By Audrey Rock
Santa Monica, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/14/17 – It has long been suspected that the best is saved for last. American Film Market sealed that notion by saving a high interest panel till late into the weekend. Sunday the 5th, a line snaking all the way through Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel’s lobby began to form a good two hours before “The Future is Female” round table even began. It was perhaps the most densely populated of any of the roundtables at AFM 2017.
The exact reason for such robust attendance could have been debatable. The women’s movement in the film industry is intense at the moment; galvanized by the recent Harvey Weinstein floodgate of sexual misconduct disclosures coming out of Hollywood and other industries. There’s also the fact that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman smashed records and expectations this past year; for the box office, and for a woman director.
In any case, anticipation was feverishly high; and in the AFM studio, it was standing-room only when moderator Wendy Calhoun and panelists Geena Davis, Jen McGowan, Catherine Hand, and Jim Whitaker took their seats at the table.
Davis was, naturally, the center of attention. The head of the Geena Davis institute was funny, alert, and ready to take on the entire industry. “I’m Geena Davis, and I’m here to change lives,” she quipped to heartfelt laughter. Writer Calhoun expertly navigated the panel to fulfilling depths about gender stereotypes, the dearth of female directors in the industry, and how “A Wrinkle in Time” came to be a major motion picture (Catherine Hand and Jim Whitaker are both producers).
Hand told a rapt audience she’d wanted to make “A Wrinkle in Time since childhood. So much so, that she’d written a letter to Walt Disney. “When I was a little girl I thought it would make a great movie so I wrote a letter to Walt Disney to say he should make the film and that I wanted to play Meg,” she said. It turned out to be a great example of how dreams can manifest themselves through personal initiative.
“I never sent the letter, and on December 15th, 1966 when he passed away I cried because I felt so guilty for not sending it, because no one else would make that movie. That day, I promised myself I was going to grow up and find someone to make it. That was 50 years ago.” Today, of course, Hand is a producer on the major motion picture version starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, and Mindy Kaling. In other words, Hand overshot the mark. She exceeded her own expectations by taking her dreams into her own capable hands. It’s a lesson she stressed to an eager-to-learn audience of female writers, directors, and producers. “Don’t give up,” she said.
The topic of equality was, of course, of paramount concern. “If men and women aren’t different, why does it matter who we hire? Our perspectives are different because of how we are treated in daily life; that’s what we bring to the table,” said director Jen McGowan. Her solution to the gender gap in Hollywood is simple, but requires a big leap from everyone involved. “If Woody Allen gets to make a film every year, Ava DuVerney should get to make a film every year.”
Academy Award winner Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, is a leader in the women’s movement in Hollywood. The Institute researches gender representation in media and advocates for equal representation of women. Davis threw out a dubious statistic to the audience: The ratio of male to female characters in film has been exactly the same since 1946. And it’s by no means equal.
“There are profoundly more male characters than female characters in the content we are showing our kids,” she said. “Female characters don’t take up half the space, aren’t doing interesting things, are hypersexualized. The worst ratio of male to female characters is aimed at kids 11 years old and under. We are training kids from the beginning to have unconscious gender bias.” This makes no sense, according to Davis, given that films with a female star make actually make more money at the box office.
One thing all panelists, including the one male member of the panel, Jim Whitaker could agree on, is that the lack of female directors in the industry is unacceptable. “Directing is a completely different problem that I don’t think is unconscious,” said Davis. “People who are creating content that is gender biased are horrified to find out and immediately want to do better. The fact that there are no women directors is not a secret and hasn’t been for decades, yet no one is making the change.”
Whitaker can’t understand why this is the case. He made a conscious choice, alongside Hand and studio heads, to hire a female director for “Wrinkle.” “First female director I’ve had, and it’s been an incredible experience,” he said of working with Ava DuVerney. “For any great directors, which Ava is definitely in that category, their time is limited and it is hard to get them to focus on the material. It’s very important that moment for someone to tell any director to please read this. She read it and loved it.”
Predictably, it was difficult to get this particular panel to wind down, even after a lengthy Q&A. So many questions for such a knowledgeable and motivating panel. In the end, Moderator Wendy Calhoun had some of the most inspiring words of the evening. “The next Patty Jenkins, the next Ava DuVerney, the next Shonda Rhimes is sitting here today,” she said. “This is your tribe. Prepare for a battle.”
With the women of the independent film industry armed and ready to go into the battle of their careers, AFM marched forward with popular conferences on Romania, Distribution, Finance, Faith, Production, and the US Guilds. A Writers Workshop was held Monday at the Fairmont.
By the time Tuesday night rolled around, exhausted actors and filmmakers packed themselves into the AFM studio to hear tidbits on “Working With the U.S Guilds.” But the Loews lobby was already showing signs of slowing. Independent filmmakers of every walk who had dutifully done their networking were shaking hands and lightly exchanging their flight plans back home over a beer. Business cards were handed over one last time in hopes of cementing that relationship that will be the foundation of a film exploded in importance and a production company perhaps moved permanently to Hollywood.
One couldn’t help but get the feeling that the grand lobby of Loews was a beautiful soundstage, and the next thing to happen would be a reverberating series of thick “clicks” as the lights came down. That well-known entertainment industry signal that it’s time to go home and rest until next year. Because none of us in this manically frenetic industry really do have a self-regulator; we have to be told to go home.
So we did go home. And we will be back next year, to make it happen again.