‘Equity’ Movie: Backstabbing, Sexism and Ruthlessness on Wall St.

The indie film's producer and co-star Sarah Megan Thomas on how she told the story of women and 'the gray lines of power on Wall Street'

Sarah Megan Thomas as Erin Manning. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics) Sarah Megan Thomas as Erin Manning. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Remember Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill wrestling to get ahead at an investment bank in the movie “Working Girl”? She had “a head for business and a bod for sin,” she declared proudly.

Now meet investment banker Naomi Bishop in the financial thriller, “Equity”: She has a head for IPOs and a bent for WTFs.

About power and cutthroat competition at “the largest investment bank in the world,” this new reality-inspired fiction is packed with an abundance of backstabbing, sexism and double-dealing. “R, as in Ruthless” was how one reviewer rated the feature.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed producer and co-star Sarah Megan Thomas, whose idea it was to make the film; and she, Alysia Reiner and Amy Fox wrote the story upon which “Equity’s” script was based.

She’s never worked in financial services, but her husband, Jason Donehue, does. A former broker with Lehman Brothers and Barclays Capital, he is now in commodity sales at JPMorgan Chase.

“Equity” is by no means “a woman’s picture” — but it’s a woman’s project. Women directed (Meera Menon), wrote (Fox) and produced (Thomas with co-star Reiner) the film. It was also financed almost entirely by women, notably senior-level veterans of the male-dominated financial services industry who wanted their story told, the filmmakers say.

The lead investor and executive producer is Candy Straight, a private investor and board member of Neuberger Berman, who was earlier with Bankers Trust Co.

“Equity’s” lead character, Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad”), is a brusque-and-tough seasoned investment banker with a specialty in IPOs whose current goal is to take a prominent high-tech startup public and manage its initial public offering. She is banking on this to get promoted. Naomi’s protege is young vice president Erin Manning (Thomas), bucking for a promotion as well.

The film has been rolling out nationwide since July 29. Widest release comes Sept. 2.

“Equity” might as well have been titled “Inequity.” Subtext to the taut, suspenseful plot is the filmmakers’ mission to raise consciousness about the biases and discrimination women in financial services face in their unabating effort to smash that glass ceiling.

ThinkAdvisor recently spoke by phone with Thomas, a cum laude grad of Williams College, about funding “Equity” and how the Sony Pictures Classics film has cut through independent-movie clutter to emerge a high-profile summer release. Here are highlights from our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: How does “Equity” differ from other films about the financial services industry?

SARAH MEGAN THOMAS: This is the first Wall Street movie where every Wall Street character isn’t evil. Our heroine never crosses the line. She never does anything illegal. Naomi Bishop is not Gordon Gekko.

How challenging was dealing with firms’ compliance departments when seeking investors for the film?

We learned that on Wall Street, you can’t invest in just anything you want to. There are many rules. Some who were very senior were able to get permission to invest; but for others, the hurdles were too much. So a lot of people who wanted to invest couldn’t because of regulations.

Do you think the firms scrutinized the project quite a bit?

Because it was a Wall Street film, there was some concern since nobody knew how it was going to turn out – like, if it would demonize Wall Street as a whole.

From your producer perspective, how did it turn out?

We didn’t set out to make the film as dark as it is. There was a moment in the edit room where we were like, “Wow, this is a little darker than we anticipated.” So we were nervous about what our investors would think because they let us do whatever we wanted with the movie.

You planned the release to coincide with the presidential election cycle because of a likely female candidate. Good thinking.

This is a time when people are ready to talk about the issues of lack of women in powerful positions. So five years ago, this movie might not have the impact it’s having today.

But why did you choose to do a film about Wall Street?

I’d heard the stories of some of my friends who I went to Williams College with. After we graduated, they went to Wall Street. Many of them quit; some still work there. I thought: Wouldn’t it be fascinating to tell their stories. I wanted to tell a story about women and the gray lines of power on Wall Street, as opposed to the strip clubs and parties [of other Wall Street movies]. I’ve found them to be inaccurate.

Why did women and Wall Street meet your criteria for doing your next film?

I look for a story that’s never been told before, or a version of something that’s never been told. That’s how, on a small budget, you’re able to get press. It has to have strong female roles, of which I’m a big advocate. And it has to be something I feel is commercial and can sell, and make my investors’ money back.

Since your husband is in the industry and you never were, to what extent did he help you and give advice?

None. It was very frustrating. He doesn’t work in investment banking or anything close to what the film is about. But also, because of compliance, he was of zero help. He couldn’t even open up his contacts. All the Wall Street contacts came from strangers I wrote letters to.

Was it difficult to find people to invest in the film?

Until we got to Candy Straight [private investor; board member, Neuberger Berman; member, Board of Governors-Rutgers University; formerly with Bankers Trust Co.], I took maybe 50 meetings and got No, No, and No. Sometimes No would turn into Yes. But the first question you get is, “Who else has invested?” And when the answer is “No one,” it’s really tough to sell your product.

