Skip to main content

Belinde Ruth Stieve & NEROPA

PQR = abbreviation for Pro Quote Regie/Pro Quote Film, advocating for equal allocation of public funding to women’s films

You’re probably familiar with the questions that screenwriters often ask themselves when they revise their work: Do I start this scene as late as possible and end it in the right place? Who gets the last word in this this scene/sequence? Can I combine a couple of these characters?

And you'll know that there are often more questions, starting at the very first draft and persisting right through a film’s release, about the genders of storytellers, whether there’s a female protagonist, how the women and girls are described, what they talk about to each other, how they act. There’s much more attention paid to how many women and girls appear onscreen and how often they speak. There are endless studies that you’re probably familiar with, too, from places like the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, San Diego State University, from the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MD&SC) at the University of Southern California — associated with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media — and from Calling the Shots at the University of Southampton in the UK.

And there’s a range of suggestions about how to achieve gender balance on screen, particularly from Stacy L Smith from MD&SC, who has suggested that if everyone added five female speaking characters to their projects, without taking away or changing any of the male characters, and repeated the process for four years, there would be parity. Geena Davis has similar suggestions
“…before you cast something, just go through and do a gender check and change a bunch of first names to female. Voila! You have some very unstereotyped female characters.” 

“Another ‘very easy fix’ would be to specify that crowd scenes are 50% female”, she says, since research showed the current proportion was only about 17%.

There’s also Radha O’Meara’s ‘How to Reduce Sexism in Screenplays’.

And for the last few years, there’s been Belinde Ruth Stieve’s NEROPA.

WW Why ‘NEROPA’? What is it?

NEROPA is a casting method that helps raise the number of female roles in a script in a formalized way by observing the principles of neutral roles parity: hence NEutral ROles PArity. 

WW What inspired NEROPA?

BRS There is an alarming gender imbalance in German film and television — and in other countries as well of course. This has been going on for so long that most of the time we don’t notice it any more, but it affects us all, and it certainly does not reflect the diverse world we live in.

This has to do with the types of roles we see for men and women — I call this Men talk and women listen, men act and women look nice. And of course the imbalance in quantity.

After having done independent research for a number years — I started in January 2013 — I thought it was time to change a bad situation for the better instead of just proving it statistically over and over again. Do I think script writers want to create these male societies? No, most of the times it just happens. It has for decades. A bad habit, that has been reproduced so often that we hardly notice it any more.

When I was in London in mid-January at the Equity Symposium on NEROPA at the BFI, Stephen McComack from the BFI gave a short introduction into the BFI filmography research. Among other things he mentioned that in an investigated time span only about 20 % of the medical doctors in films were women, and in the UK reality women already took more than 50 % of the jobs. So the unconcious bias is in people’s heads when they write scripts. Jean Rogers of Equity UK told me that sophisticated, highly qualified jobs tend to be perceived as male jobs, and caring jobs tend to be associated with females. So when people read Dr. Harrison or Professor Jones with no first names chances are they will read them as Mr. H. And Mr. J.

Here in Germany it’s more obvious as most of the times we have male and female words for every profession. So it would be doctor-doctoress, scientist-scientisteress, astronaut-astronautesse etc. Most of the times the male terms are used as the overall label, which does not work, because they are male and sound male. Ein Journalist, ein Anwalt, ein Biologe — a journalist, a lawyer, a biologist. The English language only has few examples for this, so perhaps it’s not so easy to understand. Basically, it’s like saying three waiters and three kings, and to expect everybody to think of waiters AND waitresses and kings AND queens. And that usually doesn’t happen. 

Just as an example, I analyzed six prime time tv film spots from 2015, from the two main German public broadcasters (ARD and ZDF). The first two diagrams show the gender of the first roles and the main casts (as published by the tv channels).

You see that five groups of films have clear majorities of male roles (in pink) in their main casts. The sixth, the Sunday night ZDF films under the heading Herzkino / Heart Cinema, are all female led, but the main casts are nearly gender balanced. I was told by a ZDF commissioner that when there is a male / female leading duo in a ZDF production, the PR people will always list the woman first, even if her role is smaller and less important — which could explain the high percentage of female leads for the Satuday night, but the ZDF Sunday evening films definitely focus on heroines.

