“This decade [has] to be about women having each other’s backs,” said Kate Winslet in her Sept. 19 Emmy acceptance speech for HBO’s Mare of Easttown. Around the world, the international film and television industry’s most powerful women had already been hard at work with that mission. Female producers, studio executives and channel bosses are seeing a historic opportunity to capitalize on the seismic changes wrought by the #MeToo movement to push for true inclusion and diversity across the entertainment business.
But impressive advances in onscreen representation have not been matched by gains in corporate power structures, where, at least at the very top and particularly outside the United States, it is still very much a man’s world. “A lot of work needs to be done in the C-suite, where serious decisions are made,” notes Mo Abudu, CEO of pan-African TV conglomerate EbonyLife Media.
Nevertheless, the glass ceiling smashers on The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual list of the world’s most powerful female entertainment execs are united in their passion to continue to fight for systemic industry changes and to inspire younger women to, as Rola Bauer, president of MGM International TV Productions, puts it, “seek acknowledgment and credit for their work [and] not get left out of the narrative.”
Founder, EbonyLife Media (Nigeria)
Nigerian producer and television pioneer Abudu made history in 2020 when her pan-African entertainment banner EbonyLife Media signed a multi-title deal with Netflix, making it the first African production company to enter into such an agreement with the global streamer. Earlier this year, Sony Pictures Television’s international production division extended its exclusive deal with EbonyLife, giving the studio first pick of the scripted television projects intended for global audiences that have been created, originated or developed by Abudu’s company. The first project between Sony and EbonyLife is a series inspired by the story of the elite female West African fighters known as the Dahomey Warriors. EbonyLife also has a co-production deal with AMC Networks for a slate of projects including the Afrofuturistic crime-drama Nigeria 2099. Abudu, who is often called “Africa’s Oprah,” says she’s accustomed to being underestimated and hopes her against-the-odds success will encourage the next generation of female executives to “dream big and be bold with your vision.” Ever the nuts-and-bolts producer, however, Abudu’s first piece of advice for newcomers is to “focus on production quality — find the best technicians and negotiate!”
President, International Television Productions at MGM (Germany)
When French giant StudioCanal exercised its option in 2020 to take full control of Bauer’s Munich-based Tandem Productions shingle, the pioneering, two-time Emmy-nominated international producer moved on to the next challenge. Stepping down as co-head of Tandem and managing director at StudioCanal, Bauer joined MGM as president of international television productions and, in the midst of a global pandemic, built up the studio’s global drama slate. In just over a year, the Canadian-born Bauer has shepherded six series to greenlight, including Amazon’s Argentine dramedy El Fin del Amor, the adaptation of Harlan Coben’s Shelter and the environmental-themed thriller series Last Light starring Matthew Fox. A self-confessed “news junkie,” Bauer looks to the wider world to guide projects that her team develops for a global audience, always with an eye for “stories still untold” and an ear for underrepresented voices: “The fact is, global audiences want and need their emotions and lives reflected onscreen more than ever, and it’s our responsibility as storytellers to give them that diversity … whether through fiction or reality.”
President and CEO, Canada Media Fund (Canada)
As head of the biggest financier of Canadian TV, Creighton played a key role in keeping the lights on during the COVID-19 lockdown for the roughly 1,500 local productions the fund supports. A 30-year veteran of the industry, Creighton has also been instrumental in pushing through gender balance measures in Canada — women now make up just over half of the country’s working writers and producers, as well as 36 percent of directors on CMF-funded TV projects — and promoting diversity with schemes that work directly with underrepresented communities. Her advice to young women entering the business? “Stay on your own ground and no matter what, hang on like hell to your authentic self.”
Executive Director and CEO, Telefilm Canada (Canada)
After two decades of cutting her hair short to “give me an edge” and be taken more seriously in the male-dominated world of Canadian entertainment, Dickenson, head of leading indie film financier Telefilm, changed her look by “swapping [my] signature crew cut for naturally gray shoulder-length hair. This may sound superficial to some. It isn’t. Image matters.” To change the image, and impact, of Telefilm, which invests around $100 million in Canadian film annually, Dickenson has shifted the focus of the government funding body to backing projects from underrepresented filmmakers, particularly people of color. Achieving gender parity in the Canadian film industry, she says, “is simply a first step. [I wish] to see a Black, Indigenous or person of color succeed me in my role at the end of my term at Telefilm. It’s inherent for those of us in leadership roles to pass the baton, to ensure diversity of thinking.”
Founder, Sister (U.K.)