Why did Candy Straight make such a difference?

One of the things she did to make this film happen is that she was a real mentor: She opened up her Rolodex and told her friends: “I’m investing in these women and this movie, and you need to too.” That really started to change the game for us. She began with the minimum investment of $25,000, which she put in escrow, and then continued increasing her amounts over the course of a year to become the largest investor and executive producer.

What type of business plan did you have?

Candy had us reformat our original one to the way she was accustomed to seeing business plans. We showed how all Wall Street movies make money despite [small] budgets [of some] because they’re very commercial.

What was one issue that you wanted to explore with “Equity”?

The difference between the younger and the older generations of women working on Wall Street. The younger [represented by Thomas’s Erin] grew up with Title IX [1972 law prohibiting discrimination based on sex] and doesn’t necessarily deal with any issues in the work force until they get to [Wall Street]. So they’re unprepared because they don’t know what the Naomis of the world [older gen] know.

One of the major conflicts is that your ambitious character wanted a promotion. But it seemed that Naomi, under whom she was a VP, wasn’t pushing for her.

That’s part of the problem and why their relationship disintegrates: Erin doesn’t feel that her boss has her back.

Some women in the higher ranks of financial services have told me that women don’t help other women in the same firm rise: They feel they should struggle as they did.

Some women do help women. For example, Barbara Byrne [vice chair at Barclays Investment Banking] was Linnea Roberts’ [advisory director at Goldman Sachs; formerly GS managing director] mentor and really did push for her and help her. Both are “Equity” investors and co-producers. But we also interviewed women who said that some senior women feel: “It’s either me or her.” And the reason is that there’s not enough opportunity at the firms.

What else?

Youth is so valued on Wall Street. That’s another thing we tried to put into my character: Erin feels that she has to get this promotion. One reason is that the clock is ticking, and it’s important on Wall Street to get to a certain level by a certain age.

Why did you dedicate “Equity” to famed investment banker James “Jimmy” Lee? He was JPMorgan’s vice chair who died last year.

When I was first researching people in investment banking to even get in the door, I started with Williams College, which I attended, and looked at the other alumni. Jimmy was a Williams grad too, so I wrote him a letter. He met with me within two weeks and then introduced me to a lot of women on Wall Street. He validated me and the project in a way that was crucial to opening doors.

What early research did you do for the script itself?

Before we even had a large investor group, Jimmy introduced me to Liz Myers [managing director at JPMorgan], who spoke with our screenwriter Amy Fox and me. Liz was interested in a film that would try as best as it could to make the facts about an IPO as accurate as possible.

Bloomberg is credited as the film’s “creative partner.” What was their role?

We couldn’t have done the movie without Bloomberg and the amazing sponsorship deal we had because they took producing the “Wall Street element” out of the budget. They didn’t charge us for anything. They donated all the reporters, who function like our Greek chorus. So, instead of having Margo Robbie in a hot tub [as in “The Big Short”], you have Bloomberg reporters telling the non-Wall Street audience what’s going on with the IPO. Bloomberg also gave us terminals and made from scratch all the graphs we showed.

Tell me about those graphs.

Because of compliance, we had to use fake firm names. We couldn’t say JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, or any of that, or have those names on a graph. So Amy came up with fake names, which is really hard to do because every hedge fund is a “Rock”!

You and Alysia Reiner [who plays Justice Dept. investigator Sam and produced with Thomas] have been conducting Q&As with moviegoers after they see the film. What do people ask most?

They have a lot of questions relating to women helping women and what’s [factual] about the movie.

Do you get as many questions from men as women?

Yes. Men really enjoy this movie. It’s a nice surprise.

Any other surprises from the audience?

The other night a woman’s question was: “How do I ask for a promotion on Monday?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never asked for one!” [in real life]

A sad moment in “Equity” is when one of the characters, who’s pregnant, puts on underwear to hide her belly to avoid being discriminated against in getting promoted.

Hiding pregnancy is very common for women in business across the board – the fear that if they tell their boss they’re pregnant, it will stop their progression. I hid my own pregnancy to work a “Law & Order” job. I bought a really tight sports bra top that was very loose fitting past my butt and wore tight spandex. It looked like I had big [breasts] and great legs!

You climbed to the top of Mount Rainier when you were in high school. How does that compare with making “Equity”?

The movie is a lot more fun!

What’s your biggest hope when it comes to your message about women on Wall Street and women’s progressing in general?

That the movie becomes a discussion piece: Do we think women help women enough? Why aren’t there more female directors? At a panel we did last week, a guy asked: “Why is there still a glass ceiling?” A reporter there had all the facts for him. Over the course of history, [women’s rights legislation and advancement] have all been fairly recent. We still have a long way to go.

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