Women associated with Rutgers help finance and produce the new feature film Equity, which delves into life for women working in the financial sector.
With an aptitude for numbers and a college degree in hand, Candace Straight figured she was well positioned to begin a career in finance. But when she entered the job market in 1969, she found many doors were closed to women, regardless of their qualifications. Wall Street, the epicenter of the financial universe, was no exception. One international company didn’t accept females in its credit training program, assuming women wouldn’t hold up to the rigors of business travel. Another global firm offered Straight secretarial work.
Although she encountered blatant sexism along the way, Straight ultimately thrived in the male-dominated world of mergers, acquisitions, and private equity, launching a successful career that lasted decades. Straight, a member of the Rutgers Board of Governors, retired in 1998, but she remains an investment-banking consultant and independent director. Her pioneering professional journey, along with those of a handful of other women, is documented in anthropologist Melissa S. Fisher’s book Wall Street Women (Duke University Press, 2012), in which Straight appears under the pseudonym Mindy Plane.
Today, Straight is again instrumental in telling the story of women’s struggles to succeed in that male-dominated world. This time, she does so serving as the executive producer of the feature film Equity, which was well received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Rutgers’ participation in the film runs deep. In addition to Straight—the film’s biggest fundraiser—Suzanne Ordas Curry RC’84 is a coproducer and media consultant, Beverly Aisenbrey DC’75, RBS’82 is an investor, and Tristen Tuckfield LC’99 is an agent with Creative Artists Agency. Tuckfield specializes in domestic film sales and helped position the film to be seen at Sundance, which contributed to the early buzz.
The independent film stars Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn as a Wall Street investment banker who gets passed over for a promotion and becomes entangled in an initial public offering (IPO) scandal. The thriller was snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics before its premiere at Sundance, opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 29, and rolled out in the rest of the country and internationally in August, receiving critical acclaim.
“The gold standard for this movie was to get it into Sundance and sold to one of the three best indie players that buy these films,” says Straight, who also helped fine-tune the project’s business plan. “The fact that we reached it is mind-boggling.” Even better, the producers are developing Equity as a television series.
Actors Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, who are friends and worked together on the 2012 film Backwards, began talking two years ago about collaborating on a movie. They agreed that the story had to be original, the plot had to feature strong female characters, and the movie had to be budgeted to turn a profit, says Thomas, also a writer and producer whose passion is telling stories about strong, complex women.
“From the beginning, we were determined to put more women behind and in front of the camera,” adds Reiner, who has played Natalie Figueroa on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. “Wall Street movies always make money, so that had a lot of appeal.” But mostly, she says, they didn’t want to end up with a hit-you-over-the-head feminist film. “We wanted to create a really exciting piece of entertainment that is a stealth bomb social-issue piece.”
With the parameters set, Reiner and Thomas formed a production company, Broad Street Pictures, and wrote a treatment featuring three alpha females: Gunn as a career-driven investment banker, Thomas as her junior deputy executive, and Reiner as the prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s office who investigates the IPO shenanigans.
Thomas and Reiner interviewed dozens of men and women who work for Wall Street financial firms to ensure that the film was realistic and then hired as many women to work on the set as possible. “This is a movie produced by women, written by a woman, directed by a woman, and starring women,” says Thomas. “So, it’s pretty cool.”
They contacted Straight to gauge her interest in investing, and she in turn connected the filmmakers with many of her friends from the financial world. “Not only has she invested herself and opened her Rolodex of friends to us, but she also shared her knowledge and has been an amazing mentor,” says Reiner. “This project wouldn’t have happened without her.”
Among the project’s backers are Curry and Aisenbrey, who learned of the film from Straight, when she hosted a series of parties for would-be investors. “I was extremely impressed with what I heard at that first meeting,” says Curry, a movie buff who owns a public relations, marketing, and advertising firm and was the film’s de facto media consultant.
It was easy to get behind the film, Curry points out, because of the universal biases that working women still confront. “I think in any industry, it is harder for women to succeed,” she says. “Hollywood is still a male-dominated industry—which is why I think this movie is pivotal.” Curry and her son have cameo roles in the movie: she plays a potential investor in a company called Cachet; Ian Curry SAS’16 plays a boardroom executive.
Aisenbrey, a former member of the Rutgers Board of Trustees and longtime friend of Straight, says she was immediately interested in supporting the project. “Movies that entertain and are informative mean a great deal to me,” says Aisenbrey, who, as a member of the dean’s advisory board at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick, also mentors women who are undergraduate business majors. “This film really resonated with me. It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing at Rutgers and at my firm.
“And I hope people will look at the movie and say, ‘Wow, there are strong women in high-level positions who are ethical and work really hard,’” continues Aisenbrey, who recently retired, after 33 years, as managing director of the executive compensation firm Frederic W. Cook & Co. in New York City. “The hours are long and unpredictable, and that’s very challenging for women, particularly women who have families.”
Tuckfield, who learned about Equity through a trade publication before the film was shot, began tracking its progress, intrigued because women were in so many key positions. She had no idea other Rutgers women were involved with the film before it was sold to Sony. “I’m so happy to find other alumnae who are involved in film and finance,” says Tuckfield. “They have incredible business acumen. It’s a testament to Rutgers. It’s so nice that this film brought me back to my alma mater.”
Technically described as the film’s sales agent, Tuckfield and the team at Creative Artists Agency steered the movie through the complex maze of Sundance, helping to get it accepted among thousands of entries and, once it got in, positioning it to be seen at the right times and by the right people.
Everyone involved in the making of Equity understands the economics of the movie business. If moviegoers want to see more female-based stories, want to see women break free of Hollywood stereotypes, and want greater gender equity in the film industry and elsewhere, they have to play their part. “If you want to see more films by and about women, you need to support them with your dollars,” says Thomas.
“The more you do that,” adds Reiner, “the more female-driven films there will be.” •
To see a trailer, visit youtube/Xg2TSp5tJy4.