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”?