The next two diagrams show each of the roughly 35 films per weekday that has at least twice as many roles of one gender.

As you can see, there are numerous films with overwhelming male roles majorities. Of course it’s perfectly alright to commission and show these types of scripts and films that tell men’s stories, as long as we also get to see films that show more women, so it’s even in the end. But somehow that never really happens.

WW So that’s the situation in Germany. What about other countries, do you have your own data about them as well?

BRS Not a lot I’m afraid, but recently, when I was invited to Equity UK Women’s Committee’s NEROPA symposium at the BFI in London, I analyzed 2,500 UK film productions from 2003–2013 as published on the BFI website. with casts of up to 7 people for each film. And I came to a similar result. Less than 30 % of the first roles and roughly a third of the 7 roles main casts were women. 

Most years there were dozens of films where 6 or even all 7 roles were male, and hardly any where there was a similarly strong female bias.

I often hear that this problem will disappear as soon as there are more films written, produced and / or directed by women. But I don’t agree.

WW Why not?

BRS: First of all, more female directors will lead to more women as heads of other departments. Female directors are more likely to hire a female DoP for example. But unless the directors also write the script their influence on the gender distribution of the roles is not that big. So we should look at the script writers. 

But on the whole they also create male biased stories. Let’s go back to the diagrams for the German TV movies. Only four had twice as many female roles in the main casts. Four of 209 films. And of course more than four films were written by women. So hiring more female authors alone won’t counterbalance the situation.

Some months ago I analyzed the November 2017 decisions of the FFA German Federal Film Board (in German), where eight fictional and two documentary projects were funded. There are seven payouts every year, so that’s just small, but still it was quite interesting. Last year the FFA started including gender statistics to their publication of their funding decisions: they list the number of submitted and funded films and the number of female directors, female producers and female authors for both groups. 

But they ignore the leading characters. The characters are mentioned in the short summaries of each film, but the FFA doesn’t add them up and publish the numbers. I did, it were 12 male and three female roles (along with five gender-undefined roles: a five-member therapy group). Of the eight projects that received script funding, six had at least one female author.

I mentioned this recently to the FFA when I was visiting them, and to be fair they were quite surprised by this imbalance. I think it may well be that in the future they will look at the leading casts as well and maybe even include them in their gender overview of funded films.

Of course it doesn’t stop with the leads. On the whole, when you look at different categories, i.e. leads, major supporting roles, lesser supporting roles and small roles, you will see most times that the share of women decreases down the ladder. 

Even if you have a female lead — or a woman among the top three characters, like in the original STAR WARS or in ROGUE ONE for example — it can still be a film with 90 % men among the main cast or even all speaking characters. (see STAR WARS — THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). And then there are the extras and crowd scene people — who aren’t actors and actresses, but are also visible onscreen of course — and are strongly male dominated as well. But this is just quoting Geena Davis, I haven’t really looked into this for Germany myself yet.

The cast needs its own focus, changing the balance in the cast needs own measures, a quota for directing or writing won’t do the trick.

WW How does NEROPA work?

BRS First somebody in a position of power decides that NEROPA is to be applied by a team, ideally three people from different departments. They go through the script on their own, and mark the roles as male or female according to how they are written, for example from the characters names or pronouns. 

Then — still on their own — they identify their neutral roles, the roles for which gender does not matter, that can be any gender. Take a male character who is a father, or a catholic priest or the love interest of a straight woman, he will need to be male. But for other male characters their gender may not matter to the story. This is quite often the case for nameless roles / minor characters who are journalist, police-officers, doctors etc, but is also possible for bigger supporting and even leading roles. There is no objectivity in this, no right or wrong, so the three people may come up with quite different neutral roles.

The next step is their first meeting, where they will have to agree upon a final list of neutral roles. And these roles, three or five or 10 in a film, will then be redefined as woman — man — woman — man alternately. Now the script has more female roles (and fewer males) than it had before. It may need to be adjusted a little, names and pronouns, bits of dialogue. But basically it stays like it was.

