Anna Serner on Gender Equality in Film

The Backlot Podcast: Anna Serner

  • Anna Serner Introduction & Background
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra Gender Study
  • Gender Inequality in Film
  • What it Means to be a Troublemaker
  • Nordic Women in Film
  • Don’t Kill Dreams of Being Female Filmmakers
  • Lying for a Good Cause
  • Homosociality in Film
  • 50/50 by 2020
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Anna Serner Introduction & Background


Eric: Hi and welcome to The Backlot, a discussion with the entertainment industry’s top talent. I’m Eric Conner.

Aerial: And I’m Aeriel Segard and recently we were fortunate enough to have Anna Serner come and speak with our students. She is the chief executive of the Swedish film institute

Eric: and instead of just focusing on her time as an executive or a financier, Ms. Serner discussed her experiences dealing with gender inequality in the entertainment industry.

Aerial: An all too timely topic. And we’re taking her lead by focusing this episode on this exact subject. This episode’s going to be a little bit different. Instead of coming in and doing a Q & A for our students she actually did a lecture. So we’re going to take pieces of her lecture and talk about them as we go.

Eric: Before she was an entertainment maverick she was actually an entertainment lawyer. And then once she got her position with the Swedish Film Institute she made a strong choice about where to focus her energy.

Aerial: Which was to help ensure that female filmmakers get the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Which was great because all over the world different film entities started taking her lead on that,

Eric: but being one of the first on that hill made for a very difficult battle.

Anna Serner: I was working as the lawyer at the Swedish Advertising Association and then I got appointed to be the CEO. And I learned from my predecessor who left the job and he said when I got appointed he said you know maybe this will work you’re a bit of a captain girl but I can tell you never talk about gender inequality because you know you will just be considered a whining bitch if you do that. And I said wise as I was, “Oh yes, I won’t.” And I realized already from the beginning that that won’t happen because I realized as well that life isn’t really fair. And the gender inequality isn’t really justice and I knew that already from the beginning ,but it’s not that the men aren’t good it’s just that they don’t even have to perform as well as women do and that is a knowledge that if you know that you can actually have another strategy and want to say from the beginning this is not against men. It’s just for us all to understand that we are sort of all in the same race. And what really matters for you guys is quality. Right? You want to be the best cinematographer you want to be the best screenwriter. You don’t want to be a male screenwriter or a female screenwriter. You just want to do your profession.

Aerial: Ms. Serner reminded her students that equality actually begins the hiring process that everyone should be on the same footing. At the get-go

Eric: even if that means you got to use carpeting to ensure the footing’s the exact same it will make sense in a moment, I promise.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Gender Study

Anna Serner: I just want to share it with you so you understand really what it’s all about is a research that was made in Boston. This was in the end of 1990s and the Boston Symphony Orchestra which was very white and male, they wanted to change that so they wanted female musicians so what they did they made the audition and anonymously. So the musicians came in onstage behind a curtain and the jury was sitting like you and the musicians came in and they played their little part whatever it was. And they went out again one by one and then, in the end, the jury picked the best and they picked more men which was very disappointing for everyone. And you can always try to find arguments of why is that happening. In Gender Research there are always two kinds of answers the one answer is the biological that men actually are more biologically prepared to do things, like running, for instance. But in this case, it would be like – do the men have another DNA so they have a more musical sense? Or you can have the social construction answer which means that women don’t get to practice as much because they take care of the family and they go home and they take care of children. That would be very logical because then they don’t get to practice as much as the men and they won’t be as good as the men. But before doing that the Boston Symphony Orchestra did the audition once again. So they made the musician walk in once again this time they put a thick carpet on the floor and the musicians came in. The same musicians they played the same songs. And this time the jury picked 50/50 because they couldn’t hear the steps so they couldn’t determine what kind of expectations they were having. So for the first time they weren’t biased, for the first time they actually listened to the music, and suddenly the quality was not within a gender the quality was within the individuals.