In the space of just a few years, Sister has emerged as one of the most prolific, exciting and award-amassing TV production companies in the business. First founded as Sister Pictures by Featherstone after a lengthy stint at Brit indie Kudos and its owner Shine (where she oversaw hit dramas such as Broadchurch, Spooks and Utopia), it was relaunched as Sister in 2019, with the formidable duo of Stacey Snider and Elisabeth Murdoch joining the top exec team. But it has continued along the same groundbreaking path laid by Featherstone. High on the list of accomplishments is the HBO-Sky smash-hit miniseries Chernobyl, winner of more than 60 awards (including 10 Emmys); among its other hugely well-received shows are the BBC-Netflix thriller Giri/Haji and Sky-AMC’s Gangs of London (now heading into a second season). Sister has been landing some of the hottest IP around and top talent are clamoring to work with the growing studio, with an upcoming slate that includes Amazon’s The Power, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s best-seller with Reed Morano directing; BBC-AMC series This Is Going to Hurt, based on Adam Kay’s memoir and with Ben Whishaw in the lead; and Sky-HBO true crime drama Landscapers, starring Olivia Colman.
Co-founder, Bambú Producciones (Spain)
As co-founder and co-head, with partner Ramón Campos, of prolific Spanish production company Bambú, Fernández-Valdés has been at the forefront of the international television revolution. Bambú’s period melodramas Grand Hotel (2010-2013) and Velvet (2013-2016) were among the first non-English-language series to break through worldwide, and the company has helped ignite the global streaming explosion by signing a first-look deal with Netflix (Bambú’s Cable Girls was Netflix’s first Spanish original) and inking with Apple TV+ for that company’s first Spanish original, the Miami-set thriller Now and Then. Bambú is currently producing its first Amazon original, called A Private Affair, a crime drama set in Spain and featuring French superstar Jean Reno. Four years after the #MeToo revolution shook the foundations of the male-dominated entertainment industry, Fernández-Valdés calls on female executives to take seriously their responsibility in shaping the role models of the future. “They have the power to focus on the stories that represent diversity and equality and make them accessible to the general public,” she notes. “As a producer, I can choose what stories to tell.”
CEO, Sky Studios (U.K.)
French industry veteran Frot-Coutaz made waves in May when Comcast’s European TV giant Sky named her CEO of its production arm Sky Studios (Gangs of London, A Discovery of Witches). “Sky is a company that I have always admired as a content maker, as a partner and as a consumer,” she explained in announcing her move. When it comes to female representation and equity, she tells THR, “we must acknowledge that we are never done,” but she is “encouraged that the industry is changing for the better.” In terms of diversity and equality, she argues COVID has allowed people “to truly see our colleagues as individuals with their own personal challenges,” meaning that “in some ways, it’s been a great leveler, and I hope that remains.”
Director, BBC Films (U.K.)
The past 24 months have truly helped showcase the impact of Garnett at BBC Films, the filmmaking arm of the BBC and one of U.K. independent cinema’s key financiers. Having joined in 2017 from Film4 (where she helped support the likes of American Honey and Room), she first rebuilt almost the entire creative team, led by commission executive Eva Yates and head of development Claudia Yusef, and then helped oversee a slate of bold and diverse features that have been widely celebrated across festivals and showered with awards, including Judy, which won Renée Zellweger an Oscar in 2020, Francis Lee’s Ammonite and more recently, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Asked what advice she’d give to women starting out in the industry, she says, “Find ‘your’ team — from colleagues, informal network, collaborators — whatever form it needs to take.”
Creative Director, Worldwide Video, Europe for Apple (U.K.)
A much-admired TV exec having led a surge in successful commissions while at Brit network Channel 4, Hunt appeared to go quiet after being poached by Apple in 2017 to lead European commissioning. With Apple TV+ now making some noise, Hunt’s expertise, especially with talent, is starting to shine through. The upcoming Claire Danes- and Tom Hiddleston-fronted drama The Essex Serpent, from Top of the Lake and The Power of the Dog banner See-Saw Films, in 2020 marked her first order, while Hunt recently made Sharon Horgan — whose breakout Catastrophe she commissioned at Channel 4 — Apple TV+’s first big-name European signing, with a comedy-drama now in the works.
Chairman and CEO, Shaftesbury (Canada)
With a slate that includes Netflix’s Slasher, dog-and-cop family series Hudson & Rex and the long-running CBC period procedural Murdoch Mysteries, Toronto-based Shaftesbury, founded by Jennings in 1987, has established itself as a global leader in small-screen drama, something AMC Networks recognized when it invested in the company earlier this year through a production partnership that will see Jennings’ shingle develop content for the network. “It was a conscious decision on our part to continue to grow our company as a global content provider,” notes Jennings, who regards fellow female-led Canadian companies, like Jennifer Twiner-McCarron’s publicly traded Thunderbird Entertainment Group and the recently launched Cameron Pictures from Gemini Award-winning screenwriters Tassie and Amy Cameron, as prime examples of how female executives are taking the lead north of the border.
