One of the common themes you will read in interview after interview is the call to keep fighting for your vision. This is a message to women directors, producers, writers – anyone who wants to work in the business. Your voice counts. Your vision matters.
― Melissa Silverstein, American writer and founder and director of Women and Hollywood, from In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing
When October sneaks up on us, we realize that the light has been changing ever so subtly and the leaves on the trees have been turning colors seemingly right before our eyes. The month also signals the start of the LUNAFEST film festival with the worldwide premiere in San Francisco. The lovely Herbst Theater hosted this year’s event. It’s been years since I’ve set foot in the theater, which features panels of murals painted by Frank Brangwyn for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It’s a beautiful and cozy venue for such a special event.
Kit Crawford, co-owner and co-chief visionary officer of Clif Bar & Company and strategic advisor to LUNAFEST, welcomed the full house to the 15th year of the film festival, “by, for, and about women.” Four of the six filmmakers made the premiere, coming from Paris and London and Los Angeles and our own backyard of Oakland.
Two years ago, at my first LUNAFEST premiere, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, PhD, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, was invited to discuss the state of women filmmakers in the industry. This year, Dr. Smith was invited back to talk about Gender & Short Films: Emerging Female Filmmakers and the Barriers Surrounding their Careers. With a grant from LUNAFEST, Dr. Smith and her team gathered data from the 10 top film festivals worldwide – Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin, Telluride, TIFF, SXSW, IDFA, IFFR, and NYFF – from 2010 to 2015, and also gathered data from LUNAFEST filmmakers from 2002 to 2014.
Women filmmakers: an empirically sobering reality
From the top film festivals worldwide, Dr. Smith and her team focused on short films that were relevant to mainstream directing careers in television and film. Of the 3,933 short films, females filled almost a third of the directing pipeline in short films (32 percent women versus 68 percent men), which is a gender ratio of 2.13 male directors to every 1 female director. Dr. Smith also wanted to determine if storytelling genre was related to gender, which she categorized under narrative, documentary, animated or other. She and her team discovered that females are more likely to direct documentaries (37 percent versus 63 percent of men), but female directors are least likely to direct narrative shorts (28 percent versus 72 percent). Given the activism and interest in women filmmakers over the past several years, Smith and her team wanted to find out if an increase in female directors had occurred. “I’m just going to give you the data plain and simple – there has been no change over the last five years,” Smith revealed.
The data she and her team gathered, which included data from the Directors Guild of America, empirically showed a 10-percent drop in women directing short films to directing independent dramatic features, a 12-percent drop in women directing short films to directing episodic television, and a 24-percent drop in women directing short films to directing studio-level or top-grossing films. “I refer to this deep descent [the career pipeline of female directors from shorts to studio films] as the fiscal cliff,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
LUNAFEST directors rock
The other major part of the study, however, was determining how LUNAFEST directors fared in this gender terrain and what the career trajectories looked like for the LUNAFEST alumnae – to date, 115 directors. “The results reveal that the pedigree of LUNAFEST directors is actually very impressive,” Dr. Smith was happy to report. Seventy-two percent have attended film school or a film program, 36 percent have had their films shown at one of the top film festivals worldwide, 72 percent have won awards or accolades for their work, 24 percent have made a narrative or documentary feature, and 25 percent have directed, produced, or written for television.
Where do LUNAFEST directors land in terms of career paths: 25 percent go on to work onscreen or behind the camera in film and television, 27 percent are entrepreneurs, starting their own businesses and freelance enterprises, 20 percent are employees working for a variety of organizations, 11 percent are on faculty at post-secondary institutions, and 16 percent were not apparent from online sources. “Together, 75 percent of the alums are moving into industries and spaces outside of mainstream Hollywood storytelling. Clearly, this is a problem,” Smith noted. “Why? Because women directors, like the ones participating in LUNAFEST from 2002 to all the way to tonight, may actually be the solution to the lack of diversity onscreen that we see in Hollywood film.”
Furthermore, Dr. Smith and her team looked at the demographic profile of characters in the 115 LUNAFEST films and compared them to 2014’s 100 top-grossing films at U.S. box offices. They catalogued every speaking character (at least one word to be included in the analysis – which is, Smith pointed out, “a very low bar”). They measured each character according to demographics characteristics (age, gender, race/ethnicity), domesticity traits (parental status, relational standing), LGBT status, and hypersexualization (sexually revealing clothing, nudity). They compared the top 100 grossing films of 2014 to the 115 LUNAFEST films from 2002 to 2014. Dr. Smith and her team discovered two major findings. In the category of onscreen gender prevalence, 28 percent (4,610) of speaking characters are females in the top-grossing films, only 21 percent of the leads or co-leads are girls and women, and 21 percent are narrators. “This is surprising because the last time I checked women were 50 percent of the population and 50 percent bought tickets at U.S. box offices,” Smith remarked.
