Debbie Zipp, COO of In the Trenches Productions, is serious about making sure that women over 40 get fair representation in the film industry. In the Trenches is the successor to nonprofit organization Actresses @ Work, a group devoted to changing the way the media provides roles for actresses over 40. Actresses @ Work closed their doors in 2001 due to lack of funding, but In the Trenches Productions has gladly picked up the reins, producing films which provide a unique and diverse range of roles for Baby Boomer women.

In the Trenches Productions isn’t just all talk; through the films it produces it endeavors to set a positive example in the hopes that other media companies will cease the trends of ageism and sexism that have remained prevalent in the film industry for decades. The films spearheaded by In the Trenches include award-winning short film A Host of Trouble and the online documentary short series Transitions.

Rebecca Pahle (MM): The type of roles that women over 40 get in films is very limited—supporting roles, usually, or roles as the main character’s mother. Why is it so important to show older women not only in leading roles, but as a wide variety of characters?

Debbie Zipp (DZ):Art is a reflection of life. Limiting the roles mature women play in films is not an honest or true depiction of real life. We are many things besides somebody’s mother or grandmother; today’s women over 40, 50, 60 and beyond are also sexy and powerful. If this is the only way our children see women on television and in film, we subliminally tell them that women should take a back seat after they hit 40.

MM: There is a double standard that exists when considering the casting of women over 40 as compared to men of the same age. The men get more roles, while the women often find themselves shuffled out of the film industry. Why do you think this is?

DZ: It’s a mystery. Men have dominated the running of the movie industry in all fields since its, inception so perhaps it is a reflection of how they see the role of women. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Women In TV and Film at San Diego State University, women made up only 16 percent of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the country’s 250 highest-grossing movies last year…and that was a decline of three points compared with 2001. They also found that 22 percent of the films employed no women in any of the above categories.

The fact is there are simply less roles available for females of all ages—from eight to 80. Compounding this reality is the number of genre movies that employ mostly all-male casts: War movies, comic book and action hero movies, spy thrillers, westerns, detective stories and the latest genre, the Judd Apatow-type “bromance” film. There is usually a token woman or two in these all-male films—the girlfriend or the sexless older career woman—but there is no genre of film which traditionally has an all-female cast. Once a leading lady is thrown out the door, so to speak, at the age of 35, there is no fallback position for her; no secondary roles in war movies or spy thrillers. Nor are there opportunities for her to transition into roles that reflect her actual age. For older character actresses in film the picture is very bleak; roles for them are almost non-existent. Older actresses frequently find second careers on the stage, but unfortunately theater isn’t seen by a wide audience, and the lack of women in substantial film roles makes a strong statement about the worth of older women in our society.

Of course the roles for women have gotten a little better, but when something like the usual Hollywood casting has been established as a tradition for so many years it is hard to change that way of thinking. The mature male actor has a much longer career span in a variety of roles, especially lead roles, and as an action hero and sexy leading man. Seeing older men with a woman 20 or 30 years younger is a standard traditional practice. We can see this from the beginning of films through ones such as Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade in the ’60s, for example, and far too many modern examples to mention. But it is rare to see older men with women in their own age group. Obviously the men running the biz see themselves just as vital and attractive as they were in their youth, and want to keep seeing the women, in their lives or on screen, as being 29!

MM: As you point out on the In the Trenches Productions Website, women over 40, as a group, have enormous spending power. Also, seeing that such a large percentage of the population consists of women over 40, there must be a large market for stories about them. How can they use this power to influence the future of Hollywood?

DZ: Women over 40 is a huge demographic. To cite a statistic from Chloe Jon Paul’s book, Entering The Age of Elegance“, there are 38 million Baby Boomer women who have already passed 40. The best thing we 38 million can do is support a movie that stars a woman over 40 on its opening weekend. Even better, get to it on the first day it opens. That is what talks to the studio executives. And as we all know opening weekend numbers can make or break a film. But women over 40 are a discerning audience and will not rush out to see a film simply because it features older women in the cast. We want films that speak to us in an intelligent and emotionally compelling way.

But here is the problem. Even when a movie starring a woman over 40 has been promoted properly and does good numbers they still think it is an anomaly. You don’t hear them saying: “Wow, let’s get out there and make another First Wives Club or Mamma Mia!, or “let’s go make another film with older women… they’re hot!”

So it is a vicious circle. You need to have many hits in a row to make the powers-that-be stand up and take notice so they see this as a pattern and a very smart financial investment. But how can you create that pattern when it is so rare that they green light a film starring women of a certain age? It is a profoundly difficult task to change the minds of film executives stuck with their antiquated notions about women and films. You need visionaries and people willing to see their value and to take a chance and make these kinds of films so that our TV and film entertainment bears a stronger resemblance to our real life.

