Hollywood updates its image of women on Wall Street

Mark Garrison Jul 28, 2016
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Anna Gunn as Naomi Bishop, in a still from the movie "Equity." Equity/Sony Pictures

Hollywood updates its image of women on Wall Street

Mark Garrison Jul 28, 2016
Anna Gunn as Naomi Bishop, in a still from the movie "Equity." Equity/Sony Pictures
HTML EMBED:
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There has never been a Wall Street movie quite like the indie thriller “Equity,” which opens July 29 in select cities. Just like “Wall Street” and “American Psycho,” “Equity’s” central character is a successful, powerful and very well-paid banker. But in a groundbreaking departure, this time the banker at the center of the story is a woman. It might mark the beginning of a shift in how women on Wall Street are portrayed in pop culture.

Though there’s still a long way to go, there are a lot more women working on actual Wall Street today than in the 1980s, when many iconic finance films are set. But audiences wouldn’t know that from pop culture Wall Street, where women get smaller supporting parts, if they’re even in the story at all. (Though Melanie Griffith co-starred in “Working Girl,” her character was a secretary, not a high-ranking banker.)

“Equity” is a bet that there’s an audience for a very different kind of Wall Street story, one with a woman banker driving the movie. Anna Gunn, multiple Emmy award winner for her work on “Breaking Bad,” plays banker Naomi Bishop. A key scene sets the tone early on. Bishop is speaking on a panel of female leaders, when a young woman asks what motivates her.

“I like money,” she answers. “I am not going to sit here and tell you that I only do what I do to take care of other people because it is ok to do it for ourselves, for how it makes us feel.”

Sundance and Tribeca Film Festival screenings built buzz for “Equity.” Wall Street women have been especially intrigued.

“There was so much in that script that I could identify with,” said Candy Straight, a longtime-finance professional. “I could identify with the character of Naomi. I was interested right at the get-go.”

When the producers came to her looking for advice and investment, she didn’t just open her wallet. She signed on as executive producer and opened her address book to line up other investors.

Other women she knew from Wall Street were eager to back a film with someone like them at the center. Straight says women—many of them Wall Street professionals—financed about 80 percent of the movie. And she is quick to point out that investors made money, when Sony Pictures Classics bought the film for $3.5 million.

“Equity” is the creation of Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, who produced the film and also play major on-screen parts. Reiner says she’s a fan of some Wall Street movies, but always found something missing.

“Their portrayal of women is what made me, when we first started talking about this, go, ‘I don’t know if I want to do a Wall Street movie,’” she remembered.

As they discussed it more, they saw the opportunity to make a new kind of Wall Street film. In addition to the usual goals of making a movie that’s entertaining and draws an audience, they hope that people will see a female banker in the lead and think differently about what roles women can play in finance and more broadly in the real world.

“That’s why we want to put women as leaders on Wall Street in this movie.” Thomas explained. “We’re changing what people see, which will then change how they feel about women in power.”

Reiner and Thomas run their own company, Broad Street Pictures. They founded it with the goal of creating better opportunities for women in Hollywood, both on-screen and off. “Equity” has women playing several substantial parts. And behind the scenes, Meera Menon directs and the script is by Amy Fox.

“Equity” stands out because a high-level Wall Street woman is the main character. But there are signs it won’t stand alone for long. This year’s novel “Opening Belle” also revolves around a female banker. Author Maureen Sherry previously had a high-level banking job.

“I did want to make a strong female character, who is perhaps a little bit quirky and hopefully likable, be that main character because I hadn’t read a book like that,” she said.

That story is likely headed for the big screen too. Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up the rights to the book before it came out, with an eye toward Witherspoon playing the starring role. A screenplay is in the works.

“I think it just portends to what’s going on in Hollywood where there is this real focus now on getting women more involved in movies,” Sherry said. “It’s kind of a wave and I think the timing was right.”

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