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Geena Davis Reveals How Television Is Helping Fight Hollywood’s Sexism Problem

As the Bentonville Film Festival readies for its third year, the diversity-focused event has done away with a tagline that only focuses on film. That's entirely on purpose.

As Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival readies for its third edition, the fledgling Arkansas event is already pivoting to embrace other entertainment mediums beyond just films, all the better to serve their mission of bolstering diversity in the industry.

“Our tagline has evolved to be ‘championing women and diverse voices in media,’ because the lack of female characters and diverse characters exists in pretty much any form of the media,” said Davis, who co-founded the festival with Trevor Drinkwater, in an interview. During its first two years, Bentonville aimed to champion those voices specifically in film, but 2017 will turn the focus of the festival on other entertainment options, including an episodic section and a shorts competition

READ MORE: The Bentonville Film Festival is Brought to You By Women, Diversity and Corporate Synergy

“One thing that has been apparent for a long time is how television is doing much better than film as far as gender and diversity,” she said. “Particularly for older actors – such as myself! – the best place to be is television if you want really great, well-drawn characters where you get to do something cool.”

Although Davis still snags roles on the big screen – she was last seen in the Sundance premiere “Marjorie Prime,” and recently completed production on Pat Mills’ comedy “Don’t Talk to Irene” – she’s found renewed success on television as of late, including a starring role on “The Exorcist” and a significant arc on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Davis pointed to a recent study by her own Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which found that TV does a far better job of giving its female characters occupations than films do. It’s just one more discovery that exemplifies a major gap in films when it comes to actually drawing robust, real female characters.

“In films, of the characters that have jobs, only 20% are female,” Davis said. “Women are 50% of the workforce in real life, so it’s interesting that we’re not even reflecting the reality on screen, where it’s fiction. You can do whatever you want on screen, since you’re making it up for the most part, and yet [film] is not doing that.”

Opening the festival up to other mediums will also allow Bentonville to form stronger ties to more creators, and Davis is clear that the future of the festival extends far beyond just five days of screening new (film) work in a cute Arkansas town. They want to be in on the ground floor.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking to do, [to] really be much more involved proactively in the creation of content, not just showing movies after they’re done, but really helping them get made,” Davis said. “What we need to do is to try and impact films at every stage of being created.”

Davis isn’t one to get starry-eyed about ideas without being able to back them up. As the founder of the Geena Davis Institute, the Oscar winner helps drive actual research into gender representation in the media. Measurements matter to Davis, and she’s not always happy with what she sees in the course of her work.

“I read a quote somewhere, ‘if you can’t measure it, it hasn’t happened yet,’ and I really subscribe to that notion,” Davis said. “I’ve been in films where the press all predicted ‘this changes everything,’ specifically ‘Thelma and Louise.'”

That change didn’t come. She added, “You just have to look at when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar and all the press wanted to say is, ‘Now, now the glass ceiling is broken, it’s all changed,’ and then we see that it doesn’t.”

Davis is, however, heartened by the recent uptick in conversations around issues like diversity and inclusion, the exact issues that Bentonville and her institute are attempting to shed further light on.

“There are some things that are really working in our favor,” she said. “One is how much people are talking about it now. It’s really exciting and encouraging to hear how much people are willing to talk about pay inequality and lack of roles for older women and lack of diversity on screen show.”

READ MORE: Geena Davis Has Two Easy Steps to Make Your Film Gender-Balanced

Armed with her own research and experience, Davis is starting to see change in action, including on the small screen.

“I think the research is really helping, I know it’s helping a lot,” Davis said. “When I talk to creators of kids media to show them the numbers, it’s really unconscious bias and they had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters until they had the numbers to look at. That makes a huge difference.”

She added, “I think the more content creators and studios can learn about the upside of being more inclusive, the better off that we’ll be and more progress can happen.”

The 2017 Bentonville Film Festival runs May 2 – 7 in Bentonville, Arkansas.

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