Geena Davis knows how to gender-balance a film. The Academy Award-winning actress and founder of The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the recently launched Bentonville Film Festival has devoted the last decade of her life to creating more equality in her industry, and she’s got the tools and know-how to make it happen.
The inaugural Bentonville Film Festival rolled out this past May, dedicated to “championing women and diversity in film,” both in front of and behind the camera, an ideal that was reflected across their slate. (The festival’s own marketing materials included demographic details about each film’s cast and crew in terms of diversity, even going so far as to rate each film on an “intensity scale” of diversity that went up to ten; no film at the first festival earned that rating.) It’s just one piece of Davis’ plan to bring true parity to the industry she’s worked in since her debut in 1982’s “Tootsie.”
Indiewire recently spoke with Davis as she prepares for the second year of the Bentonville Film Festival, an undertaking the requires looking forward but being very mindful of the current and past state of the industry. Despite some recent strides forward when it comes to equality and diversity in the entertainment sector — including the creation of BFF — Davis is careful not to declare the issue fixed. After all, she’s got the numbers at her disposal, thanks to her work with her own institute, which is dedicated to expanding the roles available to women in the industry, and is bolstered by nearly a decade of on-the-ground research.
The Bentonville Film Festival has an agenda.
Of the criteria for BFF acceptance, Davis explained, “You have to have a certain number of female stars or minority stars, same with director, producer, writer, a balanced cast, a balanced crew, minority producer. All kinds of things will qualify you to get into the festival. The more we have the better, obviously. It’s doable, it’s commercial. We want to get that out there.”
It’s not just BFF’s acceptance criteria that defines it, however, but also the festival’s promise to provide distribution for its prize winners. Davis is also happy with that outcome. “We’re pretty proud of that,” she said.
Announced just five months before the first annual BFF rolled out, Davis and her team didn’t have very long to put together a full-fledged festival, but she’s pleased with the results. While questions remain about the role of corporate sponsorship in determining the festival’s agenda, Davis saw potential in the turnout. “It’s exceeded what we could have hoped for for the first year, considering what we could have had,” she said. “I think we were surprised by the number of people who showed up…And we were thrilled by the reactions of the audience to the screenings. Being in an area not necessarily known for film festivals, it was nice to see everyone in the area be so excited about film.”
The 2015 BFF winners, including the documentaries “In My Father’s House” and “Thao’s Library,” along with the narrative feature “Jack of the Red Hearts,” will start rolling out in theaters in the coming weeks, along with a symposium tour to help further engage audiences, starting with “In My Father’s House” on October 9. “It’s a really powerful, touching story,” Davis said. “We have a symposium tour where we’re taking the films and filmmakers around universities to showcase them and help the next generation of content creators and show how important it is to tell diverse stories.”
Is industry equality really possible?
Despite the launch of her festival, Davis remains skeptical of a perceived changing tide in the industry, especially as it relates to equality in the film industry.
“A lot more people are talking about it, and we hope it’s getting better. We have a tremendous tendency to judge by a couple of examples. We get ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘The Help’ or something and we say, ‘now things are getting better,’ but we’ve been saying these things since ‘Thelma & Louise.’ We said female-led films, buddy pictures are going to be popular, and nothing! Same with ‘A League of Our Own’: ‘Now we can have female sports movies!’ Nothing,” Davis said.
But Davis does have hope for the future. “You have to go by the data,” she said. “And thus far, the research on 2014, we still do not have enough female characters on screen. It’s been the same ratio since 1946. So when we move the needle, and I’m pretty confident that we will, it will be historic. Absolutely. All this time we like to think, ‘yeah, it seems like it’s changing,’ but absolutely it hasn’t yet.”
Still, Davis stressed the need for a patient . “It’s the one sector of society which has a large gap of inequality in terms of gender that can be fixed overnight,” she said. “You can’t have half of Congress be female overnight, but you can put them on screen. You can make all the changes in the next movie you make. You can reflect the future. So that’s what we need to do. I’m confident.”
How to gender-balance your film in two easy steps.
Thanks to her own research and decades-long career in the industry, Davis also has a pretty good idea of how to make films be gender-balanced in a swift manner. “Make whatever you’re going to make, but go through and change a bunch of first names to female names, and when it says ‘CROWD GATHERS’ put, ‘comma, HALF FEMALE.’ And there you have it. A gender-balanced movie, some female characters that aren’t stereotyped,” Davis said. “It’s so easy. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
Looking forward, next year’s festival is already shaping up, and Davis promises there will be marked improvements and expansions. “We’re expanding already, of course. We’re adding short films and there will be more screenwriting competitions,” Davis said, noting that Lifetime will sponsor a screenwriting contest in which the winning entry will be made into a Lifetime movie. “It will be bigger, better, more fabulous,” she said. Davis also expects that another large-scale studio release will premiere at the 2016 BFF, similar to last year’s screening of “Pitch Perfect 2” that kicked off the first festival in May.
She sounded more optimistic than ever about her activism. “I think that there has been a definite uptick in attention on this, which is fantastic,” she said. “It’s definitely in our consciousness now.”
She’s hoping to see bigger strides in the future. “If we added female characters the way we have been the past 20 years, we’ll achieve parity in 700 years,” she said. “I’m confident we’re going to shave a couple of zeros off of that.”