And then the casting process can begin, where the cast can be diversified further, by applying NEROPA Fine-tuning  to achieve the greatest possible diversity within gender parity. So, for example, not all professionals should have the same height, the same size, the same age and the same colour of skin. One could be in a wheelchair and another be pregnant. But this is up to who the casting directors suggest and how much power they are given.

So the set up is quite precise and easy to follow. Applying the NEROPA check can be voluntary, a self-commitment by a production company, it can be linked to film funding or commissioning of a script and so on. It could become an obligation, especially when public money is involved — which is often the case in Germany, I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the situation in New Zealand, but maybe there are similarities? I think it was Jane Campion who a few years ago said at Cannes “when it comes to public money it has to be equal” or something like that.

Generally I’d suggest NEROPA for all scripts that have at least twice as many male over female roles. But it’s not that time-consuming — and it has positive side-effects, so why not use it in other cases as well? And of course it’s a tool that should also be introduced to films schools and so on, so film makers get a greater awareness at an early stage in their careers, and thinking about gender balance and stereotypes becomes second nature.

WW How does your method differ from those suggested by Stacy L Smith and Geena Davis?

BRS Oh, in many ways. First of all, NEROPA investigates all roles in a script. Then the set up is clearly defined and follows a number of steps and it involves three diffferent people. Also it’s more of a process than a piece of action.

Geena Davis suggests changing the names of five male characters to turn them into women. That’s a good idea basically. But I don’t quite understand who is supposed to be doing that, is she addressing the casting directors (“before you cast…”)? In Germany they just don’t have the power to do that. I know that many have at some point suggested gender-switching a minor character, more often than not a nameless role like a taxi-driver or lawyer. But they couldn’t change named roles and certainly not five in a film. Neither could directors. Is anybody actually following Davis’ suggestion, are there accounts of how it is working? Maybe it is different in the USA and the films generally have bigger casts than here, and all characters have names, I don’t know…

The other idea by Stacy Smith is even more theoretical, and less plausible. Again, here in Germany nobody could or would add five characters with lines to a script. On the contrary, often characters get deleted or two merged into one, so they get a bit bigger and have more to say, and also to save money of course. So apart from the dramaturgy — what are these five people doing and saying, why should they be in the story when the writers never thought of them? — there is the simple question: who would pay for that? And then Smith says “and in the next film add another five female roles” — but the next film is a new story, it will not have the roles and the gender distribution of the last plus those five women. That idea doesn’t really seem very practical, at least for the casts. It could possibly work for crowd scenes, but then again, extras also cost money…

WW What response have you had to NEROPA?

BRS It has been very positive. NEROPA focuses on change, rather than on describing and deploring a bad situation over and over again. People have seen that immediate change is possible in small steps, film by film, without — and this is very important — interfering in a creative process or compromising it.

And also people really seem to like the procedure, that there’s a set of step you just follow, right up to the alternating assigning of woman-man-woman-man to the roles in the end. So no endless discussions whether Dr. Evans should be the woman or Tom The Animal Caretaker should, you just follow procedure and that’s it. It is also starting to spread beyond the film industry: last month I led a NEROPA workshop for theatre students, writers and directors, which was very exciting.

Last year an extensive study on Audiovisual Diversity in Germany was published by Prof. Elizabeth Prommer and her team at Rostock University, financed by several TV channels and a foundation set up by actress Maria Furtwängler. Suddenly the media started picking up on the situation — which I found understandable but at the same time a bit strange. Did they really never notice before that there is this immense gender imbalance onscreen in film and television, not only in fiction but also in news programmes and game shows etc.? Did they never read my blog? (LOL). 

Anyway, a lot has been said about statistics and lack of women, especially older women, as experts or actresses. And when people in the industry or accompanying scientists started talking about change and what can be done, NEROPA kept coming up. So it‘s getting better known.

Just recently I’d been to London where NEROPA was officially introduced to the British film industry, and that was very exciting and the feedback incredibly positive. Let’s see what will happen next.

