The new movie In A World… takes its title from words that should be immediately familiar to anyone who regularly visits a multiplex. The romantic comedy—starring Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed—tells the story of Carol (played by Bell), a dialect coach who dreams of doing voice-over work for movie trailers. But first she must gain entry into a brotherhood of professionals—”In a world…” are words not immediately associated with a female voice.
Though fictional, Bell tells TIME that the movie is based on real experiences and hopes. “I found great liberty and freedom in doing voices—this idea that you could be anyone, not judged by what you look like ” she says. “I got to L.A. and realized it’s a clique. You can’t just roll up. There’s a very clearly delineated group of people who have been doing this for a long time. There are very few women.” (Bell did end up voicing two characters in Shrek Forever After.)
And the industry picture Bell paints in her movie is not far from the truth, say real-life female voice actors.
“As far as the ratio of who’s working, male to female, on a good day it’s probably 65 [percent] to 35,” says voice actor Lisa Biggs. “It’s certainly a male-dominated industry, and when the economy’s in the crapper, it’s more like 80 to 20.”
Biggs originally turned to voice work due to a lifetime getting bullied for her own high-pitched voice; when she realized that she might be able to make a living from her unusual sound—her personal website advertises her talents for producers who need an actor “to sound like a child but not act like one”—she jumped into that world as soon as she graduated from college. Then, about two years ago, she founded Voxy Ladies, a collective for female voice-over artists (along the lines of the well-established — and all-male Primetime Voices,). One of the goals of Voxy Ladies is to help women like herself market their voices in a small but competitive profession.
And voice-over work is hardly limited to movie trailers. As Carol learns in In a World…, at least one path available to women is in commercials. Jennifer Knight, another member of Voxy Ladies, says that shift reflects a decades-long shift in consumers’ attitudes. “Fifty years ago, my voice would never book commercials,” she says. “Audiences wanted an expert—and, more often than not, a male expert—to tell them what to buy and how to behave. Today, I think, there’s a backlash to that. Consumers are more cynical, savvy, more empowered, weary of being sold to.”
These days, she’s often instructed by the director of a commercial to speak about a product less as an announcer, and more as a consumer talking to a girlfriend. The world of movie trailers, however, is still an arena dominated by a very few actors—mostly men. (Knight, who saw an early screening of In a World…, says she loved the movie, but can’t speak to the accuracy of Bell’s depiction of the trailer industry.)
One thing the movie gets right, say Biggs and Knight, are the entrenched attitudes about what male and female voices mean and signify. Biggs, who admits that she herself gravitates toward a male sound, says that society believes that mens’ voices convey authority and trust—attributes that can sway consumers. Knight also points to the many studies showing the social advantages of a deep voice. At the same time, it’s possible that moviegoers like trailers with male voices because they’re used to trailers with male voices, a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma—and one that’s amplified, Knight says, by studios’ reliance on focus groups. “Focus groups aren’t asking for change,” she says, “but we’re not giving them anything to ask for.”
In her new movie, Lake Bell presents that way of thinking as a self-perpetuating cycle: women don’t have authoritative voices, so we never let women say important things. That’s why Bell’s character—and real actors like Biggs and Knight—keep, quite literally, speaking up.
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Biggs hopes that the movie might help change the status quo, shifting a balance that’s already on its way. Outside of the U.S., she says, women are gaining in promo work—one of the Voxy Ladies is the voice of the WB network in India and Pakistan—and the movie might shift the domestic soundscape. Voxy Ladies hopes to host screenings of the movie to raise awareness. And one thing the movie doesn’t always show, but that Biggs says is true of the real industry on which it’s based, is that voice-over actors of all genders are supportive of one another even in light of cutthroat competition.
If the movie is a success, it may make that competition even more extreme, as a new wave of people are enticed by the prospect of being the voice of something—despite the fact that the latest trend in movie-promos is to skip the voice-over altogether. (In a World… features a Hunger Games knock-off ad with dramatic narration, that are absent in the real Hunger Games trailers.) Given the proliferation of amateur voice-over artists using easy online self-promotion to get in on the voice game, Biggs only hopes those new people realize it’s a real career that takes professional training.
On the other hand, different kinds of voice work are expanding. “There’s so much work out there. Everything talks,” says Biggs, referring to apps and devices that need voices. The same studies that show mens’ voices associated with trust indicate that womens’ voices are supposed to be pleasing and relatable, which helps them get work as GPS devices and digital assistants. “Siri is a friend of mine,” Biggs says.
And in a world with In a World…, more female voices everywhere might equal more female voices in the one place in question. Jennifer Knight say that the opening up of commercials to women is not the full extent of change in the industry. “It’s a nice shift, and we’re seeing more women than ever before doing live announcing and hosting,” she says. “Movie trailers have been a holdout but I don’t see why they wouldn’t eventually follow suit.”