Diverse voices for a diverse population
As expected, LUNAFEST films fared better: 63 percent of onscreen-speaking characters are girls and women, 81 percent of the leads or co-leads are girls and women, and 79 percent are female narrators. “LUNAFEST short films feature women onscreen in abundance,” she concluded. But the kicker, according to Smith, is the data revelation outside of gender: 27 percent of the top 100 grossing films were from underrepresented ethnic or racial groups and only 17 percent of leads or co-leaders were from an ethnic or racial group. In LUNAFEST films, however, 38 percent of speaking characters were from underrepresented ethnic or racial groups and 37 percent of leads or co-leads are of minority status. These findings are important, Smith emphasized, because 37 percent of the U.S. population can be classified as coming from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group and these individuals bought 45 percent of the tickets at the U.S. box office. Additionally, approximately half of the zero to five age population in this country are not white. “When females are behind the camera, they not only increase the depiction of girls and women onscreen, but they take other groups that are marginalized and make them move from invisible to visible,” Smith noted.
We learned a few things from the study. “We now know where the career pipeline starts for female directors and we know what it means to their career trajectories,” Smith said. “We also know how female directors’ content is unique from what we see in mainstream storytelling. Together, we understand more where problems start for female directors and why it’s so important to support them, especially financially and early in their careers. In doing so, as the data illuminates, diverse voices working behind the camera can change the landscape of what we see on the screen.”
Turning on the ‘advocacy gene’
Dr. Smith is a tough act to follow on stage, but when Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, takes the stage, you know you’re in good hands. I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Jeanne last year for my blog (in two parts, no less, because she’s such a wonderful and inspiring role model), as she was a special guest at LUNAFEST East Bay 2015. So I knew we the audience were going to be treated to a rousing narrative. “Tonight is a perfect example of women expressing their own form of advocacy and being nurtured and supported in telling their stories, our stories,” she began.
Jeanne talked about her Aunt Minnie as a nurturing and supportive role model for her when she was growing up and the advocacy gene that was inherent in the both of them. When Jeanne was a child, she wanted to play Little League with the boys, whom she played with in the neighborhood. When she was told she couldn’t, Aunt Minnie told her to start her own team and give a piece of her mind to those who said no to her. “Give ’em hell,” Aunt Minnie advocated. So Jeanne cheered the momentous event when the first girl was admitted to Little League and with the passage of Title IX, which states in part that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Jeanne and Pali Cooper’s advocacy genes were turned on when they had to fight for the right to be married in California. Fittingly, it was Aunt Minnie who was the first in Jeanne’s large Italian Catholic clan to welcome her partner, Pali, into the family. After Jeanne helped to make a documentary film about a women’s climbing expedition in Denali, AK, and helped to establish subsequent climbing expeditions on Mt. Shasta, she continues to honor her Aunt Minnie. Every year, she asks one of the women climbers to carry her Aunt Minnie’s wedding ring. “I want her to know that it [the ring] goes as high as it can, carried by a strong woman, one step at a time, to remind us all that we have power and strength and we have both the privilege and the obligation to help carry each other,” Jeanne said.
“We stepped up, channeling the rights in Women’s Voting rights, the women who pushed corporate ceilings to try and get into the film industry,” she went on. “LUNAFEST embraces the advocacy work of the Breast Cancer Fund and our work on behalf of women and women’s health and environmental health through LUNAFEST and its proceeds.” She paused and took in the room full of people who gave her their rapt attention. “Aunt Minnie could never have imagined a film festival by, for, and about women. Consider what else we all can imagine together, and let’s do it,” she entreated.
And now for 6 inspiring stories
I won’t say too much about the fantastic lineup of movies this year because we want everyone to come to our March 19th screening. But I will give a brief intro to each film:
Finding June by Anna Schumacher of Los Angeles. “Through the eyes of a deaf woman just diagnosed with breast cancer, communication’s role in understanding one another is explored.” Anna is the daughter of our fellow committee member, Laurie Schumacher, and we are just as excited and proud as Laurie is!
Balsa Wood by Dominique Lecchi of London. “A lighthearted slice of life about two mixed-race siblings visiting their extended Filipino family for lunch.”
Boxeadora by Meg Smaker of Oakland. “One woman defies Fidel Castro’s ban on female boxing to follow her dreams of Olympic glory and become Cuba’s first female boxer.”
Raising Ryland by Sarah Feeley of Los Angeles. “An intimate look at parenting with no strings attached – a journey inside the transgender experience as lived by a six-year-old boy and his two loving parents.”
First World Problems by Hanna Maylett of Helsinki. “A tired housewife loses her car in a shopping mall – sometimes problems can open a door to a whole new world.”
Beach Flags by Sarah Saidan of Paris. “A young Iranian lifeguard, determined to participate in an international competition in Australia, experiences an unexpected obstacle when a new team member arrives.”
Interest piqued? Save it and save the date! It’s going to be an even better LUNAFEST film festival this year.