Geena Davis: actress, activist and, now, film festival founder. Though known and loved by millions for her work in films likeThelma & Louise, Beetlejuice and The Fly,for the last ten years the Oscar-winning actress’ career has had a different focus: drawing attention to the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry. The GeenaDavis Institute on Gender in Media has as its mission statement research and education, laying out one of media’s most persistent problems in cold, hard numbers and making it increasingly difficult for all but the most obstinate to ignore the fact that minorities are severely underrepresented in film and on TV.
For example: A 2014 study commissioned by the Institute, “Gender Bias Without Borders,” found that only 31% of speaking roles are occupied by females. The 2010 study“Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films” found a wider disparity in family entertainment, with only 29.2% of speaking roles going to females. That barely represents a change from 1946, when women were for the most part expected to forego their careers in favor of getting married and popping out babies ASAP.
Women are more likely to be sexualized than their male counterparts and, particularly in family films, are rarely shown working in the science, law, politics or business fields. Females are similarly underrepresented behind the camera, where only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers are women. This when a good half of the world’s population—and 51% of people who went to the movies in 2013, according to statistics released by the MPAA at last year’s CinemaCon—are female.
But the era of Davis politely tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, there’s a problem here—fix it” is over. Together with independent media company ARC Entertainment and a boatload of high-wattage corporate sponsors, Davis is teaming the educational work done by the Institute on Gender in Media with the first annualBentonville Film Festival, taking place May 5-9, which celebrates diversity in film in a more active way. Does your film have a female or minority lead, director, writer or production company? Is the cast and/or crew balanced in terms of diversity? Congratulations: You can apply for the Bentonville Film Festival (BFF). Is your film, in front of and behind the camera, chock-a-block full of white men, to the exclusion of everyone else? Nice try. Move on.
“We don’t want to just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if more films had women directors and had better diversity?,’” explains Davis. “We want to actually impact [diversity] rather than merely point it out or celebrate when someone gets it right. We want to try and make it happen much more often.”
BFF has one particularly big incentive on its side: a partnership with AMC Theatres, which will give a distribution deal with a guaranteed theatrical release on a minimum of 25 screens to the winners of the Audience, Jury Selection and Best Family Film awards. That makes BFF the first—and, as of this writing, only—festival to have guaranteed theatrical, television (courtesy of Lifetime, which will offer the winning films a broadcast deal), digital (via Vudu) and home-entertainment (Walmart) distribution among its prizes.
It helps to have heavy hitters on your side, as BFF well knows. If you’re asking, “Wait, why Bentonville?,” it’s because Bentonville, Arkansas is the home city of Walmart, one of the major sponsors of the fest, along with AMC, Coca-Cola and Kraft. BFF’s advisory board has some big names as well. How do Julianne Moore, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Bruce Dern, Paula Patton, Angela Bassett, Randy Jackson, Eva Longoria,Shailene Woodley and CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler sound?
“One of my big clients has always been Walmart,” says ARC Entertainment CEO TrevorDrinkwater, explaining how the festival came to be. “About a year ago I was talking to the gentlemen in the film department, and they were trying to brainstorm a way that they could support one of Walmart’s big initiatives, which is around supporting women and minority[-led] businesses… And one of the gentlemen, [VP of entertainment merchandising] Chris Nagelson, came up with this idea of ‘Why don’t we do a festival inBentonville? If we really focused on this issue of how women are portrayed and supporting minority filmmaking, then maybe we could make an impact here.’ And I thought it was a brilliant idea. As luck would have it, I happened to be friends withGeena, and knew and had been following all the great work that she’d been doing. It just felt like the perfect marriage to me.”
Launching a first-year festival, including one with so many sponsors, took a lot of organizational elbow grease, as one might imagine. The announcement of the festival on Jan. 9 and the final submission deadline (March 15) were so close together that, Davis admits, for this first year “most films are going to be already made or near completion.” But a major part of the projected evolution of BFF will see it become a benchmark for filmmakers early on in the development process. “My dream would be that [when people make films] they say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. It would be great to get into the BentonvilleFilm Festival. I bet if we had more diversity in our cast and crew that we could get in.’”
“We’ve had so many movies starring women, directed by women, about women that have been huge successes”—like the Hunger Games series, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and… what was that Disney princess movie Jennifer Lee co-directed? Freezing?—“and yet we haven’t seemed to get any momentum going” in terms of Hollywood making a concerted effort to achieve gender parity, Davis continues. “But we’re hoping this initiative is going to get it going.”
And the festival is just the beginning. It’s the cornerstone of the Bentonville Film Foundation, which will, like the Institute on Gender in Media, champion research and education. “After our festival, we will travel around the country and hold panel discussions and symposium tours at colleges and universities around the country and really discuss the topics throughout the year,” explains Drinkwater. “And then we’ll return to Bentonville once a year to use research to measure how we did in this area and hopefully have very meaningful discussions on how we can get objectives moving forward to advance the initiative.”
Attendees at this year’s festival will have the chance to attend a sure-to-be-spirited lineup of panels as well, including “Real vs Reel Diversity,” “Power of the Brand” and “Redefining Family Entertainment.” Davis herself is spearheading a special series called “Geena and Friends,” where she and others—like her A League of Their Own co-star Rosie O’Donnell—will re-imagine dialogue from classic cinema. O’Donnell will also participate in the “In Control of Her Own Destiny” panel on female celebrities who manage film production companies. Robert De Niro will be on hand to discuss the short documentary Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr., about his father and co-directed by Perri Peltz, also in attendance. And entertainer Nick Cannon will co-host the closing-night awards show with journalist Soledad O’Brien, whose The War Comes Home, about veterans struggling with PTSD, is on the festival slate.
The dialogue BFF encourages, D
rinkwater is sure to point out, will “include people that impact the entire distribution and marketing and production ecosystem. So that means we have great celebrities on our board of advisors—writers, directors, but also distribution partners and agents and film critics, for example. [They’re] all part of the discussion as we go through the week.”
Davis, who calls herself an “impatient optimist,” is confident about the future of equality in film—which should be so easy to achieve, given how it’s the “one sector of balance that can be changed overnight… The next movie someone makes can be gender-balanced.” It just needs a little kick in the pants. “People don’t stop and think about it,” she argues. “There’s a moment at which you decide that, hey, this character can be played by a manor a woman, [or someone] of any minority. The default tends to be male, and people don’t stop and think about it and why they have this unconscious bias against expanding opportunities… What I always say when I’m visiting studios is ‘Maybe for certain characters it’s going to turn out even more creative to have them be someone besides a white male, because now, whoever it is, they’re very unstereotyped. [The role] is probably more unusual or original than it would have been in the first place.”
That lightbulb moment—“Is there any reason this grizzled starship captain has to be a man?,” “Hey, we’re a cop show set in New York, why is all our main cast white?”—is what Davis, ARC Entertainment, and the Bentonville brand are after. “We don’t have to wait for culture to turn around”—for the world to wake up one day and magically discover that racism and sexism are over, yippee!—“before we can reflect that in the movies,” says Davis. “We can make the change now, and that would become what looks normal for people.”