Mindy Kaling's heartwarming new comedy Late Night is among a slate of films set to be released over the summer with women leading both on screen and behind the lens — a rarity in Hollywood.
The coming-of-age comedy Booksmart, the mob wives crime-drama The Kitchen and Amy Poehler's directorial debut Wine Country are just some of the releases with a strong female presence on both sides of the camera.
Late Night centres around Molly Patel (played by Kaling), a chemical plant worker who gets hired on a talk show with an all-male writers' room.
Director Nisha Ganatra, who was born in Vancouver and raised in the U.S., says she related to the story from the start.
"Even working in comedy now, I'm often the only woman on set some of the time. Almost always, I'm the only Indian-American on the set," said Ganatra. "Mindy and I could both relate to that feeling of walking into a room and seeing a table full of all men just sort of turn and stare at you."
A study published earlier this year by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported women accounted for just four per cent of directors on the top 1,200 films in North America from 2007 to 2018.
It prompted the Time's Up movement and others to issue the "4 per cent challenge," calling on industry groups to hire at least one female director in the next 18 months.
I finally broke into TV a couple of years ago and I've directed a lot of television since then, but it's really funny because if you look closely, those credits are within the last couple of years." - Nisha Ganatra, Canadian-American director of Late Night
Ganatra says Ghostbusters and A Simple Favour director Paul Feig, whose production companies focus on women-led projects, was pegged to direct Late Night before a scheduling delay gave her the opportunity to land the gig.
Feig's 2011 film Bridesmaids not only catapulted Melissa McCarthy's career but was also a rare example of a female comedic ensemble. He says the best way to create more three-dimensional roles for women is to break Hollywood's "default setting."
"To just go, 'Well you know, instead of it being about a man or a set of hiring men, could it be a woman?'" Feig told CBC News during the Banff World Media Festival last week. "We actually had that with a project I did recently that's now moving forward.... It changed the entire project and made it more relatable."
According to The Wrap, 18 per cent of films slated for release this year from Hollywood's six major studios are directed by women. While the number sounds small, it is still a record.
Among them is The Kitchen, directed by first-time filmmaker Andrea Berloff, who co-wrote Straight Outta Compton. Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish star as mob wives who take over their husbands' crime operations in 1970s New York City.
Gurinder Chadha, best known for directing the charming 2002 comedy Bend It Like Beckham, returns to the big screen with Blinded by the Light, about a British-Pakistani teen introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen for the first time. It premiered at the 2019 Sundance Festival, as did Late Night.
Netflix's Wine Country, about a group of friends celebrating a 50th birthday in Napa, is directed by and stars Amy Poehler. She reunites with some of her former Saturday Night Live co-stars, including Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey.
And Olivia Wilde made her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, about two academic-driven besties wanting to let loose before they leave high school.
"I've never seen a comedy led by a young woman who is clever and unapologetic and so deeply passionate, let alone two," said Beanie Feldstein, who stars in Booksmart. "In this, two girls that, in another movie might be the same 'type', can exist in the same space and lead a comedy that is raucous and joyous but also really heartfelt."
'Whatever way you get in, get in'
Ganatra says doors are opening, albeit slowly. It took her nine years, she says, to nab a solid television credit in Hollywood.
"I finally broke into TV a couple of years ago and I've directed a lot of television since then. But it's really funny because if you look closely, those credits are within the last couple of years."
Ganatra says showrunner Jill Soloway gave her a break on a then-little known project called Transparent, which eventually scored the Canadian-American a Golden Globe Award in 2015. It also led to more work on other acclaimed series including Dear White People, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Girls and Fresh Off The Boat.
Ganatra jokes that her friends call her the "opposite" of an "overnight sensation."
She broke ground in 1999 with the film Chutney Popcorn, about a gay woman from a South Asian family trying to navigate her identity. Now 20 years after releasing that first feature and in the thick of movements trying to empower women in the industry, the indie filmmaker will direct her first studio flick. Covers, an upcoming comedy starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson, will be set against the backdrop of the L.A. music scene.
Not bad for someone who was a "diversity hire" herself. Ganatra says that's how she came to direct an episode of Kaling's The Mindy Project.
"Whatever way you get in, get in," said Ganatra. "But then make sure you don't blow it once you're in there."