Aerial: So it’s almost like the show The Voice. Right?

Eric: Except if you wear high heels. The judges won’t even turn their chairs.

Aerial: That’s right. But see the battle for equality doesn’t stop right there. I mean even if you get past the heels on the floor stage you still have to battle it once you get hired.

Eric: Which Ms. Serner explained to our students like when they get out of film school and they’re looking to break into their respective industries.

Gender Inequality in Film

Anna Serner: In many film schools the students that are admitted it’s 50/50 but then they come out and suddenly they aren’t good enough. So for me, that is just not okay. And I realized that I had to do something about that when I was appointed the CEO of the Swedish Advertising Association, I was called up by a reporter of the trade press in Sweden of advertisement and he had got hold of our survey of payments. In the survey you could easily read that women earned less than the men on similar positions – in the same cities whatever similar positions less pay. So he called me up and I had had no media training by that time so I answered him very honestly, because he asked me, “So Anna, what do you say about this?” I said, “Yeah you know that’s really s****y. But that is life. That’s how it is all over the place.” It’s not like only the advertising business and then we had a good talk for half an hour and I thought, “wow! I really taught him a lot about life!” And being a woman and I didn’t realize what I was doing. But then I came back two days later I could see the front page of all this papers. It was a big picture of me with the headline “it’s s****y says Anna Serner” so my chairman called me up and he was like, “Well, that wasn’t a very good idea Anna.” And I was like, “Yeah. But you know I didn’t know.” But that made me the spokesperson for these issues because first of all there are not a lot of women in leading positions. And secondly, they never talk about gender equality. Well, they never used to anyways. So I was kind of the first one that actually talked about it, and being the only one, I’m getting all the calls I got really tired of talking and talking and nothing of course happened. So I decided to stop talk and start do. So we could at least try something, and then we can talk about what we are doing and maybe it leads to change. And if it doesn’t, we didn’t lose anything more than my job which I realized that that could be the case.

Eric: Ms. Serner appreciates that it was this gender inequality that might have actually gotten her job in the first place.

Aerial: Even if her male coworker didn’t want to admit it.

Anna Serner: You know, as well as being a woman of course, in a position of being the association person it’s usually men that have done their career and then they are sort of kicked aside because they’re getting too old and then they become the association’s CEO. So picking me a young woman of course it was because I had a law degree. I knew something that they didn’t but I was a woman. So that was, of course, a PR trick which I realized and I told my chairman so I realize why you pick me, of course, is because I’m really great about as well because I’m a woman. “Oh no we would never do that. No quota Anna.” But then, of course, he was lying because there was one woman in the board. I asked her and she said, “yeah, of course, that’s a good PR trick.” So of course, I was and that’s totally okay for me to be that way. But then when I was going into my other jobs I actually told my chairman if you don’t want me to talk about gender equality then you shouldn’t appoint me because I will never stop doing that. So I got appointed anyways to the two jobs I’ve had both times the chairman have always male chairman they said yeah Anna you keep on doing. It’s fine because they didn’t realize what that doing was because I can tell you there’s always a lot of fuss around that doing so much fuss that I actually got appointed. This is a Swedish expression so it’s pretty hard to translate. But more or less “2011 most troublemaker – female troublemaker in Sweden” and that was supposed to be a compliment because being a troublemaker that means that you are innovative and you’re creative you are doing smart things. But for me it has been both a burden and something people google up. So they’re like oh you’re a troublemaker Anna. No no no you know that was just a title.

What it Means to be a Troublemaker

Eric: In this country, a troublemaker isn’t necessarily viewed as a compliment.

Aerial: Well, Anna Serner seems to wear it like a badge of honor. Even when she tries to keep her feelings and motivations under wraps her inner troublemaker sometimes rears its head.