VP Content for Asia Pacific, Netflix (South Korea)
Kim joined Netflix in 2016 after distinguished stints at Twitter, NBCUniversal and Korean entertainment giant CJ E&M. She was brought on by Netflix as one of the company’s first content executives based in Asia — and her rise since then has been nothing short of meteoric. From helping the streamer set up its first small Seoul office to hashing out a modest initial slate of acquired and self-produced Korean originals five years ago, Kim’s team is now spending more than half a billion dollars on Korean content in 2021 alone. Her remit has since been expanded steadily to comprise every other high-value growth market in the Asia-Pacific region except India. “When I think back to when I first started, I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams the variety and quality of the slate we have all around APAC,” Kim says. “From Kingdom: Ashin of the North, Bangkok Breaking … [to] of course, Squid Game! We have come so far in just five years.”
Vice Chair, CJ Group (South Korea)
For a symbolic example of Lee’s rising profile in Hollywood, look no further than her election in September 2020 as vice chair of the Academy Museum’s board of trustees, behind only Ted Sarandos. Since making Oscar history with Parasite nearly two years ago, Lee has continued to steer CJ’s vast dealings in entertainment worldwide, including local-language adaptations (TNT’s Snowpiercer) and original co-productions (road-trip movie K-Pop: Lost in America, in development with producer Lynda Obst). This is in addition to CJ’s ongoing film and TV production and distribution, its CGV cinema chain and Korean music festival KCON, which has already staged five weeklong virtual editions since the dawn of the pandemic.
CEO, StudioCanal (France)
Since March 2019, the New Zealand-born Marsh has been head of StudioCanal, the international television production and distribution arm of French giant Canal+ and one of Europe’s leading small-screen producers. The global content boom has been good to StudioCanal, which, under Marsh’s leadership, now produces more than 200 hours of new drama programming every year through its network of award-winning production companies, including Germany’s Tandem (Shadowplay), Brit-based RED Production (Years and Years) and Spain’s Bambú Producciones (Cable Girls). Marsh says she rarely thinks about her gender as “being an obstacle” in her career. “No matter who you are these days, our industry presents an array of perpetual challenges that keep us all on our toes.” She adds, however, that for many in less-privileged industries, the COVID-19 crisis has been “catastrophic for progression of women in the workplace in some countries. Many have had to sacrifice their careers in favor of staying home to care for ill relatives, or home-school children during the lockdown, undoing decades of positive change. This puts a lot into perspective.”
VP Original Series, Netflix (U.K.)
In 2020, Netflix doubled the spend on its productions in the U.K. — its biggest market outside the U.S. — to $1 billion. Among the keepers of the keys to this sizable war chest is Mensah, the BBC and Sky drama veteran who was poached in 2018 as the streaming giant was dramatically beefing up its London operations. Alongside the ongoing success of Brit-made global hits such as The Crown, Sex Education and The Witcher, Netflix has rained money down on U.K. TV producers, signing an exclusive deal with The Crown creator Peter Morgan and investing in the new banner from Black Mirror‘s Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. The streamer has also backed scores of scripted shows, including seven commissioned in December from creatives and execs, numbering among them Rowan Atkinson, Pippa Harris, Andy Serkis, Joe Cornish and Tessa Ross. Mensah has also helped drive Netflix’s local diversity initiatives, such as a $480,000 investment that will go toward scholarships this year at the Identity School of Acting, the pioneering London school that counts John Boyega, Letitia Wright and Michaela Coel among its alums. “In the U.K. we need to change the power dynamic and promote inclusion at the highest levels,” Mensah says. “We must ensure diversity amongst those with financial and creative power.”
Chief Content Officer, BBC (U.K.)
In 2020, Moore was the only woman among four leading contenders vying for the top director-general job at the BBC. While she may not have gotten that position, Moore — then director of BBC content and head of the flagship BBC One channel — was soon upped to the BBC board and named chief content officer, a promotion that made the already highly regarded exec one of the most powerful figures in global TV, expanding her remit to include not just overseeing all of the BBC’s network TV channels, but radio, education and children’s content as well. Unafraid to take shots at the streamers that have poached BBC-nurtured talent such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge in recent years, Moore has also become a champion of the drive to increase diversity. “As an industry we’re getting there onscreen,” she says, “but now we need to focus our energy offscreen and challenge every production to do more to promote diversity and equality at every level.”
CEO, Fremantle (U.K.)
