A Story and a Revolution: An Interview with Naomi McDougall Jones

“I'm going to begin today with a story and end with a revolution…”

That’s how Naomi McDougall Jones kicked off her viral TED Talk, “What It's like to Be a Woman in Hollywood”. As a filmmaker and activist, the link between stories and revolutions is crystal clear to Jones. 

“Stories are not frivolous,” Jones says in her talk, “they’re actually the mechanism through which we process our experience of being alive. They're the way that we understand the world and our place in it. They're the way we develop empathy for people who have experiences different than our own. How would the world be different if all of the stories were told? …This is not about making one industry better. This is about making a better world. The time for waiting is over. The time for the revolution is now.” 

With more attention than ever before being drawn to the fight for gender parity in Hollywood, we reached out to Jones for some practical advice about how to revolutionize the entertainment industry, one story at a time.


OPENLETR: Since you’ve embarked on your filmmaking career, where have you seen the most progress made for underrepresented voices in the industry? Where do you think the most work still needs to be done?

NAOMI: Without question, the greatest strides are being made in television right now. Netflix and Amazon have blown the roof (and pants) off the traditional TV networks and, with shows like Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Insecure, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I Love Dick, Master of None, they have opened the floodgates for shows by and about women and people of color. Even better, they are actively demonstrating the commercial and artistic viability – and audience hunger – for such content. That shift is BEYOND exciting.

The film industry, somewhat inexplicably, remains in the utter dark ages in this respect. Even after this massive cultural shift and conversation, not to mention all of us yelling considerably at them to do a better job, studios are still only giving women 7% of all directing jobs and many studios have precisely zero women attached to direct projects on their upcoming slates. (Remember that women are 51% of the population.) That lack of a shift in 2018 is not only tone deaf and shameful, but it is bad business sense. 

Study after study shows that films by and about women actually make more money on every dollar spent and, as I said, TV is actively demonstrating the audience demand for the same. The only question I have now is whether Hollywood will wake up in time to save itself, or whether they will not and we female filmmakers and POCs will simply build another film industry to the side in order to make the unmade content and deliver it to underserved audiences ourselves. 

OPENLETR: What are some practical steps that people outside of the industry can take to support underrepresented voices in entertainment? 

NAOMI: If you are outside of the industry there are three simple and practical steps you can take to help us make this change and deliver groundbreaking content from voices you have never heard before:

1) Commit to watching one film by a female filmmaker per month. Start there. If you need help finding them, we’ve created a website, www.moviesbyher.com that is an easily searchable database of films directed by women (new and old). Vote with your dollars and viewing hours.

2) We female filmmakers are forced to work outside of the existing system to make our films, which means that we are cut off from most of the financing dollars. We are having to get extremely creative about finding new investors and funding methods to make our films. If you can do ANYTHING to help us finance our films, please do: if you can give $25 to a crowdfunding campaign for a female-driven film, do that (find some here: Seed & Spark and if you can invest more serious money in female-driven films, do that on The51Fund. It is good business sense and good for the world.

3) Spread the word. Believe it or not, a LOT of people – even now, even after all the Weinstein (et al) stuff – are still unaware that there is a lack of women behind and in front of the camera. An easy way to let people know about the issue, why it matters to the world, and what to do about is to share my TED Talk.

OPENLETR: In your TED Talk, you spoke about the pushback you received from industry folks when making your first film with a predominantly female production team. Since the launch of movements like #metoo and Time’s Up, have you noticed a significant shift in that criticism?

NAOMI: Well…I have noticed a shift in that the things people were previously oblivious enough to say out loud: “you’re going to have to get a male producer on your team if you want people to trust you with their money.” The problem is, most people are still thinking those things – it’s just now gone underground. 

My big fear about this moment is that we are having all of these incredible conversations and (some) people are getting “woke” and it is so exciting – it really truly is – and we feel like change is happening. But at some point soon, we’re going to get tired of talking about these things, and I worry that we will feel like we fixed it and should move on, when in fact, nothing tangible has actually shifted.

I want to be extremely clear about this: all of these conversations have not created fundamental change within the system and power structures. What they have created is the opportunity for that change. What they have created is a moment (and it is only a moment) in which we must push harder than we have ever pushed before to create the structural shifts that will make the change real and concrete and lasting. 

Wonder Woman was exciting. The Oscars just nominated the first female cinematographer EVER for an award. That’s good. But, again, women are 51% of the population – one woman here and there does not make gender parity.

Paramount does not have a single female director attached to a film on their slate through 2021. 2021 people!!!

However, we do have a real opening right now. There are significant stressors and fractures throughout the Hollywood mechanisms of power. Let’s take every advantage of them while we’ve still got the world’s attention to break that system open.

OPENLETR: Fighting for equal representation is a burden that so many marginalized filmmakers are forced to take on in addition to the massive effort that goes into making a film. Where do you find that strength and resolve? What inspires you to continue this fight? 

NAOMI: Oh, woman. This is so, so true and something that is not getting acknowledged very much. I (and many other female filmmakers) spend about 50% of my days on my own films/writing/creative work, 50% on women in film activism work with The 51 Fund (a venture capital fund I co-founded that finances films by women), and otherwise trying to move the needle on female inclusion in film.
That means that on top of the monumental systemic hurdles that make own creative career a far steeper climb, I’m also only getting to spend half of the hours in every day that my male colleagues are on their work because I also have to try to make space for people like me (and not like me) in the industry while I’m at it.

That is freaking brutal. It is unfair and hard and deeply, bone-weary exhausting.

But the bottom line is that this is where we are. Women are graduating from film school at 50% and still only getting 7% of the studio jobs. That was not an acceptable statistic ever, and it is most definitely not an acceptable statistic in 2018. And, unfortunately, no one is going to change this for us – we have to make that change for ourselves (and the world).

I don’t believe that we, as female filmmakers, have the privilege of sticking our heads in the sand because, until this changes (truly and permanently), every single one of us and every single female filmmaker who comes after us is going to be in this same, shitty, unfair position. So we just have to do the work to change it. The cycle has to stop somewhere and I wake up every single day determined to do my part to make the industry – and by extension the world – a better place.

It is as simple and complicated as that.