Anna Serner: Having been the spokesperson I needed to keep on speaking and I realize this is no different from other worlds. I just need to keep on doing and not only talking but I just didn’t realize what to do actually because you don’t know a business so you really don’t know where – where are the glass ceilings and what are the obstacles. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do but I felt to not be the troublemaker. Stay a little bit calm here Anna and shut your mouth for a while. So I said I will do that shut my mouth for six months and learn the business. But it took me like six weeks to realize it was exactly the same thing because then I went to Amsterdam where the world’s greatest international documentary film festival is where you pitch for money. There were like 40 financers and we are there to listen to see what’s in pipeline and what will come in a couple of years and how you do it. You get 15 minutes each. It’s five minutes presentation, five minutes showing some screens, and five minutes questions Q&A. So, when I was sitting there and the first day no woman at all which I thought was a little bit weird. And everyone said around me, “yeah, but you know that’s how it is.” But then the second day, things started to change. And what happened first was very interesting. It was a Finnish guy and I don’t know if you know Finnish people but they aren’t the best in English. He came up and it was just I didn’t get anything. And then the question time was and I was like What are they going to ask for questions and actually the first guy raising his hand. And actually it was Nick Fraser from BBC who is the most important financer. So this guy raises his hand he said, “I didn’t get anything” and everyone was like yeah and you realize. No one did, but then he said, “but I know you and you made your last film and that was great. So, of course, I trust you. So I’m in.” And then the other started raising their hands and they were in too it’s the followers coming along. And then the next presentation was the first female presentation it was a female Chilean film director with her female producer. She was so well prepared. I mean she is like any other women and she had, as well, like the Finnish guy had made one very successful documentary before traveling around the world. So that was exactly the same. But she really came up and she made this fantastic presentation about the film she was making about her grandmother in Chile. So she described these characters that have some have lost their husbands in the revolution and one was very Catholic and had a lot of children one was very promiscuous no children. And you know she had a lot of description that was fantastic and it was just know, five minutes. And then the question time was and it was totally silent. And I thought that was the best project for the whole two days but no questions first and then this guy raises his hand and he said, “What is this film about?” – “What is this film about? This is about Chile going from dictatorship to democracy. This is about a lot of people’s family life.” You know what is this film about. And then he said, “well, you know you have only made one film before. Why should I trust you? I’m not in.” She didn’t get any money and that is actually exactly what happens that men are picked for their potential. And women of their experience, and in this case both had exactly the same experience and exactly as successful, but the man was picked because you had the trust. So I was so upset that I went back home. This was in November and in January we had a presentation of that year’s premieres of Swedish films on cinema and I was called up by the media this time a little bit more media trained and the public service radio comes to me. “So what do you say Anna Serner?” And this time I was like, “I say it’s a catastrophe!” The next day – headline – big picture Anna Serner – “it’s a catastrophe says Anna Serner.” And I got the message out which was exactly what I wanted

Aerial: Ms. Serner and her team created this database of women in film. It was supposed to be a joint effort with other Nordic countries but when it came down to it it was really only the Swedish Film Institute that was on board.

Nordic Women in Film

Anna Serner: So we launched a website which is Nordic Women in Film dot com where we searched for every female filmmaker since film started 1895. It’s 700 of them. It’s the cinematographer’s Screenwriters Editors directors and producers that we have been able to find. It was supposed to be a Nordic joint venture and the other Nordic friends of mine they all withdrew and said No it’s not a priority for us any longer. So now it’s a Nordic Women in Film but it’s really only Swedish. But we believe that with the attention this gets they won’t be able to stay out of it too long. When we launched it last weekend we filled the houses. We have two cinemas one is with 360 seats and the other one 120. We had to open up both of them and stream. What happened on stage because it was such an interest because suddenly things have become hot.

Aerial: Film execs are not often treated like celebrities like Beyonce say or Adele. But the more Anna Serner’s cause was reaching the public the more her life has been transformed.

Eric: And if Meryl Streep knows who you are, you’re doing something right.

