Film 2016-17 report revealed that independent films in the US “employed more than twice as many men as women (72 per cent compared with 28 per cent) as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers.”

Look at the track records of the production companies launched by female stars and you realise that relatively few have prospered over a prolonged period. When a star’s popularity wanes, her production company will often wither away. “Change is slow and people don’t like to share. They especially don’t like to share power, or money, or resources,” Hunger Games actress turned producer and director Elizabeth Banks (who runs Brownstone Productions, the outfit that made the Pitch Perfect films) recently told Vanity Fair.

Nonetheless, if the gender balance is to be shifted and different types of stories to be told, female stars like Vikander realise that they need influence behind as well as in front of the cameras.

‘Pitch Perfect 3’ is out on 22 December

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