As CEO of indie production giant Fremantle, Mullin oversees a business that in 2020 accounted for $1.83 billion in revenue. Under her leadership as Fremantle’s first American head, the creative powerhouse behind the American Idol and America’s Got Talent franchises has continued its push into drama (The Mosquito Coast, The New Pope and No Man’s Land) to grow the company’s global footprint. In April, Fremantle made headlines with a deal that saw it take full control of Tel Aviv-based Abot Hameiri, the production company behind Netflix hit drama Shtisel. “We have an exciting and ambitious growth plan,” Mullin tells THR, but adds she is “equally focused on our [company] culture.” After all, “without a great culture, growth is stifled and we may lose what makes us special — our spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship.” Mullin has served as CEO since succeeding Cécile Frot-Coutaz in September 2018 after holding the same role at FremantleMedia North America. Before joining Fremantle, she worked as an executive producer at such companies as Paramount and Telepictures.
CEO, Banijay Rights (France)
As the boss of global television sales giant Banijay Rights, a job she took over in April 2020, the Australian-born Payne oversees a massive catalog of iconic TV brands and formats, from Survivor and MasterChef to Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror. Coming up through the ranks — she spent two decades at reality-TV pioneer Endemol Shine, starting at Australian division Southern Star and eventually taking over as CEO of Endemol Shine International — Payne says she often encountered an “old boys’ club” mentality along with “unwelcome, condescending behavior,” attitudes she says have “thankfully mostly disappeared” from today’s TV business. A firm believer in creating strong support networks for women in entertainment, Payne sees it as her corporate responsibility to ensure that Banijay has a “permanent focus” on improving diversity and equality and creating the “right paths for those underrepresented to find ways into our industry.” She says her working-class origins inform her approach. “Economic inequality is always a big concern,” she notes.
General Manager, HBO Max EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) (U.K.)
Former freelance film journalist Sulebakk’s career trajectory has trended upward ever since she entered the marketing business at Canal+, becoming a seasoned executive with over 15 years of experience and a reputation for starting up businesses and building teams. After joining HBO Nordic and moving through the HBO ranks for more than eight years, including stints in Madrid, Budapest and New York, she was promoted in July 2020 to the role of general manager, HBO Europe and in January became general manager, HBO Max EMEA. Currently, she is focused on the streamer’s roll-out in the Nordics and Spain on Oct. 26 and more markets next year. As for increased equality in the industry, Sulebakk says her Danish roots give her unique perspective on the changes that still need to occur. “I’m fortunate to come from Denmark, where gender equality and inclusion are much more the norm,” she says. “Hopefully we are seeing that spread across geographical boundaries.”
Co-founder, Bad Wolf (U.K.)
Already a near-legendary figure in British TV after overseeing the hugely successful 2005 resurrection of Doctor Who while she was BBC drama chief, Tranter recently underlined her cult credentials by bringing the HBO-BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to screens via her Bad Wolf banner, set up in 2015 alongside fellow BBC and Doctor Who alum Julie Gardner. One of the most ambitious TV shows to date, His Dark Materials — shot mostly in the vast Bad Wolf studio Tranter helped set up in South Wales, and recently renewed for a third and final season — isn’t the only project on the company’s books. Tranter’s slate also includes the recent HBO-BBC financial drama Industry and the HBO Max-Sky comedy I Hate Suzie, from Succession writer Lucy Prebble. Speaking of Succession, Tranter is an exec producer on that show, too. As for Doctor Who, Tranter is rejoining the show, with Bad Wolf recently announced as producer on the series when Russell T. Davies returns as showrunner in 2023.
Head of U.S. Operations, Wowow (Japan)
Early in her career at Japan’s leading pay TV broadcaster Wowow, Washio was an interviewer for the company’s movie channel, hosting sit-downs with A-list Hollywood stars as they introduced their projects to the Japanese market. In 2011, she was dispatched to Los Angeles to head up Wowow’s first U.S. office, tasked with maintaining and expanding the broadcaster’s output deals with the major Hollywood studios. As her relationships in the U.S. flourished, she arranged for Wowow to co-produce a number of prestigious documentary projects, such as Martin Scorsese’s The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument and Robert Redford and Wim Wenders’ six-part TV series Cathedrals of Culture. In her most recent incarnation, as competition from U.S. streamers has begun to put pressure on Wowow’s model, Washio has headed up the company’s diversification into theatrical distribution, acquiring titles like pandemic drama Song Bird, produced by Michael Bay, and also arranging for Wowow to co-produce high-profile Hollywood series content, like HBO Max’s forthcoming Japan-set yakuza thriller Tokyo Vice, directed by Michael Mann. When it comes to increased diversity in the industry, Washio says there is still plenty of work to be done. “It has certainly been an illuminating year with anti-Asian prejudices in America under the microscope and disconcerting data and statistics related to Asian representation in Hollywood coming to light,” she says. “It’s clear there need to be more strident inclusion efforts across the entertainment ecosystem.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.