The entertainment industry’s lack of representation, diversity, and opportunity has come under increasing criticism over the past few years, and at Gale Anne Hurd’s Tuesday SXSW keynote, the producer behind characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor took the issue head-on. In an indictment of gender bias as it exists in the business today, Hurd described her own experiences as a woman blazing trails in producing sci-fi and fantasy movies, and told the crowd that while things like pay inequality are still huge issues, there is still a path forward for aspiring filmmakers regardless of gender.
If there’s anyone that can speak with authority on the subject it’s Hurd, who’s spent the last 35 years producing films like The Abyss, The Terminator, and now TV shows like The Walking Dead. But she started on the very bottom rung when she began working as an assistant for low-budget producer Roger Corman in the 1970s. Over the course of her career, which she detailed in her opening remarks, there were few female role models in the industry to look up to, and she spent years working her way up the ranks with Corman, during which she met a then-modelmaker named James Cameron. The COO of Corman’s company at the time was a woman named Barbara Boyle, who helped Hurd and Cameron get their first film greenlit by Orion Pictures: The Terminator.
"I would shake their hands and tell them the film wasn't a good fit for them."
Their follow-up was Aliens, and Hurd recounted facing some particularly aggressive sexism during pre-production on the film. "I went to England to meet with possible department heads, and assumed that because the UK had a female Prime Minister at the time that men would be more open-minded about working with women," she told the audience. "I was wrong." Candidates would come to meet with Hurd, and question that she was actually able to make hiring decisions — with some outright refusing to let the meeting begin until the "real" producer arrived. "I would stand up, shake their hands, tell them the film wasn’t a good fit for them, and move on," she said to applause.
Along with standing one’s ground in the face of adversity, a large portion of Hurd’s opening remarks hewed to the tried-and-true advice given out to most aspiring filmmakers: work hard, pursue your passions, and find like-minded individuals that you can form a creative network with. (The encouragement was a far cry from a talk I saw Cameron give in the 1990s, when his advice was essentially "Quit, because the movie business sucks.") But if her opening remarks felt a bit scripted at times, Hurd came alive when engaging with the audience during the Q&A section — particularly when an aspiring female producer asked how she should find the middle ground between being too passive, and avoiding "the reputation of being a bitch."
Hurd didn’t equivocate. "I embrace being a bitch. No guy would be called that. You’ve got to remember that," she stressed. "There is no equivalent term for a guy. So it’s really not being a bitch. It is standing up for yourself, defending yourself, and speaking out." The trick, Hurd said, is being fastidious and prepared, both to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, but also so mentors and allies can go to bat when bias gets in the way, just as the head of 20th Century Fox UK did when people complained during Aliens.
That’s not to say that somebody at Hurd’s level doesn’t still deal with issues. Even with her body of work, she said she still finds herself facing inequality when it comes to pay. "If you look at the fees I’m paid, versus the fees men are paid who have fewer credits and less box office success than I do, it hasn’t changed," she said. "It absolutely should, and it will … but unfortunately it’s still true."
"If you look at the fees I'm paid versus the fees men are paid, [the inequality] still hasn't changed."
But if anything seemed to be on the forefront of Hurd’s mind, it was the concept of mentorship and discovering new talent. Several times she mentioned Debra Hill, who made movies like Halloween, Escape From New York, and The Fisher King before dying in 2005, as a key figure in her own career. "She encouraged me, she offered me her help and advice, literally until her dying day. The industry needs more Debra Hills."
Judging from today’s talk, that’s clearly what Hurd is trying to be, as she told several college-aged women that were interested in following in her footsteps to contact her office for help finding local film groups and societies that they could use to build their own creative networks, and offering to watch several shorts from filmmakers in the crowd. In the end, Hurd said, outside of all the noise of the business, it comes down to a question of personal passion.
"If something speaks to you, it’s worth doing," she said. "You could die tomorrow. I saw that with my friend Debra Hill."