Women in film are nothing if not empowered. This was clear to see on the electrified faces of the largely female audience at the 2016 Athena Film Festival held on the Barnard Campus in NYC from February 18th to 21st, 2016. It was also a strong thread that ran through the ten features, twelve documentaries, eleven shorts, four master classes, three panels, and a lively conversation with Paul Feig and Kate McKinnon. We learned that women are making headway in terms of graduating from film schools, getting films made, especially shorts, screening them at festivals, and winning awards.
Yes, it appears that some progress is being made, at least in these areas. This is the good news. But, as headlines have been screaming for years, major inequalities remain. There’s still much to be done and thanks to Melissa Silverstein (Director of the ATHENA FILM FESTIVAL and founder of WOMEN AND HOLLYWOOD), there was plenty of advice on hand for all those willing to take the initiative.
On the GENDER IN SHORT FILMS panel, Dr. Stacy Smith (Director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication & Journalism) spoke of a recent study, INCLUSION OR INVISIBILITY, she, Dr. Katherine Pieper, and their colleagues conducted on diversity in entertainment. Among other things, they found that, despite much activism, some crucial barriers still exist for female directors in the career pipeline from making shorts to making studio films. They found similar barriers for women working both in front of and behind the camera. The study found, for example, that there has been no significant increase in the number of female directors over the past ten years. And, of all the top grossing films, only 28% have had female protagonists. Only 21% have had female narrators.
The four short film directors on the panel with Dr. Smith, Rose McGowan (DAWN), Sayeeda Moreno (WHITE), Jennifer Suhr (YOU AND ME BOTH), and Leah Meyerhoff (TWITCH), elaborated on some of the major challenges still confronting women. The most important missing piece, they felt, is access to opportunity in the form of agents, producers, financing, and distribution. These barriers to access first appear, not in film schools, but at festivals. Typically, after school, the support system for women falls apart. Agents are extremely difficult to find, but they are crucial. Even if female directors do manage to get agents, the agents are not doing much for them.
According to the panel, it’s a myth that films with female protagonists don’t make money (HUNGER GAMES), especially internationally, or that females can’t direct action (Kathryn Bigelow) or write stories that will sell (Shonda Rhimes). But even so, decisions about funding and distribution are still made based on these kinds of myths. Unconscious biases remain. The truth of the matter is that the ad spend, distribution density, and production are more important in terms of making money than the writer’s, director’s or protagonist’s gender.
McGowan felt that digital platforms will eventually allow women to circumvent agents. Meyerhoff listed a number of resources for finding funds, including grants from Tribeca All Access and the San Francisco Film Society, as well as the Sundance and IFP Labs. She also mentioned seeking out private equity from producers, investors, and women with money. Moreno felt that someone needs to say, “I believe in you.” She and Suhr both encouraged women to to look for connections and resources within their communities, stay connected, collaborate and help each other.
Sheila Nevins (HBO), in her MASTER CLASS ON DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING, echoed this sentiment. For her, collaboration is an extremely important part of everything. As she put it, “If you say A and they say C, then the B you arrive at together is better than the A or the C.”
Director Paul Feig (SPY, BRIDESMAIDS), who has long been a proponent of getting women in front of the camera, was accompanied on stage in A CONVERSATION with Kate McKinnon (SNL), who is starring in his upcoming GHOSTBUSTERS reboot with a female twist.
Among other things, Feig made the point that incredible amounts of ambition and persistence are required to make it in film. For him, the only political act is the decision to do something. The art is the only thing that will carry a film. He encouraged filmmakers to take every opportunity, all the time. If it’s good it will be found. It’s the work that proves itself.
The spirited panel about UNCONSCIOUS BIAS in film was moderated by Julie Ann Crommet (Google), who cited a definition of unconscious, or implicit, bias from the Kirwan Institute: “A product of shortcuts our brain takes because we can’t process much at the same time.” Lydia Pilcher (Cine Mosaic) described the coming power of the shifting identity and perspective of US audiences as they move toward being one-third millennial and 40% diverse. “We are now discovering the female audience,” she said. Last fall, Sundance and Women in Film brought together fifty people to talk about the problems of diversity in the film business. They came to the conclusion, based on the relative success for women who have participated in the Sundance Labs, that sponsorship and access to opportunity, even moreso than mentorship, are key.
Gina Reyes (Fox), on the same panel, spoke about Fox’s Writer’s Intensive and Global Director’s Development Initiative as positive steps within a large media company. The Fox mandate for diversity regularly gets diverse writers in the room in an effort to forge more connections to the show runners in charge. Lexi Alexander (LIFTED) encouraged writers to surround themselves with people different from themselves in order to develop more diverse stories. For Kelly Edwards (HBO), it’s about changing the stereotypes and this starts with the writers, the directors and the casting process. She’s found that the more she talks about diversity, the more it starts to seep in and eventually the leaders in the business get to the point where they can’t unsee diversity.
One of the most practical presentations at Athena 2016 was CROWDFUNDING TO INDEPENDENCE by Erica Anderson of Seed & Spark. Anderson advised her audience to become entrepreneurs, to take responsibility for not only writing, directing, and producing, but also for finding their own funding and distribution.
Where does the momentum for this come from? From the filmmakers themselves, of course, and companies like Seed & Spark are there to help. Before filmmakers should even think about launching a crowdfunding campaign, though, she said they first need to build their support team and find their crowd. It’s crucial to set up a direct relationship with your audience. Find out where they’re hanging out. These are the people who will amplify your message and help you build your audience. You need to be able to connect to them directly. In order to do this you need their email addresses, so start collecting business cards and offering newsletters. Anderson couldn’t stress enough the importance of finding and connecting with your audience. It’s the first step in the crowdfunding process. Her incredibly thorough introductory presentation about Seed & Spark’s approach to crowdfunding and distribution services is available on the Seed & Spark site.
One thing’s for sure, there was plenty of food for thought at Athena 2016.