A Journey Toward Diversity and Inclusion

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I attended the second annual Bentonville Film Festival (BFF), Championing Women and Diverse Voices in Media, held in Arkansas the first week in May. It featured an impressive line-up of films, panel discussions, celebrity involvement, and community events. Founders Geena Davis and Trevor Drinkwater created the festival on the premise that media has the ability to change the future, by proving that women’s and diverse voices are not only valuable, but they lead to commercial success as well.

That the inclusion of women and diverse voices is a smart business imperative, and not just “the right thing to do,” is a message that NATO has embraced, and one that was underscored at a BFF “Reel vs. Real Diversity” panel presentation. Jo Handelsman from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, talked about the importance of diversity and science to President Obama. She explained that there are currently 500,000 tech jobs open in the U.S., and not nearly enough qualified people to fill them, in part because of how STEM careers have been presented in film and television. Young women and minorities simply have not seen themselves in these roles. As Geena Davis frequently comments, “If they can see it; they can be it.” Regrettably, the inverse is also true.

Research suggests that gender balance and diversity are directly related to good decision making. Diverse inputs from individuals with different backgrounds result in better outcomes. Inclusiveness is not only the right thing to do; it truly is the smart thing to do.

The BFF aims to bring together industry leaders and content creators, to inspire action with the goal of ensuring that media represents the world in which we live, which is 51% women and very diverse. It is a commercially-focused and research-based festival. From the outset, rather than cast blame on a male-dominated industry, Geena Davis’ approach at her Institute on Gender in Media has been to gather and present data to her peers and decision makers, and to have fact-based discussions on why it’s important to have accurate portrayals of girls and women in media. This data-driven approach was evident in the programming at the Festival.

Let’s take a look at some recent data:

    • In 2015, women comprised 22% of the leading roles in the top 110 grossing films and 9% of directors on the top 250 most popular films, according to research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, even though women bought half of all movie tickets.
    • The Center examined 23 prominent U.S. film festivals in 2015 and 2016, and found that women are much more likely to work on documentaries than on narrative features. For example, women comprised 35% of directors working on documentaries versus 19% of directors on narrative features. Women remain far from achieving parity with men at festivals. The festivals in the study screened an average of five narrative features directed by at least one woman versus an average of 18 narrative features directed exclusively by men. The 23 festivals screened an average of eight documentaries directed by at least one woman compared with an average of 16 directed exclusively by men. Overall, women accounted for 25% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers. These numbers represent little change in for women’s employment in the industry since 2008-09 when women accounted for 24% of individuals in these roles.
    • According to the Geena Davis Institute’s global research, there is a direct association between having a female director or a female writer and seeing more girls and women on screen. When there is a female writer attached, the percentage of girls and women on screen jumps 7.5 %. When there is a female director attached, the number of girls and women on screen jumps 6.8 %.

Important steps are underway to attempt to address the imbalance. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is conducting an investigation into the industry’s hiring practices, and reportedly began interviewing female directors to investigate discriminatory hiring practices. The move came following a push by the American Civil Liberties Union to examine the disparity between male and female filmmakers.

In an industry that offers few opportunities for women and minorities, a BFF panel presentation, “In Control of Her Destiny,” noted that increasing numbers of talented individuals are taking control of their own interests rather than depending on the commercial studios. The festival showcased women who have started their own production companies and/or made their own films, including Meg Ryan, whose drama, Ithaca, was screened at BFF.

My time in Bentonville contributed significantly to my continuing education in gender equality and diversity in film. I attended five industry panels and viewed six great films. Thanks to Event Sponsor AMC Independent, the top winning films receive guaranteed theatrical distribution at AMC theaters, and festival organizers work to secure distribution for all of its competition films.  Following last year’s inaugural BFF, the festival was able to help 87 percent of its competition films obtain distribution.

While I was inspired and encouraged as I participated as one of the 63,000 attendees at this year’s BFF, the discouraging reality is that women and diverse voices remain seriously underrepresented on screen. This past year, though, female voices have captured the public’s attention as they shed new light on the inequity. Jennifer Lawrence called out Hollywood for its gender pay gap in her essay, “Why Do I Make Less than My Co-Stars?” Tina Fey and Amy Poehler entertained the Golden Globes audience with humor infused with feminist perspective. And numerous female-forward and diverse films were recognized during the 2016 awards season including Brooklyn, Carol, The Danish Girl, Joy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Room, Spy and Trainwreck.

However, as several panellists at BFF pointed out, just when it appears that we’re at a turning point, the momentum fails to take hold. Twenty-five years ago, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis’ Thelma & Louise was a box office success and received much media attention. There was widespread belief, at that time, that the film represented a watershed moment for women in film and that, going forward, there’d be many more movies made with women in leading roles. It just didn’t happen with any consistency. Similarly, the success of A League of Their Own in 1992, prompted the media to predict, “NOW we’ll see lots of women’s sports movies.” But ten years would pass until the release of Bend it Like Beckham. Since that time, there have been numerous box office successes for films with women in the lead – Mamma Mia!, The Hunger Games, Brave, Gravity, Fifty Shades of Grey – that belie the myth that audiences won’t support women in starring roles. But somehow, lamented several of the Festival presenters, the momentum still has not taken hold.

Rather than get discouraged, I’d prefer to think about what exhibition can do to positively affect change. It’s not only content creators who have influence. Leaders in all segments of the industry can be advocates for gender equality. Exhibitors can create and maintain inclusive workplaces. There are very few female film buyers in the U.S. Maybe that can change. Celebrate the women in your organizations and industry. Don’t believe the narrative that women don’t help women. Engage your executives and managers in mentorship programs, especially for women and minorities.

As Julie Ann Crommett of Google stated during the BFF “Reel vs. Real Diversity” panel, “Know your data. Be intentional about everything you do.” Thanks to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and other leading organizations (see sidebar), there is a wealth of data available. Study the research findings. Think about the data and incorporate it in your decision-making. Consider gender balance and diversity as factors in your booking decisions. Does the film pass the Bechdel test? (Does it have at least two named women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man?) Choose to show gender-balanced and diverse films on your screens. If more exhibitors do these things, together we can advance on the journey to a bright and inclusive future.

Resources for Information on Gender and Diversity in Media:

The Bechdel Test

Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

HeForShe solidarity movement for gender equality

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