Occupy Hollywood

This just isn’t going to be your year.” Naomi Bishop, the female protagonist of Equity played by Emmy-winning Breaking Bad alum Anna Gunn, is not having a good year. And she doesn’t need her patronizing male boss to tell her so. Naomi is a Wall Street broker whose IPO—along with her personal life—has just unraveled before our eyes. In response to her imminent ousting, she whips her hand through the Jenga tower on her boss’s desk, toppling blocks everywhere. Earlier in the film, Naomi pulls a block out from this same tower with ease, an assurance to her boss—and to all of us watching—that she will be a rainmaker for the firm. Now that vision has crumbled. Perhaps it simply needs to be rebuilt, on her own terms.

Jenga? Wall Street? Didn’t we already see this play out in The Big Short? While it was too late in the editing process to remove the Jenga scene from Equity once the team got wind that the future Oscar- and Golden Globe-snagging film had a similar one, it is a fortuitous coincidence. What better vehicle could there be to show the distinction between Wall Street films shot through male and female lenses? Whereas The Big Short’s toppling tower explains how the market was propped up by bad bonds—a genderless analogy in a male-dominated film—Equity’s collapse illustrates the precarious foundation upon which women ascend Wall Street, and that in some respects, the game might be rigged against them from the beginning. It’s all a bit heavy-handed, but that’s precisely the point.

“Women are always aware of having to be a little bit better and work a little bit harder to get the same recognition,” says Greenwich resident and Washington native Susan Bevan, coproducer of Equity and the ringleader who brought the Greenwich investors together. A former lawyer, Susan is the national cochairwoman of the Republican Majority for Choice (you might have heard about her speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court back in March). With a résumé that includes working as an attorney in the commodities industry in California, Chicago and New York, which culminated in running a commodities clearing business for DLJ Futures, Susan remembers the disparity like it was yesterday. “I was the first one to come in and the last one to leave, every night. The guys may have had the same learning curve but didn’t feel the need to put in the extra time,” she says. “The good old boys network, as we all know, protects the guys, and we are not there yet.”
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
While boys’ clubs may still dominate Wall Street, girls’ clubs make Wall Street movies happen. It was Susan’s longtime friend and cochair Candy Straight, former investment banker, independent director and CFO who sits on numerous boards, who tipped her off about Equity. Candy, who served as Wall Street advisor to the film’s executive producers and stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, also joined as executive producer. “I’ve known Candy for fifteen years, and she dots every i and crosses every t, and if she was an investor, I felt a great deal of comfort in signing on,” says Susan. “I knew it had been well-vetted.”

The timing was also serendipitous. Just a week earlier, Susan had read an article about the Cannes Film Festival, which called for more women in films, more women producers, more women writers, more women stories. “Candy took me to a dog and pony show at Sarah’s apartment for potential investors,” says Susan. “Sarah showed us her film Backwards, about female rowers, and we agreed that the quality was excellent.” Sarah’s conviction was equally captivating. “My larger mission as a producer and an actress is telling stories about women that haven’t been told on-screen,” says Sarah, who plays Erin Manning, Naomi’s VP underling at the firm. “In other Wall Street movies, women are in the background, as waitresses, girlfriends, wives. We wanted to bring strong female characters to the forefront.”

Alysia, an award-winning actress and humanitarian whom you’ve likely seen as Fig on Orange Is the New Black, brought another perspective to their investors’ pitch. Namely, the intricately knotted, uncomfortable themes of gender politics and women’s attitudes about money that need to be dug up and deconstructed in order to level the playing field. “I initially wasn’t interested in the project because the Wall Street theme didn’t speak to my heart, but then I had a thought,” remembers Alysia, who plays corruption-busting lawyer Samantha Ryan and delivers a deliciously feminist spin on Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech in the film. “What if we could make change for women and equality? What if we really could help change things with this movie?” says Alysia. “I like to think of it as a stealth-bomb social impact film.”

Clearly, the two women made an impact on Susan. “Afterward I said to Sarah and Alysia, ‘Listen, I know a lot of Wall Street women in Greenwich,’” says Susan. “‘I bet you some of them would be interested in investing.’”
CLOSE TO HOME
It wasn’t long before Alysia and Sarah were standing in Susan’s Greenwich living room, animatedly delivering another investor presentation to a coterie of power players. “Greenwich women are the smartest women you’ll ever meet,” says Susan. “They’re highly educated, have had high-powered careers on Wall Street or elsewhere, and are a joy to interact with intellectually. Any of them could be Naomi.” By the end of the presentation, four newcomers had joined a growing circle of investors in Manhattan and beyond: Greenwich locals Linda Munger, Audrey McNiff, Susan Hinrichs, and Urling Searle (the latter two are also members of Susan’s investing club).

