Saturday, April 30, 2011

Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please!

lisa gornick woman and sun

Every Wednesday evening I run down the hill to central Wellington, to spend three hours with a small group of people who have amazing ideas that they want to develop for the market. I love being with them, go WOW a lot. Grow Wellington has brought us together on a course it calls Activate. And it calls us all ‘activists’, which makes me smile. I’m there to develop my ideas about sustainable structures that will support women who write and direct feature films, so they can do their work and get it to their audiences. Especially if they want to make movies with women as central characters. I want women filmmakers to have their place in the sun (thanks for the image, Lisa). And I want their various audiences to see the films that I believe they are hungry for.

Last week, a visitor introduced us to market validation, and I came up against some hard questions. How do I know that there’s a market for movies by women? Who cares if a woman writes and directs a movie? Isn’t a good movie just a good movie, regardless of who makes it? There are already films about women, what’s the problem? Where’s the research that shows that there’s a market for films by and about women? Or films that pass the Bechdel Test, are about women who talk to each other about something other than men? Women make up about half the movie-going audience in the States, in roughly the same proportion as in the community as a whole, so doesn’t that mean that women are happy with what’s already on offer? And if they’re not, don’t they have television and the net?

For the first time, I’ve realised that the research to date—as far as I know—has focused entirely on concerns about gender representation among film-makers and within films. For example, there are few women writers and directors of studio projects. State funders (see sidebar for New Zealand examples) and others run programmes that don’t attract many women participants who are storytellers, and rarely seek out women who might participate if the conditions were different. Women and girls are under-represented and misrepresented as characters in most movies and in most movies women rarely talk to each other about topics other than men. Maybe it’s time to find out whether there’s a market for the films that women might make, especially films that that represent women as central, active, and diverse.

Perhaps more films by and about women are being made. The costs of making long-form films has dropped and it seems that more women now engage with crowd-funding on Kickstarter or Indie-Go-Go to generate just enough money to make their films but not enough to pay all the cast and crew. Many others create webseries, some so they can tell a long story in manageable bits. Others, from The Age of Stupid to Pariah and on, are connecting with their audiences in ways that inspire. But my understanding is that few of these projects generate income for their makers, and income is necessary if they are to sustain their work. And I think that the distribution and monetisation problems that currently affect the entire industry often affect women more, partly because investors lean on the tried and true (white guys’ projects) in hard times, but also because we’re not often enough closely connected to our various audiences. And that may be because we haven’t asked the hard questions about who these audiences are, have made assumptions that we haven’t checked.

What kinds of long-form screen stories by women and about women and girls will people pay for? Feature films? Games? Transmedia experiences? Web-series? Tele-movies and series? And on what screens? In theatres? On television? Computers? Readers? Phones?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Yes, We CANNES Do It!

I long for the day when women write and direct 50% of all feature films. And this week, I had a moment or two of optimism and celebration, with many others working towards the same goal, especially all of us who were in some way involved in last year’s You CANNES Not Be Serious campaign.  Why? Because when Thierry Fremaux announced the Cannes Film Festival line-up the other night, we learned that, for the first time, four films with women directors are in competition.

The directors are Julia Leigh with Sleeping Beauty, an Australian, and already a successful novelist, Naomi Kawase (Japan, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2007 for Mogari no Mori) with Hanezu No Tsuki, Maiwenn (France) with Polisse, and Lynne Ramsay (England) with We Need To Talk About Kevin. 21%. Warm congratulations to them all, and to the people who work with them. And to Ruth Torjussen (FilmDirecting4Women) who initiated You CANNES Not Be Serious, Melissa Silverstein (Women & Hollywood) who adopted it, and to the generous women and men outside the public eye who worked, and continue to work, for change.  When I saw  'Jane Campion presents' in this Sleeping Beauty trailer, I imagined that she is one of these people.

Sleeping Beauty from Pollen Digital on Vimeo.

This week an interview with Geena Davis about research at the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media also fuelled my optimism. Geena Davis talked about the institute’s research, the largest ever done, on G-rated movies and television shows made for children aged 11 and under. The research found that for every one female character, there were three male characters, and that if it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female. She said:
Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can't exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?

Geena Davis reported that the institute took these facts
...back to the people who are creating the media… to the studios and the producers, the Writers Guild, the Animators Guild, the Casting Directors Guild... The fascinating thing that we found from the beginning was that they were absolutely shocked. The fact that, in general, all of their movies are so lacking in a female presence is stunning to them. That makes it, obviously, not a conspiracy, not a conscious choice, and leaves them very open to rethinking it and saying, 'Now that we know, we're going to make some changes'. And we feel certain that when we update [our research] in 2015 that we will have seen the needle move.
I so hope that ‘the needle will move’, but have lingering concerns that temper my optimism. Every two years, the Writers Guild of America West produces an excellent report on diversity in the industry. The statistics in these reports consistently show precisely whose stories are being told, and the reports include discussion about the gnarly facts that work against programmes that seek to make change. Was the Geena Davis Institute’s research really such a surprise to the guild (or the others involved in creating media)? It would be wonderful to see the Writers Guild and the institute put their research and experience together and come up with some joint suggestions for working further with studios, producers, the Animators Guild and the Casting Directors Guild.

Against this background, I’m back with the latest New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) statistics. And it’s wonderful that the NZFC now keep some applicant statistics, though they're not yet as comprehensive as I’d like.

First, the NZFC’s development investments since their December 2010 announcements. The good news: two out of five Writers Development Loans went to women: to Kathryn Burnett for Mike and Virginia,
and to Frances Edmond for Emerald Curse.

The bad news: the rest of the NZFC’s feature film development investment, from early to advanced development. This continues the trend from 1 July 2008: less and less investment in development of feature films that women write and direct. In the year ending 30 June 2009, projects with women writers attached received 32.4% of the development funding. From 1 July 2009-December 2010, the percentage dropped to 27.8%. And this time, it’s 16% for projects with women writers ($31,500 of $195,240), and 11% for the projects with women directors ($20,000 of $179,000—only nine of the eleven funded projects had directors attached). What are the factors that contribute to this decrease? What will reverse the trend?