“Anyone out there saving @Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY. We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse to not green-light movies made by and about women.”
Olivia Wilde’s direct pleas to moviegoers last May to buy tickets to her feature film debut signalled a shift in promotion etiquette. The glossy rollout of trailers, reviews, and write ups clearly wasn’t cutting it for Wilde’s financial success. Yet a return to direct address sales pitching for potential moviegoers felt nakedly vulnerable; a glimmer of the GoFundMe pathos peeked through: I have no one else to count on but you. In the end, it worked. I did buy a ticket. And, truthfully, I loved Booksmart. The wit of Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as two BFFs out for their last (and only) wild night on the town, after a lifetime of nerdom, charmed. But the questions that lingered long after the credit rolled were stark: Why did this film financially struggle so much?
The answer to that question hits on multiple levels. There’s the giant gap for success between women and men’s stories, trickling down to the gender differential in the cast, crew, and direction. As of 2018, fewer than four percent of directors were women—and this slims down further when looking at those backed by major studios. Women leads account for fewer than one-third of all protagonists on screen. As more crowdsourced noise crescendoed to promote Booksmart in 2019 (Taylor Swift, Ryan Reynolds, Busy Phillips, and Lili Reinhart and Mindy Kaling all shook the table for ticket sales), I started to wonder about the structural forces at play. Olivia Wilde was well positioned. She’s an accomplished and in-demand actress in her own right, the daughter of an Emmy winner and former Congressional candidate for VA-05. If she can’t break in with ease, who can? If Wilde and her story of two white girls having fun in Cali suburbia can be counted as fringe, a career make-or-break that Wilde can’t afford to lose, who’s winning?
By all accounts, actual losers keep winning. Look no further than Netflix’s recent acquisition of the Three-Body Problem, China’s buzziest sci-fi trilogy, bequeathed to none other than Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. (Note: Other high caliber talent is involved in the project, including Knives Out duo Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman and Alexander Woo of The Terror: Infamy.) In fact, Benioff and Weiss’s careers offer more of a conclusive answer to the Booksmart question than an investigative study of gender gap stats. Because rather than probe who readily falls behind in the system, it’s more a matter of who consistently, luxuriously fails up. If Wilde’s desperation to self-promote her debut was driven from a rightful fear of getting locked out of the industry after a commercial bomb, Benioff and Weiss have never seen even the shadow of a similar consequence in their careers from start to finish.
Benioff and Weiss’ arrival in the industry and explosion into the limelight with Game of Thrones doesn’t even orbit the world of meritocracy. In the creators’ own words, they both admit they fell into possession of the franchise. George R. R. Martin questioned their credentials and experience in a pre-meeting—their honest answer to both being we “don’t have any”—and still managed to secure the rights as showrunners. From their comments at the Austin Film Festival, Benioff and Weiss treated Game of Thrones like a learning experience, likening the privilege of running HBO’s biggest show to “an expensive film school.” This type of ignorance-first mentality trickled down to their failure to hire a writers room, and creative collaborations with other talent was slim. This same lack of diversity may explain the readiness of Benioff and Weiss to lead with horror and terror at the expense of the identity groups they don’t understand, namely women. Their instinct to lead with rape as a default display of horror for audiences, while also not understanding the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex, was widely overexercised. Again, this is coming from Benioff who straight-facedly stated that “Themes are for eighth grade book reports.” So expectations should have been tempered from the get-go.
And then there’s the spectacle of Season 8, a paragon of failure. From storylines that patently didn’t make sense, to tying up Daenerys’ character arc with Mo Ryan’s apt description of the “bitches be crazy” cliche, fans had a right to be enraged. Reddit hordes went so far as to brand Benioff and Weiss with a digital scarlet letter — a targeted campaign to bump images of both men to the top of Google image results for “bad writers.” But while the criticism was unrelenting, Benioff and Weiss were met with even bigger opportunities after their “The Bells”-style immolation of their credentials. Their ill-advised alternate history series Confederate was picked up in 2017 by HBO and then quietly buried after public and institutional backlash. Benioff and Weiss then got tapped by Lucasfilms to run the Star Wars universe for a new trilogy, only to exit the project after Netflix offered the duo a reported 200 million dollar contract.
If money signals industry support, Benioff and Weiss have Hollywood’s full ear. And for what cause? If anything, they represent the Little Caesar’s model of creative production: They’ll scream that they have something hot and ready, but clarifying that it’s good is another story. There’s no doubt to me the duo received an unwarranted and streamlined road to the top. The community’s ire at them is justified. Consider the amount of voices smothered for their ability to rise and use an HBO’s keystone show as an internship. Stay angry that an individual like Olivia Wilde can embarrassingly still be classified as an underdog figure. Watch Benioff and Weiss’ last TV cameo in Westworld, where they have a Drogon lookalike ready to dismember in Park Four. Tell me that men like that don’t carve up your aspirations, your stories—because what is your wingless dream to them?
This article has been updated to include additional information about the diversity of The Three-Body Problem’s executive producing team at Netflix, which neglected to mention the range of EP talent working on the project. We regret that erasure of parties involved.
Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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