Where’s the Dough for Women in Film? Ariel Dougherty Surveys the Scene

Still image from film BORN TO FLY, featured on the Chicken and Egg Accelerator Lab site.

The telling of more women’s stories is necessary to advancing women’s lives. Regrettably, though, a mere 4.6% of Hollywood features today are directed by women. As a result, women have fewer speaking parts – 34% according to Dr. Martha Lauzen’s 2015 annual report “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World.” And only 22% of the protagonist were women.  This leaves a huge gap in one of America’s most popular exports. Is this really the picture people in the United States want to offer around the globe?

For decades, film women have been working to change this picture. Especially since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officially took up a complaint over a year and a half ago, discussions among women in Hollywood and elsewhere have intensified.

Why? In one such discussion with Selma Hayek at Cannes in 2015 she underscored, “The minute they see the money, things will instantly be different…. Show them the money.” Actually data currently shows that films with women protagonist actually do better at the box office.  So, while money is a huge factor, simple unadulterated gender bias is actively at work.

Maria Giese, a Director’s Guild member, was the major force behind the EEOC challenge. Earlier this year she joined forces with other women, including film producer and film festival organizer Christine Walker, to lead an inaugural Women’s Media Summit. The three-day think tank, held in Provincetown, MA brought 115 women in various aspects of film together.

In our collective task at the Summit (your humble writer was in attendance), we explored new actions and endeavors to change the dynamic of entrenched Hollywood male domination. An ambitious seven task forces formed. They are just starting to coalesce into working groups.  Among the most ambitious is FundHer, with hopes to raise between $25 and $50 million to assist completed films with reaching audiences. This is a critically-needed endeavor, where many films that do get produced sadly languish for lack of adequate promotion money. The Megabator structure also hopes to offer financial incentives “from script to screen,” along with three other services involving education, policy and outreach.

While these projected programs are under development, it is important to see them as part of a long continuum. Over decades, many support services for women filmmakers have emerged.

Film Finishing Fund, June 30 for Submissions

Women In Film (WIF) in Los Angeles, started in 1973. It is the first of over 40 such chapters that have formed across the US and around the globe. Among WIF’s many programs, 32 years ago they initiated a Film Finishing Fund. Specifically they grant awards to women’s films that are 90% shot and have a sample trailer to show. Grants are for both short and long formats in all genres. Deadline for the next cycle is coming up June 30th. 

This year additional support for these submissions is coming from Stella Artois, a long time sponsor of independent films through the Independent Spirit Awards. A $100,000 award from the Belgium beer company will provide four $25,000 finishing grants for fiction and documentary films that inspire social change. A special interest of the company is films with a water theme. More details about the program and how to apply are available.

Last year’s cycle funded four narratives and six documentaries. Among the awarded works was SOLACE, directed, written and produced by Tchaiko Omawale. Another project, MUDFLOW, was directed and produced by Cynthia Wade and Sasha Friedlander. See a complete list with descriptions here.  Numerous of the awarded films over the years have gone on to win Academy, Emmy, Sundance, Berlin Film Festival and Peabody Awards, among other recognitions.

Accelerator Lab, July 10 Deadline.

Chicken and Egg Pictures is one of the best examples of practitioner- created funding models. Initiated by three women filmmaker-producers – Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettenger and Judith Helfand – they have awarded $5.2 million in grants and thousands of hours of creative mentorship to over 220 films since 2005. Over the past decade they have crafted numerous tiers of support. For first and second-time women directors of nonfiction works they have established the Accelerator Lab.  A deadline approaches July 10, 2017. Aimed to support ten feature-length productions, the Accelerator Lab especially assists underrepresented voices. $35,000 will be awarded to each project – in three parts – over the course of a 12-month program. An intensive series of workshops with industry experts are geared for all the awardees to glean the most creative aspects of filmmaking in a peer-to-peer supportive atmosphere.

Specifically a project must be in early production. While the subject matter can be open, Chicken and Egg states: “We’re passionate about films that address the global justice, human rights and environmental issues of our time.” They don’t insist, concluding, “Personal stories are eligible.” Interestingly they do not demand at the time of the application that a project have a US based 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, but need to secure one if accepted. They provide a list of such sponsors.

A number of Chicken and Egg-supported projects have gone on to win major awards. More importantly, though, many of these films have effected measurable change for the issues that they address. (Full Disclosure: Ruth Ann Harnisch, President of the Harnisch Foundation, which funds Chicken and egg, is also a lead sponsor of Philanthropy Women.)

Gamechanger Films, an equity model

In a slightly different vein is Gamechanger Films. Foremost, this five-year old entity is an equity firm. They attract investors who expect to get their money back and to make more money with the films they select. Gamechanger only finances feature dramatic films directed by women. A primary point of the for-profit company is to convince more and more investors that funding women-directed features can be lucrative.

The president of Gamechanger is Mynette Louie, an award-winning movie producer “with nine productions under her belt”.  She joined forces with Derek Nguyen, who is director of operations and creative affairs, and Mary Jane Shalski as senior advisor. Together they make up the team, based out of Brooklyn, NY, that has spawn the necessary financing for ten productions. Three years ago at the start of A Revolutionary Moment conference on the early women’s liberation movement, I, by per chance, struck up a conversation with a stranger. She just happened to be an investor in the first project of this equity fund, LAND HO! She was thrilled to report that she was making money on her investment. So, it works.

A recent film in the repertoire is LOVESONG directed by So Yong Kim. Released into theaters last February, the film showcased at Sundance Festival in 2016. It was nominated in February for an Independent Spirit Cassevates Award. Quite an honor! Starring Jena Malone and Riley Keough, the film is in distribution by Strand Releasing. The film can also be viewed via streaming.

Two of the four founders of Gamechanger Films were also founders of Chicken and Egg Pictures – Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettenger. They joined forces with Geralyn Dreyfous and Dan Cogan to create this first equity fund focused exclusively to drive finances to women directed feature narratives. The key rationale:  “Gender bias in financing is cited as the foremost obstacle to a woman’s career development in film.”

While the number of women directing Hollywood films is pathetic at 4.6%, even in the independent community that Gamechanger Films reaches women directed feature narratives are still miserably low at 18%. Gamechanger does not accept unsolicited works.

In Conclusion – Crowdfunding

Making films for women is hard. Securing the necessary funds for making women’s stories on “celluloid” is even harder. But as the awareness grows about how persistent the bias against women has been, women especially have been designing mechanism to overcome these challenges. Women In Film, Chicken and Egg and Gamechanger are all a part of that complex fabric of bringing vital women’s stories to more audiences. Many more efforts exist.

There is an important role for audiences, too, to play in this dynamic. There’s crowdfunding. Try a search for “women + film” at Kickstarter. On Indiegogo, New York Women In Film has a curated series of productions, identified as a “partner”. Women Make Movies, too, has a partner page. Unfortunately neither has a “live” production currently fundraising. I couldn’t myself easily do a satisfying search via Indiegogo. Too bad.

Here’s a campaign I recommend: VICIOUS WOMEN : The Deep Green Garden of Gordon Avenue. Of course, I’m biased. I mentored the filmmaker, Jennifer Lee, through an earlier project. She has until June 29th to raise the additional $25,909 to reach her goal. In the pacing and timing of such crowd funding efforts, Lee is well on track. Your contribution – large or small – can make all the difference, however, to seeing this lively tale onto the silverscreen.

Finally, women filmmakers: if you’re not totally overwhelmed with possibilities or focused on getting your application in after reading this post, here’s a central listing of many of the funding opportunities for women in film.

Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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