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Elite film festivals have a huge role to play in equality — if they want to

If you are Lady Gaga, and the triumphant sound of your HAAAAAAA AH AH AH, AHHH!” has been ricocheting around the internet since the trailer for A Star is Born dropped early this summer, and you are arriving at the Venice Film Festival by boat (as one does) in a Jonathan Simkhai bustier dress and the highest of heels — your full face of makeup impeccable even though when you auditioned for this movie, Bradley Cooper dramatically removed your makeup as he murmured “no artifice” at you — then there is really no question of whether or not film festivals are meaningful to you.

If you are the rest of us, and your movie-going aesthetic is a college sweatshirt and those running leggings that you mostly wear for lounging, and your theater of choice is your couch, perhaps the import of film festivals is less readily apparent. Why, exactly, should you care about the glitzy, exclusive premieres of movies that you’ve never heard of and might never see? Is one of the Chrises in it? Is a Hemsworth? What about a Chris Hemsworth? If all three answers are “no,” why get invested at all?

As Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, put it, “The festival programmers are the curators of our awards season.” If you are curious as to how, exactly, the Academy Awards can earn the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, look not only to the Academy voters (whose ranks are, slowly, diversifying) but to the film festivals at which Oscar hopefuls are screened and coronated — and, by extension, to the handful of people who get to decide which films even make it that far.

Prestige doesn’t necessarily mean popularity, but it certainly means power: The power to determine whose careers ascend and what stories matter. And at present, festivals are largely doing what the rest of the entertainment industry is doing: Amplifying and validating the visions, voices, and narratives of men while marginalizing or ignoring those of women.

To address and dismantle the sexism that plagues virtually every major film festival on Earth, Le Deuxième Regard — a coalition of French women in film created in response to the Harvey Weinstein allegations — created the 50/50 x 2020 Pledge. Also known as the Gender Parity Pledge, 50/50 x 2020 aims for better transparency and representation within the next two years. Its signatories make three promises (via Women and Hollywood):

  • Compile statistics of gender and race of the directors of all the films submitted to selection, and when applicable, to also compile all members of the cast and crew mentioned in the registration process of the film.
  • Make public the gender and race of all the members of selection committees and programmers as well as all programming consultants.
  • Make public the gender and race of executive boards and/or boards of directors and to commit to a schedule to achieve parity in these bodies.

Some of the most influential, high-profile festivals in the world have already signed on, including the Venice Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Cannes Film Festival, where last year female members of the jury protested the fact that only 82 films in competition in the official selection have been directed by women since the festival’s inception 71 years before. (Total number of films directed by men: 1,645.)

Silverstein spoke with ThinkProgress about the Gender Parity Pledge, the role that these festivals play in wider popular culture, and what it will take — and what it would mean — to achieve anything close to gender equality in film.

What are your thoughts on the purpose of the Gender Parity Pledge and how it works? Is there anything about it you want to amend, or anything that’s already in there that you think is especially vital?

It is a living document, so it is amended on a constant basis. The Gender Parity Pledge was created out of the Cannes Film Festival to gain transparency on how films get selected, how films are submitted, and who makes the decisions. One of the things we hear all the time is, “not enough women submit.” And the goal of the parity pledge is to really have the information to understand if this is true, or if it is not.

It’s also really to get sense of how these festivals pick their films. Who picks them? Who makes the decisions? That is a key: How are these lineups are pulled together? There’s been ongoing conversations where film festivals say, “This lack of women directors is not our fault, we’re at the end of the food chain, we can’t do anything about it.” And that is not true. Of course you can do something about it! And there are festivals that do do something about it on an ongoing basis.

The parity pledge is [also] about getting them away from the language they feel comfortable using around what is a “quality” film, and whose films are “good enough,” all those subjective connotations.

Well, I think in that arena, “serious” is so often shorthand for “masculine.” It requires thinking differently about what can be excellent — recognizing subjectivity that has been treated like objectivity for a long time.

We’re all human. Everybody has films they like and don’t like. We’re not trying to remove subjectivity; we’re trying to introduce objectivity. If all the decision makers are consistently picking the same things over and over again, they’re all programming their friends, you’ve got to tell people. And if you’re not taking submissions, tell people. And if you’re curating three-quarters of the festival, people should know!

Natalie Portman recently gave this speech at the Variety Power of Women lunch, and she referenced this oft-cited statistic about how 50 percent of film school graduates are women. It’s interesting that everyone wants to talk about how this isn’t their fault because they’re at the end of the pipeline. And, okay, the Oscars are the end of the pipeline. But aren’t film festivals closer to the beginning than the end? And if the top of the pipeline is 50/50, what’s going on?

I think the statistic about men and women graduating at the same rate from film schools is still anecdotal. There’s never been an industry-wide survey of film schools. They just self-report. And my understanding about this is that, it might be 50/50 across disciplines, but we need to be very clear about the directing, producing, writing, and cinematography, and getting that to 50/50. Because I don’t know if they are.

Let’s talk about the role that film festivals play, then, and what their place is in the culture.

Let’s remember that big Hollywood movies don’t really go to film festivals. So we have to start from the premise. Film festivals are a piece of the whole conversation about: What stories are worthy in our culture? And the stories that have been worthy in our culture have been stories told from a white male perspective, whether it’s another story about Winston Churchill or a story about an Avenger, you know what I’m saying?… It’s a story that people are really comfortable with. Part of this whole movement is to challenge the stories of our time and to build a new canon that is more representative and inclusive.

As you say, these might be more niche films that are showing at festivals, and most people don’t see movies at festivals; they just see them in theaters when they come out. For the average moviegoer, why does it matter? Why is this important for everyone, for all movie audiences, not just for the small percentage of people who are in the industry and/or care about the festival circuit?