What was it that got these women to sign on the line? “I was thrilled at the opportunity to invest in Equity because I had a background in film financing,” says Susan Hinrichs, who is currently at Riverview Capital, LLC, and has served as vice president of corporate lending at Wells Fargo Bank, focusing on leverage-buyout finance, and European American Bank concentrating on project financing in the entertainment and media sectors. Taking the leap was a no-brainer for her, who along with Urling, did not participate at the producer level; but are acknowledged with “special thanks” in the film’s credits. “After reading the script and feeling a level of comfort after speaking with Alysia and Sarah, it was about the opportunity to invest in an independent film with people I admired and people I wanted to get to know better and to support the women involved in the film,” she says. “There’s something about financing a movie that is exciting, and that in and of itself was worth my investment.”

Another selling point was that the film’s creators did not want to cast a young actress to play the lead. “Right away, I thought, these women get it. They’re not doing a fluff movie. They’re really trying to portray what it’s like to be a seasoned woman on Wall Street,” says Equity coproducer Audrey McNiff, whose nearly thirty-year career in banking included being managing director and co-head of currency sales at Goldman Sachs, where she worked from 1992 until 2009. “I worked on a trading floor, which is like investment banking on steroids in terms of the atmosphere and lack of women,” she says. “I never had a woman manager in my whole career. I saw the men were running the show, and what I found was interesting as I got more senior and we tried to introduce more programs to push women along, whether it’s a network or mentoring, is that younger women didn’t want to be mentored by women. They looked around and saw that the guys were more successful and wanted to learn their style.”

This parallels Naomi’s main hurdle in the film, which touched a personal chord with Audrey. “I could see the frustration she had trying to be herself, trying to keep it together, trying to be a woman in a man’s world and then finally succumbing and becoming more like them, and then finding out that it wasn’t acceptable,” she says.

Equity’s storyline also resonated with Equity coproducer Linda Munger’s Wall Street experience. “When I started my career on the Bankers Trust trading floor in 1982, I was pleased to discover that there were a number of strong, successful, senior women there in what I knew going in was a male-dominated business,” says Linda. “We called ourselves the “Bond Debs” at the time. The guys dubbed us the “Bond Bitches” in response. We laughed and took it as a positive sign that they were intimidated by us.” But when she switched to Lehman Brothers to work in mortgage-backed securities, the ground shifted beneath her. “There were no senior women on the entire fixed income trading floor,” she says. “It was tough to navigate without role models and I couldn’t sleep past 3 a.m. for a couple of years from the stress,” Linda remembers. “It was very unforgiving and a rough place to have to figure it out on your own as a woman playing in a male sandbox.”

The trick was knowing when sand turned into quicksand. “It could be an intense environment of screaming matches, or quite convivial with lots of joking around, pranks and socializing,” says Linda. “You can’t be a stick in the mud, but you have to be taken seriously as a woman or you will be written off more quickly than anybody.” Or would you? That question was raised when the sole female managing director, the woman held up to show that Lehman promoted women, was found to be having an affair with one of the guys running the trading floor. “That was the biggest blow, to all of us,” says Linda.
SEXUAL POLITICS
Getting promoted “the old fashioned way” may seem to have gone the way of shoulder pads and three-martini lunches, but, in fact, Equity has a similar storyline. Erin, a VP, angles to be taken seriously by clients who regard her as a sex object, yet it is flexing her femininity to varying calibrations that ultimately vaults her above her boss. It may not be smiled upon, but it’s reflective of the choices some women feel forced to make within Wall Street’s cutthroat culture.

“Because we had the freedom to explore three strong female characters,” says Equity’s screenwriter Amy Fox, “we could show the spectrum of how women could react in compromising scenarios.” One of her favorite films, along with Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street, is Dangerous Liaisons. “What we see is that when you strip away all of a woman’s power, she is left with her sexuality. It is a tool in a woman’s toolbox.”

It was Amy’s elegantly written script—which wasn’t afraid to explore how sexuality and ambition intersect on the competitive chessboard of its enigmatic queens, or pawns, depending on how you look at it—that sold Equity director and 2013 Nora Ephron Prize-winner Meera Menon on the project. A few years earlier, Meera herself had tried to write a movie about a woman who worked in sales and trading. The concept had been inspired by the real life of Zoe Cruz and her journey as an immigrant woman who rose to become copresident of Morgan Stanley. “I had always been compelled by how harsh the Wall Street environment was in terms of promotion and visibility for women,” says Meera. “From a feminist perspective, the environment presents a fascinating set of parameters for character work because it is wired against a woman’s success.”

What makes Equity so interesting is that rather than throwing shade at women’s ambition and morality (or lack thereof), the film forces us to question the system in which these driving forces operate.

