Trumpet of the swan
Jan Huttner takes on the male-dominated film industry.
By Ruth E. Kott
Photography by Dan Dry
If you saw Sex and the City this summer, you were supporting more than the popular HBO franchise about four powerful New York City women. According to Jan Lisa Huttner, AM’80, the film’s box-office gross—$150 million as of the end of July—affirms that movies marketed primarily to females can succeed, a fact that Hollywood has been slow to realize. In 2007 only five of the 50 top-grossing films were about or starred women in strong roles.
But the hordes of gal pals who flooded the theaters, says Huttner, are showing film executives that superheroes aren’t the only story lines that sell. “Most women in the audience still don’t realize the impact of their decisions,” she wrote July 30 in Traction, an online magazine for women in the television and film industries. “How often have I been told: ‘There’s nothing good in theatres anymore.’ Or worse: ‘I wanted to go, but my husband won’t see chick flicks.’”Showing her pride: Jan Huttner never goes anywhere without a swan accessory.
To combat this “lose-lose mentality,” in 2004 Huttner, along with members of the American Association of University Women–Illinois, formed a movement in which participants pledge to see more films by women directors and screenwriters, whether in theaters or on DVD. Called WITASWAN (Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now), the aim is to generate media buzz and money for a more female-friendly film market. As a sign of her dedication, Huttner wears a pin or a necklace featuring WITASWAN’s logo—a swan. After three successful annual programs, which included movie screenings and Q&As with female directors, word spread to local and national organizations, including the Fund for Women Artists. On March 29, 2008—the first International SWAN Day—organizers hosted more than 160 events in 11 countries.
A 2002 New York Times article motivated Huttner to speak out. Writer Dana Kennedy observed that many women directors “don’t even wish to pursue the sort of high-octane careers some A-list male writer-directors achieve.” Incensed, Huttner wrote the Times asking it to “look closer to home” to understand why the industry has few female directors: at the time the newspaper had three film critics, all men. (Today Manohla Dargis has been added to the mix.) “I’m willing to bet,” she wrote, “that if more major publications hired more female film critics, then more films by women (which, surprise, surprise, are often films about women) would get the kind of critical buzz that leads to box office clout.”
Long before Huttner became an advocate for female filmmakers, she was a movie buff. Working as a health-care computer consultant after leaving the U of C’s now-defunct Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science all-but-dissertation, she kept an Excel spreadsheet to rate the films she saw with her husband, Richard Miller, AM’81, PhD’83, the U of C Medical Center’s financial controller. “So my schtick became being the movie person in my group [of coworkers],” she says. “And the guys would start coming up to me—it was so cute—and they’d say in a whisper, ‘Our anniversary is this weekend. Is there a movie I should take my wife to see?’”
With her stockpile of knowledge—and a belief that men and women have genuinely different responses to different kinds of movies—on Valentine’s Day 2002 Huttner started a Web site, Films42.com. There, she and Miller rate and recommend movies suitable for both sexes. No “chick flicks” (e.g., You’ve Got Mail) or what Miller calls “macho treats” (Spiderman 3). Such films get a terse “Does not meet criteria.” Huttner and Miller rate each film one through five, and Huttner adds a three- to four-line “movie haiku” assessment.
“Women want stories about characters,” she says. “The films that succeed with women that are action and special-effects intense also have relationship qualities,” even if there’s not a single female character onscreen. Although men enjoy strong relationships in movies, she notes, they also enjoy the “testosterone explosions” of special effects for their own sake.
As word about Films42 spread, Huttner found herself writing reviews for Web sites including Critic Doctor, which critiques film critics; Reel Chicago; and Women’s eNews. Active in Chicago’s Jewish community, she also writes a regular column for JUF News, “Second City Tzivi,” on Jewish cultural events and exhibits around the city. “Some people have rhythm and blues,” she says. “I have women and Jews.”
Now that she’s a paid critic, Huttner belongs to the Chicago Film Critics Association. With private screenings throughout the year, the association’s members vote each year for their favorites in 15 categories; when Huttner voted on 2007’s films for the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, many of her choices had major female players behind the camera. But, she notes, those movies didn’t make the cut.
Huttner points to similar trends at the Academy Awards. In fact, in more than 80 years, only three women have been nominated for best director, and none has won. To expand the narrow slice of the Hollywood pie offered by the Oscars and other awards, Films42 now hosts the Twozies , an act of “loyal opposition,” says Huttner. Each year she and Miller compile their personal top-ten lists, along with near-miss slates. If a film hits both of their top-ten lists, it’s named a Twozie. The 2007 honor went to Across the Universe, the Vietnam War–era musical whose soundtrack was made up of Beatles tunes. Directed by Julie Taymor, Across the Universe was one of 11 WITASWAN films on the couple’s top-ten and near-miss lists, either directed or written by women (or both). But a female behind the scenes does not ensure a Huttner stamp of approval: a 2007 Oscar darling, Juno, by stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody, was banished to Films42’s Not Recommended category: “Normally we don’t write negative reviews, but every moment of this film is so false & insidious that we have to speak up: Rich hated it; Jan despised it!”
Another thing Miller and Huttner agree on: while movies like Sex and the City are marketed to women, no one—not even men—should judge them until they see them. “After you go, you can decide if you liked it or not,” writes Huttner on her blog, TheHotPinkPen.com, “but you cannot have a good faith opinion on this subject if you don’t go.” And attendance equals dollars. Although money wouldn’t matter in an ideal world, she writes, “here in the real world purchasing power is the best weapon we have.”