Anna Serner: Walking on the streets in Cannes as I’ve been the troublemaker I’m sort of used to you know the bitch comes along and suddenly this woman comes up to me in the street and she says, “Do you want to take a selfie?” And I was like, “why would I want to take a selfie?” “Because you’re Anna Serner.” I had become a rockstar. And I was like why is this another guy. He said to a woman who is the producer of Timbuktu a beautiful film. But he says to her hey you have to come and meet Anna Serner. And I was like, “When did this happen?” And then I realized it happened last year in the Oscars when Cate Blanchett went up and started talking about how it is being a woman and then Emma Watson and Meryl Streep and Gina Davis been working for a long time. And I got an email from Meryl Streep last week, “I’m so sorry. Anna I just can’t show up. We’re have having a seminar.” Like I’m getting a mail from Meryl Streep because what happened was when these red carpet people started talking media attention, of course, got very alert and they were like, “oh s**t! This is s****y probably!” But isn’t there anywhere in the world where things has happened and they said “Oh yeah! In Sweden there’s an Anna Serner. Let’s talk to her.” So suddenly that’s my life now go in like in film festivals. The applause for me is like it’s almost embarrassing but it’s really because we’re the only ones that have been able to do things and it’s of course very exciting but as well kind of demanding of course because we’re being the role models but that’s as well why I’m here because I like that we can show that you can do things. It’s worthwhile working for it.

Eric: A recent social media trend has been female filmmaker Friday directors DPs etc. have been posting pictures of themselves on set as a reminder that the best way to encourage others to dream of being a filmmaker is showing examples that it’s actually not just a dream.

Aerial: And this has been one of Ms. Serner’s tenets. She stressed that one of the biggest obstacles facing female filmmakers is how others react to their dreams of becoming filmmakers and why men are never asked. What about your children?

Don’t Kill Dreams of Being Female Filmmakers

Anna Serner: We all know young women have as many dreams as young men. Something happened during the way. So what we did we did studies in pre-film schools and on-film schools. And it turned out that the women used to want to become film directors but when they said so the reaction from their surrounding was, “you want to become a film director? Are you sure? You know how competitive it is. It’s so hard. And how are you going to combine it with a family? And you know you will have to work day and night for months and you will not be able to have children blah blah blah blah blah blah.” While when a young man says the same thing the reaction is, “wow! You want to become a film director? Are you sure? It’s really competitive, but what the hell, you can do it. What do you have to lose? Just go out there. You’re talented, you’re good.” So if you get to hear that all the time, of course the young women they didn’t even think there was an opportunity or possibility for them to become film directors so pragmatic as you are. They just decided to do something else like me. I skipped the film business and went into law school because I realized I won’t be able to do films while the men they just get to hear. “You are great go do it.” And that’s why I really want to encourage the women to realize that you have exactly the same competence. But producers come to me male and female producers come to me and they say you know Anna it’s only young men coming up showing their portfolios. They knock on my door and I never met them and they are so courageous and they really want and never women do. And it’s like yeah that’s probably true. But if you want the best films you should probably still start looking for the women and not be so lazy sitting and waiting for them because otherwise, you won’t get the best ones because otherwise, you will just have to get the ones that actually had the possibility to move their legs and that’s not good enough. Then then the producer gets really mad with me actually. But that’s the truth.

Aerial: One of the reasons why change can be so slow. Because those with power are not so keen about letting them power go.

Anna Serner: Those in power have no desire to see change. In Sweden, and I would say, the rest of the Western world that used to be white men some white women as well. No one of those wants to see change because they know or really. They knew how business was run. They knew how to get our money. And suddenly they don’t know it any longer. So those ones, they are not very happy with me. Then within the other ones it’s the men who are few geniuses and they they love what I’m doing and they’re like, “Yeah Anna, you keep on doing.” Because they know it will never affect them because they believe that they will still get the money. And so far they will. But they will have to really perform. Every time

Eric: Ironically during the earliest days of cinema there were several powerful women behind the scenes. But that was before movies became a multi-billion dollar global empire.