Incidentally, Prof. Prommer said the other day that the situation for older actresses is like an employment ban because there are hardly any roles for them, that‘s an interesting line of thought. Especially when you consider the guidelines that do exist for public television and funding.

WW Who has been using NEROPA so far? In what kinds of projects?

BRS I would say so far it’s mostly been television. And independent directors/producers. And I know that some film funders are incorporating NEROPA in their consultations as a suggestion when film makers present their projects. And I have started introducing it at film schools which is quite exciting.

WW Has NEROPA’s use in practice helped you to refine it as a tool and if so how?

BRS No not really. But I try to rephrase the description a bit whenever I notice that something has been misunderstood. The thing is, even though NEROPA is a method for the whole script, and you check all roles starting with the leads, and even though I give examples of successful gender-switching of films’ leads and important supporting characters — films like HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ALIEN, SALT and ELYSIUM — some people will still think that the method is only about the nameless small characters and that the leads are off limits. I don’t know why this is. But I think most people get it right when they read the description or look at the illustrations or video on the NEROPA page.

Something else I did was to extend the method and describe how the concept can be applied at an earlier stage of filmmaking, in script development or writing. If writers consider the concept of neutral roles and use the method, a later NEROPA check maybe will not be necessary any more. And that’s good for the authors, because I can imagine that they are not too keen to have their skripts change, whether it’s the dialogue or the gender of characters.

In most cases the course for gender distribution in films is set very early. The leading character, the protagonist and antagonist, the two or three roles in the centre are created at the beginning, and their gender is determined as well. In the course of developing the script, other characters are added so that in the end there are 15 or 25 or even more speaking roles. Leading characters are drawn in greater detail and revised numerous times. This happens less often with supporting roles and least with the nameless smallies. With them it may just be the basic question of in-or-out: Do I keep ‘neighbour’? Or does he have so little to say that I can merge him with ‘postman’?

Actually, with some characters, there’s no need to decide their gender for a long time. They are neutral and can be actively and visibly classified as such. This can be done on an overview concept sheet, on (green) index cards, digitally or in other ways. They can even get gender neutral first names for a start, Chris, Stevie, Robin, Jackie, Alex, have surnames without Mr / Ms, or be called by their profession, maybe stressing the neutralness if it is not generally perceived as neutral. Be inventive! (teacher, police officer, plumbing person).

The next image shows an example for an early draft, men in pink, women in light blue and the neutrals in green with neutral names.

While the script is growing and the story getting more depth, reasons why Chris and teacher have to be male, and Stevie and plumbing person female may come up. The others will remain neutral, and eventually tadaaa! can be defined as female — male — female — male alternately in the NEROPA way. And get names if they haven’t got any yet. Or you simply leave them as neutral and pass the cast list on like this to the production and particularly to the casting director. It is also possible that all neutral roles can be turned into women. Maybe the cast will be female-biased then, but so what? There will be loads of casts with a male majority, so any film that counterbalances this is a contribution for more diversity.

“I’ll do that when everything is finished, then I’ll look into it and maybe revise a couple of characters’ gender” never led to any measurable effect either. Weeks and months of being occupied with the story means that you’ve lived with Mr. Harrison and Mr Jones all this time. And probably with male journalists in the plot. And if I am aware that there are fewer female roles in films overall, and if I don‘t want to further contribute to this imbalance if I can help it, why not do something about it right from the word go? And who knows what will happen to my story if I go with neutral characters for a while. It doesn’t cost any money and it won‘t slow down the writing. But it may lead to more interesting and more unusual stories.

I am very happy to say that the neutral roles concept has now been incorporated into the script writing software DramaQueen, with steps, scene and character description, since December. It has five gender categories.

I’ve known the people behind it, Evi Goldbrunner and Joachim Dollhopf, right from the start of DramaQueen some years ago, when they introduced the betaversion. It’s a great and extensive programme. 

We‘ve been in touch over NEROPA for a while, and in the latest version, which is 2.4 I think, instead of the binary gender categories female and male for the characters there are now five, with the additional asexual and intersexual and ‘undefined’, which corresponds to NEROPA’s neutral, so there you go.