Great question. I think it matters differently for different festivals. For the sake of our conversation, the reason why it matters is, the festival programmers are the curators of our awards season.

Those are the movies that get picked out and are promoted. If they do well at a festival, then they get promoted to the next level, which is the awards conversation. And then what happens is, significant amounts of money are invested in these films, and so people see them and press wants to cover them, and they become the stories of the season.

One issue coming out of festivals is this challenge that women and people of color have of leveraging festival success into the big, mainstream films where the money (and, arguably, the cultural influence) really is. Whereas white male directors just get plucked out of there with extremely short resumes. I’m thinking about Colin Treverrow jumping straight to Jurassic World from Safety Not Guaranteed, and Josh Trank, who’d only made the $12 million sci-fi movie Chronicle when he was hired by Fox to direct a Fantastic Four reboot, and Jon Watts, who made this thriller, Cop Car, for $800,000, and then got hired by Sony and Marvel to take over the Spider-Man franchise.

Do you think the Gender Parity Pledge will have any effect on that? What’s your sense of how to address that piece of the very complicated and massive gender-inequality-in-film puzzle?

You know, the fact that the festivals will be more in tune with their numbers — and they’re going to self-report them, because we don’t have the capacity to do that — I think it will make them a little bit more sensitive. I do think that this conversation about who gets opportunities out of festivals is an important one.

This is about agencies, too, and the investment in talent. for many years, up until very recently, they did not see female talent as worthy of their time, because women didn’t earn in the same way, because they didn’t have the opportunities men did. It became one of these vicious cycles that we couldn’t break out.

But I do think some of the pressure that’s been happening now of late, [and success that] women have had when they have had the opportunities, it’s opened it up a little bit more. So women are getting on lists they couldn’t get on before. The big example of that is Chloé Zhao getting a Marvel movie. Her [second] movie, The Rider, was this beautiful, teensy-eensy movie. And it’s gorgeous.

What people believed in the past was the people who made those small movies didn’t want to make big movies. They didn’t have the vision. Because we don’t believe women have vision the way men have vision. Chloé clearly wants to make a bigger movie. And so she clearly told her agent what her goals are — and people didn’t always ask women what their goals were. Those things weren’t available, and now they are. That’s just a big difference.

At the same time, you still see stuff like Get Out producer Jason Blum saying “women don’t make horror movies” and you just want you yell at the screen.

He knows better! He just knows better. And firstly, what an idiot! And he said it in his thing. “Half my audience is women.” You can’t get away with that now, because it’s bullshit.

What is he going to do? That’s my question. I don’t want him to just apologize. I want him to do something.

There’s a strong list of festivals that have signed the Gender Parity Pledge, but some big names are still missing. Who is not on the list who you want to see there? Is there any in particular that you have your eye on?

Call the New York Film Festival and ask them why they didn’t sign. I checked in with them multiple times. They’re a fully curated festival, it’s a small group of people, and it was 13 percent women last year, in their official program. And that is such bullshit.

Honestly, if it would’ve been a European festival, it would have been an outcry in every trade magazine. I don’t know. No one cared here. I was yelling it from the rooftops and nobody cared or picked it up. And they just finished their festival three days ago. (Note: The NYFF did not immediately return a request for comment.)

How exactly has it worked with festivals signing on? You reach out to them, or they reach out to you?

Several have affirmatively been a part of it. The conversations have been, “would you do this?” “Absolutely.” Europeans have been doing a better job about it. Better than here.

Why is it better in Europe than in the U.S.?

Because [the women] can pressure them for money, because a lot of those festivals are government-funded, too. A lot of their budget is from the French cultural department. So the women use that to put pressure on the festival. They were brilliant!

It’s interesting because I think of Cannes as being so backwards on gender in so many ways. I remember that outcry over women being barred from entry because they didn’t want to wear high heels on the red carpet. And yet here they are kind of out in front of this.

They have no choice. They had to do it. Because they had so much pressure. And this is not a comfortable place for them. This is about taking people out of their comfort zones and where they feel very safe and in charge and creating the auteurs of tomorrow and saying, “You’ve got to think past your own eyesight.”

As you mentioned a bit earlier, one key role of the festival is conveying prestige on a movie. These festivals help dictate what is “serious” and what isn’t, which is this larger issue of, we don’t take things that are “feminine” as seriously as things that are “masculine.” For instance: As much of a victory as it is that Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for best director, I think it’s telling she could only be the first (and only!) woman to win that award for making a violent war movie.

Absolutely. And remember, images and culture and TV and film: this is how we all talk to each other and relate to each other. This is vitally important! These issues, things that happen in the home and birth and taking care of family and all the things that sustain our entire society, have been dismissed as small, and women, and girl. Things having to do with the public-facing parts of the world — politics, money — have always been the purview of the man, and when women transgress into that, there’s a fight.

That makes me think of this interview The Cut just did with Andrea Mitchell, who was talking about how, in her early days at NBC News, “story selection was dictated a lot by the male dominance of the editorial staff… The fact is that we have to redefine what is news. Many of these questions about stressful family situations and single moms and social problems, they’re as important as anything we cover.” And those prejudices and gendered ideas about what is, essentially, a story, that’s as present in film as anywhere else.

We need to completely blow up all the norms that we have of: What is important in our world? And who gets to tell those stories? And allowing women the space to share their views and their lives, and for it to be centered in our culture and not othered. It’s so much more than a gender parity pledge. This is about changing our culture, and this is just one tool that we’re using. We have to use every tool and mechanism at our disposal.


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