Lying for a Good Cause

Anna Serner: In the beginning of the film’s history, the men were doing the camera and the lightning and the women were doing that soft people stuff directing and writing and when they started was the women doing directing. So we all learn that the first narrative feature film was made by Griffith, “Birth of a Nation,” which is not true. It was Lois Webber. She was a woman. She’s made a hundred narratives. Nobody knows about her. The thing changed when the money came into the business when the East Coast capitalists came in, then the women were out from directing because suddenly you realized who’s the boss here. It’s not the lightning guy. So then women were really in majority before that which is so interesting. And now they’re carrying very heavy but still close because that’s so soft.

Aerial: Ms. Serner realized that she needed to directly educate people about this troubling trend in gender equality. So she found a sly way of hooking a potential disinterested crowd by lying.

Eric: Well, maybe we should put a disclaimer here. Lying is usually bad.

Aerial: I mean if you’re going to lie. Might as well lie well and for good cause.

Eric: the results of her lie are undeniable. By the way, this story she tells it may be a little long but it is worth it.

Anna Serner: In Sweden we have at one week a year in the summertime. All politicians all important people in NGOs or other organizations go to a small island and they are together for a week giving each other’s seminars. So there are like 3,500 seminars for free during one week to 10,000 people.

So if you are unlucky you get three persons. But if you don’t tell them it’s about gender equality you may get more. Because what I always know is that usually it’s like 80-90% women and they are always the women that already knows what I’m talking about and they are the one that wants this. So it’s not that I’m changing the world when I speak to them. So, I decided to lie. And my organization, they are very sincere. “Anna we have to tell people what they will go to see!” And I said, “no, because if we do that they won’t come.” So we invited people to come to see commercials during history. That meant we needed political actions. So that’s what we named it and we did pick out commercials and in Sweden. You may think we’re crazy but people love good commercials. So we always fill our theaters when we show commercials. So I knew we would fill a house. It was packed. 350 people. Every seat was taken and we showed commercials from the 1910s 20s 30s and always with a woman as they always were, and unfortunately still very often are, an objectified woman: either really stupid or really pretty and sexy or whatever, but not a protagonist really.

So the first commercial everyone was very happy and they were applauding and everything was great. And then the third commercial, you could sense that they knew this is fishy. People were like, “yeah what is this?” And then I went up on stage and I said, “I’m sorry. This is a coup and you’re taken hostage because if I had told you, you wouldn’t have been here and we can all agree that this doesn’t work.” And everyone was like, “no it doesn’t work.” Yeah, so OK – So we decided at the Swedish Film Institute we decided to change things so we made an action plan. We all know if you want to do changes you have to set a target. You have to choose a strategy. You have to have a budget and you have to have some time. And that’s how you do change in any matters. So this is how we do change. And then I talked about it and then I said so let’s hear what are you guys doing. They didn’t do anything. Of course they were all talking. Yeah we are talking about this we’re doing this study but they’re not really doing things.

And then I had some male friends. They were really mad with me coming after us, “I would have come Anna!” – “Well, would you really?” – “No maybe not.” But the good thing was this will get out and get spread but I didn’t realize how much it would because the news got hold of it and really the coup rather than the gender equality plan but the coup was named the hottest media coup in this place. So all the media – it was spread in all Swedish newspaper and the next day. So from July 3rd 2012 no one could escape that the Swedish Film Institute wanted to make change. And suddenly because here they said, “but there aren’t any competent female directors and they don’t apply.” Well yeah, if you have no expectation to get money why bother applying. But suddenly everyone realized you have expectations and it’s actually possible. So suddenly the increase of application with women in them was enormous.

