Aspen native Naomi McDougall Jones leading ‘women in film revolution’
The Aspen Times
Naomi McDougall Jones opens her TED Talk by promising, “I’m going to begin today with a story and end with a revolution.”
The Aspen native, actress, activist and filmmaker’s story is about her upbringing in a “raging feminist” household, her love of acting and her childhood plans to become the next Meryl Streep, followed by her disillusionment with the marginalization of women in the film business. The revolution she calls for begins with a four-point plan to support female filmmakers and achieve gender parity behind the camera.
What she calls the “women in film revolution,” it seems, is now underway.
Jones’ talk, titled “What it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood” was recorded a year ago in Massachusetts and released on the TedXBeacon Street channel. But on Oct. 24, in the wake of the initial revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and alleged assaults on women in Hollywood, TED released the Jones talk on its main platforms. It quickly went viral, totaling more than a half-million views in the days that followed.
“It’s been insane,” Jones said recently from New York. “My inbox is this incredibly overwhelming and exciting hell-scape of feminist joy and enthusiasm and action.”
She received hundreds of messages daily from around the world. Many came from women in male-dominated fields, including a civil engineer in Romania. And, to Jones’ surprise, she received just as many messages from men as from women asking how they can support the cause. More than 90 viewers offered financial support for Jones’ cause.
And, as the video’s viral run crested, a literary agency offered Jones a deal to write a book based on the TED Talk.
Jones’ presentation outlines the baked-in sexism of the film industry and her personal experience with it. She tells of how when she was part of the all-female production team on the 2014 indie movie “Imagine I’m Beautiful,” a male producer told her: “You do realize that you’re going to have to hire a male producer on the film so that somebody will trust you with their money.”
She outlines why it matters that women are sidelined in Hollywood, how the stories that are told affect our behavior and habits. If you’re watching mostly American movies, she notes, 95 percent of the stories you’ve seen have been directed by men, more than 80 percent have been about men and 55 percent of the times you’ve seen a woman on screen she’s been naked or scantily clad.
“Stories are not frivolous, they’re actually the way we understand the world and our place in it. They’re the way we develop empathy for people who have experiences that are different than our own,” she says in the talk.
To change the status quo, Jones offers a “four-point plan for the revolution.” It calls for viewers to watch movies by women, for women to make movies, for people to invest in female-led films and to disrupt the system, calling on business people to get involved and organize for female filmmakers: “Hollywood is leaving money on the table, come pick it up.”
Jones partnered with Lois Scott, formerly CFO of the city of Chicago, to start The 51 Fund, which will aim to financially back movies created by women. Scott attended one of Jones’ talks last year and offered to help. After about 18 months of preparation, the pair is now seeking its first round of seed funding for the project.
As the TED Talk has reached a worldwide audience in recent weeks, Jones has directed interested investors to the 51 Fund, but also launched a page with the crowdfunding site Seed & Spark that places all female-led film projects in one place for interested investors to browse. The talk has also drawn new investors to Jones’ film “Bite Me,” a vampire comedy she wrote and stars in, which has finished shooting but is still in need of funding for post-production.
The Weinstein scandal and the widening scope of awareness of male abuse of power in Hollywood certainly propelled the interest in Jones’ cause. But, she believes, President Donald Trump — and the new women’s movement that his alleged mistreatment of women has inspired — had something to do with it, too.
“I think the rage at having a sex offender as president is now being directed at Harvey Weinstein — it’s great that we have an outlet for that and Harvey Weinstein has unleashed that rage in an actionable way,” she said.
When Jones saw the initial New York Times story about Weinstein’s abuse and harassment of women in the industry, she assumed it would blow over as it had before (Jones, like many, had heard firsthand accounts from his victims in recent years). She was surprised — pleasantly so — at the intense outcry and swift consequences that followed for Weinstein and a growing list of alleged predators in film, media and other industries.
“I thought it would be a non-story,” she said, “and the level of rage and proliferation of action that has come out of that has been so exciting,”
As she puts it in her TED Talk, the potential impact of the “women in film revolution” will reverberate far beyond film sets and cinemas: “This is not about making one industry better. It’s about changing the world.”