Is Your Script Gender-Balanced? Try This Test

Posted May 11, 2018 10:09 p.m. EDT

The stats are familiar to anyone who cares about the place of women on screen: year after year, they appear less often, say fewer words and generally don’t do as much in front of the camera. Numerous studies have corroborated the disparity between male and female characters in films, TV shows and ads.

But what if there was a way to analyze the gap before a movie is released, when there is still time to address that imbalance?

Now, a few Hollywood players have developed technology that aims to do that: new screenplay software that can automatically tell whether a script is equitable for men and women.

The idea came from Christina Hodson, a screenwriter who is involved with Time’s Up, the activist Hollywood organization addressing inequities in the industry.

If everything starts with the scripts, said Hodson, who specializes in female-driven action movies like the coming “Bumblebee,” “it made sense to me that we can do a lot ourselves.”

She wondered if screenwriting software, which writers almost universally use to format scripts, could easily tabulate the number of male and female roles and how much each character spoke. Writers could then see and tackle the problem before casting directors or producers had their say.

Hodson approached John August, a creator of the script software Highland, to see if he could make something of her brainstorm. In a word, yes. It was a snap: On Thursday, just weeks after that initial conversation, Highland 2, with the gender analysis tool that Hodson dreamed up, became available in the Apple app store as a free download.

“I was immediately on board,” said August, a screenwriter himself whose credits include Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the forthcoming live-action “Aladdin.”

“During the writing process, you’re not always aware of how little your female characters are interacting or speaking,” he said, “because you’re only looking at a scene at a time, a page at a time. It’s not a good overview.”

Highland 2 provides a real-time snapshot of the overall gender balance. The results are sometimes surprising. With her heroine-centered movies, “I expected all of my scripts would be over 50 percent” female, Hodson said, “and they weren’t.”

That knowledge provides an opportunity to rethink some of the storytelling. “It’s a tool for people to self-police and look at unconscious bias in their own work,” she said.

In conceiving the interface, August was careful about how the data was presented. “In no way did I want this to feel like scolding,” he said. “I wanted this to feel approachable, and invite you to make changes.”

Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive officer of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University, which has done extensive research into representation on screen, welcomed any innovation to push Hollywood into a more balanced direction.

“It’s about systemic change,” she said, “and it’s about what are the touch points along the way where critical decisions are being made, and how can we provide an intervention at the very beginning.”

In 2016, the institute, along with its partners at the University of Southern California and Google, announced a software tool that used video and audio recognition and algorithms to decode gender and other details of characters on screen. Late last year, the group also developed a script-level gender assessment — what Di Nonno called “a spell-check for gender bias” — which has been quietly used by some studios and ad agencies in the last few months, she said. (It’s not available commercially.)

The big hurdle in the industry will be buy-in. In response to questions from The New York Times about its products, Final Draft, maker of a leading screenplay software, said in a statement Thursday that its next iteration, Final Draft 11, due out within the year, will offer “enhancements” that allow writersto analyze many different aspects of the script, including gender representation.” (The company has long offered a free add-on called Tagger that lets writers tag attributes, including gender and race, for characters. The new version will make this a bigger standard feature.)

Even before Highland 2 hit the marketplace, it was making waves. In April, Hodson and August released a podcast about their collaboration and their hopes for it. Guy Goldstein, founder of WriterDuet Inc., another screenplay software product, was inspired. His team got to work.

The podcast “made us know that it was something that we really needed to do,” Goldstein said, adding, “I think it’s our responsibility as software developers to offer tools that help build awareness.”

The WriterDuet tool, available online now, also includes an automated Bechdel test — which measures the number of female characters and whether they discuss something other than a man — and a reverse Bechdel test, which looks at men the same way. The tool also notes how many times the test is passed, using a minimum of seven lines of dialogue to qualify.

An examination of the past 10 Oscar winners for original screenplay offered dismal results: Only one screenplay, Spike Jonze’s “Her,” passed WriterDuet’s Bechdel test, Goldstein said in an email, when the unseen digital assistant, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, has one conversation with a little girl. “In contrast, every single script passes our reverse Bechdel test multiple times (as many as 40 times, in ‘Spotlight’),” he said.

Hodson and the software makers say they expect their tools will be expanded to address other issues of representation, like race and ethnicity, although that is more complicated, because those details are not always mentioned in scripts.

But in general, “This is all pretty easy,” Goldstein said. “Technology can do this, and technology should be doing this.”

Hodson envisioned these analytics being applied to projects already in development. “We can’t enforce anything, but my hope is that people will be more invested in doing this as this conversation becomes more important,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you?”