MM: It’s fairly obvious that there aren’t many leading roles for women over 40. It seems like most people stay quiet about this fact – what compelled you to create In the Trenches and fight for the rights of women over 40?
DZ: It was a very personal journey. As actresses we were hit hard by the ageism factor. And it isn’t just the celebrity who suffers. The worker bees suffer as well. It took some time to decide to do this.

We started out as a support group to whine and moan with others suffering the same plight about our situation. But we soon realized this was due to a long established obsession with looks and youth by the entertainment industry, and that it was our age that was reducing our opportunities for work. We also realized we were boomers and boomers take an active position and activate change. We saw the bigger picture. It was bigger than us. Women over 40 were affected by ageism outside of the entertainment industry as well. We are just a microcosm of what goes on for women across the country. And who is one of the biggest perpetrators? The media. So it became a bigger calling. Did we want our daughters to grow up dreading the years after 40? After a series of advocacy campaigns with Women In Film, AARP and The Screen Actors Guild, we decided the best way for us to effect change in the entertainment industry was to produce films that promote more realism and variety in the portrayals of women. And who better to tell their stories than us?

So In the Trenches Productions (ITTP) was born to set a positive example for the media, society and all women over 40. We are not invisible. Our purpose is to change the way the media views and utilizes women over 40. We are not going to fade away because we reach certain milestones in our life cycle. Women over 40 are a dynamic force full of dreams, wisdom and inspiration and deserve to be recognized as such. We want to hold the entertainment industry accountable for the distorted view of life they create because they gear the majority of their product to the youth market. We believe a balance must be established. We are just asking for a balance.

This is not just the right thing to do but it also makes solid business sense. We want to give this largely ignored audience quality films that will resonate with them, and we know that they will come. The more quality films we can produce with strong lead roles with women over 40, the more trust we gain and the more they will come, and we will succeed not only financially but ethically.

If we can strike a balance in the entertainment industry, things will get better slowly but surely. Then, hopefully, the antiquated mindset of those in charge will change. And of course we know it is not an easy task to change those minds

MM: The limited amount and variety of TV and film roles for women over 40 has a detrimental effect on the women themselves, but do you believe that it has a negative effect on people of any age group or gender?

DZ: The media profoundly affects the views of society. When you don’t see yourself reflected in a positive way or you’re just not seeing yourself at all, in your mind you become invisible. That is deadly to one’s self-esteem, no matter what your age or gender.

When women don’t see themselves or see other women doing things they can aspire to, or gain inspiration from, their self-worth can plummet. Look at the profound effect the media has had on our young girls and the obsession with the thin perfect body. Those are the consequences.

There are so many different levels of the human story to be told. Of course you have to make the moneymakers, or what you might call the meat and potatoes of the studio or film company. But you also need fruits, vegetable and fiber. The world and your company will benefit by serving a wider variety of product to your consumer. Some like the meat and potatoes, but the audience out there that likes the fruits and vegetables is huge as well. It makes financial sense to serve them as well, or as I said before, “to strike a balance.”

MM: What do you feel like your greatest achievement has been as a part of In the Trenches Productions

DZ: We are proud of the women we have reached, the conversation we have created, the part we have had in the movement and the hope, laughter and inspiration our films, Website and the mission behind In the Trenches Productions has given to women over 40.

We are also very proud of our film, Believe It Baby, and our series, Transitions. They are the epitome of what we stand for, of what we are about and the message we want to get across. And we did them for $40!

MM: What does the future hold for In the Trenches Productions?

DZ: Besides expanding our Website and continuing to produce more short films so women have a place to go for entertainment that strikes a chord with them, we will be starting a mentoring program for aspiring women filmmakers. We’d like our company to become more inter-generational—a place where women filmmakers will find a home to develop their abilities. It is our belief that the future of women in film will expand as more women directors, writers and producers can find expression and a marketplace for their ideas and passions. We hope to be a conduit for that.

We’d also like to see two scripts that we are shepherding make it to the big screen. The Althea Gibson project is the true story of the first African American woman to become a world-class competitor in tennis. The other script is A Host of Trouble, a family comedy about growing up Catholic during the ‘50s in Chicago. We have also created a pilot version of our series on our site called “Welcome to My Garden” and have hopes to sell this to network TV or cable soon.

And we would be exceedingly happy if our entertainment Website for women over 40 could transform into a full fledged network on television for women over 40.

We are so full of possibilities, and we are shooting for the stars.. the sky’s the limit!

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