So in 2013 we funded 35 percent female directors and then 2014 we funded 50 percent in 2015 thirty eight percent which aggregates to 44 percent which I think is pretty okay. And still the private sector 14 percent, in Hollywood I think it’s 8 percent female directors. So I mean we’re a little bit better not much producers though that’s the next female occupation. So the salaries will go down. No. We hope not. But this is really what happened. And then the interesting thing is did we lose quality? and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t know the answer of course. So this is what happened. These are the effects. For narrative, 60 percent of all awards in our Oscar Award were handed out to women directing, screenwriting, or producing; 40 percent of all awards in the six top international film festival. And you know that just getting selected is very hard. We could get the statistics going our side by picking festivals. You know there are 10,000 festivals all over the place. Those ones aren’t hard to get into. It’s – you have to measure the top ones. So this is Berlinale, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Sundance, and IDFA. And women got 40 percent of all the awards in those Berlinale. 2015 we had seven films, 71 percent were women. And there was – we had a joint thing with Canada, Sweden, Norway, and Finland I think and we made a selection of seven short films. Sweden got almost half of those three. They were all women and I’m sure that the biology of the Swedish women aren’t different from the other countries. It’s just that their funding system is not appreciating or finding quality.

 Eric: Another reason change can be slow is that people in charge will oftentimes replace themselves with people just like themselves. So an older man replaces himself with just a younger man and so on and so on.

Homosociality in Film

Anna Serner: What the men are doing is called homosociality which means that they relate to each other and they are the same so they sort of fall in love with each other and they pick their crown prince and there’s really a lot of studies regarding that. So it’s a fact. And the women of course realize that there’s the power. So women get heterosocialized they try to find the power with a man and some women’s strategy for that is pretending they are men. There are a lot of pretended men out there and I don’t know about here but in Sweden the women in leading positions they never talk about gender equality because they say, “there is no problem. Look at me! It went well for me.” And they just forgot that they were 4 percent. And Sweden is much worse in leading positions in the corporate business. There we have 4 percent women in leading positions in the top 200 companies. Which is crazy. And we have the maternity leave which is great that we get 18 months and 12 months of them are paid. But it means that women fall out of the system. So what we need to realize and get to know for me it has been really really helpful. As a woman to learn about how the structure is because then you can have a strategy. There are different kinds of how women are supposed we are the Iron Ladies. I’m usually – Yeah – “You are so hard Anna.” I am more of the Thatcher woman and then you have the mascot who is the cute girl who is always you know working like that. So we can as women realize that that is the roles we get and then we can play along but under control and then to realize that we will never be a man even though we are in those rooms where we are never men. And I think that men. It’s not like they are aware of what they’re doing. It’s just the way that they are brought up as well so they need of course education.

Aerial: Ms. Serner is not slowing down in her ambitions pushing for full equality within two years.

50/50 by 2020

Anna Serner: There’s women in film and television in Sweden, they just made a survey of the films that have premiered in 2014 to see what changes or differences there were. And it was obvious that when it was female directors that was – there were more usual that they were they all passed the Bechtel test – but then there were a female cinematographer and the whole crew went more gender equal. So in our next Gender Action Plan – our new tagline which is very catchy we think – it’s 50/50 by 2020. That means 50/50 behind the camera and 50/50 in front of the camera because. They go together.

Aerial: The past year has seen massive shifts in Hollywood from the #MeToo movement to the record-setting opening of Black Panther.

Eric: Diversity of storytellers also brings with it a diversity of stories and the audience is there. Just ask the Justice League who as a team made 150 million dollars less than Wonder Woman did all by herself.

Aerial: It’s giving storytellers the chance without premeditated assumptions about who they are and what their stories may be. And Hollywood could use a lot more troublemakers like Anna Serner. We want to thank her for talking so passionately with her students.

Conclusion & Goodbye

Eric: And we want to thank all of you for so passionately listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the lecture given by Anna Serner

Aerial: this episode was hosted with me Aeriel Segard edited it and mixed by Kristian Hayden

Eric: our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter. Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler.

Aerial: Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible to learn more about our programs. Check us out at

Eric: Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time.