“There are so many different issues that can be discussed on so many levels in this movie,” says Susan Bevan. “The tension of the mommy track that Erin’s character struggles with, for example. When I had my first child, I contemplated trying to do a job share, but there was no one else at my level and no one to share it with. We have to figure out ways to value women for their contributions other than time spent. The movie tees up that discussion and many others.”
CHANGING A TIRED PARADIGM
The fact that Sony Pictures purchased Equity the day before it premiered at Sundance, and that Sundance accepted the film’s submission into its crowded Dramatic Feature category at the tail end of its rolling deadline, is proof squared that there is growing demand for female-centric, female-created content. But the numbers aren’t catching up fast enough. Women make up just 4 percent of the lead characters in movies from male filmmakers, while occupying 39 percent of protagonists from films written and directed by women—the larger issue being that women represented just 9 percent of directors in the 250 top-grossing films last year.

Additionally, women comprised just 26 percent of producers, 22 percent of editors, 20 percent of executive producers, 11 percent of writers and 6 percent of cinematographers in 2015.

“That’s one of the things that I thought was so fascinating about investing in Equity,” says Linda Munger. “It’s basically a two-for, because in the last year especially, there has been so much press about the lack of opportunities for women on both sides of the camera. And here you’ve got a setup that is a huge aberration from the norm. You’ve got women behind and in front of the camera leading the film.”

Also worth noting is that the majority of funding for the film came from women.

“There’s a perception that women don’t write checks as readily as men do, be it for charitable contributions or other causes,” says Linda. “I think it’s really significant that it was women opening their wallets and their Rolodexes to make sure that a film championing women got made.” Not only did it get made, it made itself profitable. Shot in a mere twenty-seven days and well within its low seven-figure budget, Equity sold for $3.5 million. And yes, because you’ve been secretly wondering: Its investors are set to recoup their investment, and then some.

So while it just wasn’t Naomi’s year, it certainly is Equity’s. And maybe Susan Bevan’s and Linda Munger’s too. Don’t blink and you’ll see cameos of them both in the film, playing—what else?—investors.
Equity will be released in New York and Los Angeles on July 29. On August 16 there will be a Q&A and screening at the Avon Theatre in Stamford and an official opening on August 26.


FILM INVESTING 101

Want to get your feet wet in film finance? Susan Hinrichs, Audrey McNiff and Linda Munger share their insights…so you can steer clear of getting suckered into the next Gigli.

1 GETTING INVOLVED

  • “Ask yourself, ‘Is this a film with a message that I could be proud to be a part of and I’d feel good explaining to people?’ The actor or actress alone is not enough to base your decision to invest on. It has to be a vehicle that expresses something in a way that is logical and meaningful and people aren’t going to scratch their head wondering what they just saw.” –AUDREY
  • “Get comfortable with the producers. Sit down with them and see how detailed their vision is and if the film really has legs, both in concept and in execution. What were their past projects? Do your research.”  –LINDA
  • “Request a copy of the script and read it. It will help you be a good judge of what you’re getting into. There may be certain scenes or language you may not want to be affiliated with.” –SUSAN H
  • “Ask probing questions. How are they going about raising the rest of the money? How are they getting the interest of an agency like ICM or CAA to represent the film? One of the critical aspects of getting a movie out into the world involves being repped by a reputable agency.” –LINDA

2 STRIKING A DEAL

  • “A conservative way of structuring a deal, which is good if you are new to the world of film investing, is being first in and first out. You tell yourself, ‘I’m the first to put the money in and I’m the first to get paid back, therefore I have a limited risk, but also limited upside potential.’ There are other ways of structuring a deal where you are “paripassu” with the talent and you all share in the upside, but you all share in the downside. ” –AUDREY
  • “Check that the contract stipulates that all monies must be raised to complete the film before filming begins. You don’t want them running out of funds halfway through and you’re left with an incomplete picture. Also make sure you are protected should something go wrong on set and you have to reshoot.” –SUSAN H
  • “In a movie with a tight budget, knowing that the key players—the leads, for example—are not getting paid much can actually be reassuring to an investor. Their payout comes if the film becomes a big success. There’s an embedded incentive for everyone to try to make the movie as big a success as possible.” –LINDA

3 RISK VS. REWARD

  • “Realize that there can be different distribution scenarios for the film which affect your bottom line. It’s so different than even a few years ago because so many films are getting bought and going straight to Netflix and Amazon. Sometimes you’ll get bought only for US Distribution by X, Y or Z entity and you have to find a separate international distributor.” –LINDA
  • “Look at it as a private equity investment with an asterisk next to it that was says, ‘There is entertainment and/or philanthropic value attached to this project that is the equivalent of some principal and some return.’ So even if you don’t get back all of your principal, you’ll have gotten enjoyment out of it. Whereas when I get involved in other private equity deals, it is for the return only.” –AUDREY
  • “The world is littered with venture capital funds that will lose money nine times out of ten. It’s that tenth deal that hopefully recoups the partners’ investments. I invested in Equity because I wanted to be involved, not because I needed to get my money back.” –SUSAN H
  • “No matter how much homework you do, it is a speculative investment in the end and you have to be able to lose every dollar.” –LINDA

 

 

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