Funding For Women In Film: New Study Peels Off Layers Of Inequity

By Nelson Granados

It is well understood that the media and entertainment industry has a long way to go to achieve equal representation among men and women, for example in acting and studio executive roles. A new study extends this unfortunate reality by showing how funding for women-owned businesses in screen industries is much lower than for men-owned businesses. This may not be surprising for some, because it is consistent with inequity in other fronts. But what is surprising is that the study shows that even for women who have solid experience, credentials, and network to lure investors, it’s still an uphill battle. The study has a silver lining, by presenting tangible solutions.

The study was performed by Alicia Jessop, professor at Pepperdine University, in partnership with Women in Film and supported by Pepperdine’s Institute for Entertainment, Media, and Sports, and by its Center for Women in Leadership. It lays out, one by one, the main drivers of underinvestment in women-owned businesses. Let me peel off the drivers of this inequity, to lay bare the major challenges for women entrepreneurs that Variety labels the “funding mountain to climb.”

The Dire Stats

Based on 114 quantitative surveys and 66 in-depth qualitative interviews, the study found that in 2018, only 18.6% of studio subsidized film deals and 35.7% of studio subsidized television deals were with women-owned companies. This result is based on a definition of “woman-owned business” as one where a woman owns at least a 50% stake. According to the study, if the threshold would have been “majority owned by women” or 51%, the results would have been even worse.

Needless to say, the situation for women entrepreneurs in film and television is dismal, in terms of funding opportunities. Why is that? 

Peeling the Layers of a Vicious Cycle

It all starts with the lack of representation of women in the workplace. Numerous studies have shown the lack of representation of women in executive positions in media and entertainment. From the start, a woman entrepreneur hits against a glass ceiling. An investor who may debate between funding a man-owned business vs a woman-owned business is likely to pick the former simply because men are 8 to 9 times more likely than women to hold a top executive position. The study reports women are also underrepresented in other roles, including writer’s rooms and showrunners for television shows.

Hitting against the glass ceiling and holding less prominent roles also means women are less connected to potential sources of funding. The consequent lack of networking opportunities was reported in the interviews and surveys.

Oh well, at least for the few women who are able to break through the glass ceiling and become successful executives at studios and media tech companies, the funding should come right? Unfortunately, that is not typically the case. Even successful women executives either are not able to raise funding, or the funds they are able to raise are much lower. The study reports that on average, funded men-owned production companies received seven times the funding for women-owned production companies—$24.4 million versus $3.3 million.

Jessop states: “This study is the first to unveil the deep disparities in funding received between male and female entertainment industry entrepreneurs. That women entertainment entrepreneurs receive such a paltry amount of funding compared to their male counterparts is alarming for women in business altogether, because the entertainment industry is one of the most progressive industries globally.” 

If top women executives can’t get access to capital, systemic gender bias is the only remaining plausible explanation. So the same gender bias women encounter in the workplace extends to fundraising. According to the study, this gender bias stems in part from the parenting obligations that so often are fulfilled by women. Finally, the study reports that women develop less confidence in their ability to raise funding, as they notice the lack of representation in leadership roles and the inequity in fundraising.

The Solutions

To break this vicious cycle, it’s encouraging that the study peeled of the layers of obstacles that lead to this inequity. Also promising is that there is a women-led organization behind the search for solutions. Amy Baer, Board President of Women in Film, states: “Our goal with this study was to shed light on the fact that, despite the gains that women (and women of color) have recently made throughout the screen industries, there will not be true parity without parity of access to resources. We will build programming at WIF that will empower women to seek and secure the same kind of capital investment that men historically have found to launch their businesses.”

The study proposes several initiatives to eliminate inhibitors of funding for women entrepreneurs. They are: 

  1. Banks, private equity firms, studios, and networks should prioritize funding for women-owned companies, with transparent reporting of the progress.
  2. Help expand women’s networks through sponsorships and mentorships, including training on the supporting roles agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers can play.
  3. Increase financial literacy on how to structure and request capital.
  4. End systemic gender bias.

Of all these, #4 would address the root of the inequity, but it is also the most difficult to overcome. Only deliberate actions by companies to address gender bias and to publically report on the progress will lead to tangible long-term results. 

Gender bias extends beyond media and entertainment. Research shows that despite 42%of American businesses being owned by women, only 2.5% of venture capital dollars go to women-owned businesses. The picture is dire, but the underlying causes and vicious cycle are in the open, so there should be no excuses to proceed with tangible progress and solutions.