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Music Festivals Are Pledging Gender-Equal Lineups, So Why Aren’t Film Festivals?

If film festivals are truly going to adapt more balanced approaches to programming, they may require some new ground rules.

Atmosphere'King Cobra' film premiere, Outfest LGBT Film Festival, Los Angeles, USA - 16 Jul 2016James Franco receives the Inagural James Schamus Ally Award at the Outfest LA premiere of King Cobra

The crowd at a regional film festival

Owen Kolasinski/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

In a recently launched initiative coordinated by the UK’s PRS Foundation, 45 music festivals around the world have committed to reaching 50/50 gender equity in their lineups by the year 2022. The pledge is a firm victory for those calling for reform in the music industry, and signals a tangible early step toward gender equality in a traditionally male-dominated space. But as someone who’s worked in and around the equally male-dominated film festival world for most of my career, my first thought upon reading this news was, “Why isn’t this conversation happening in my community as well?”

As the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to spread awareness about gender discrimination to larger, more mainstream platforms, the discussions have started to expand beyond individual abusers towards larger questions of systemic power imbalance (Frances McDormand’s call for “inclusion riders” in studio contracts being one high-profile recent example of this evolution in discourse). Scores of abusive men have been cast from their positions of power in the wake of #MeToo, but lasting, institutionalized reform is still far from a sure bet.

That’s because true reform is not just about conversations and award show speeches. It’s not even about creating a greater cultural awareness of the systemic, entrenched white male supremacy in our society and our creative industries. It’s about numbers and demographics. It’s about firm and intersectional policy changes. There’s a lot of work to be done; to start, we need to explore how we can each create firm, lasting changes in the spaces we occupy.

The stats on film festival programmatic diversity are marginally better than those coming out of Hollywood, though it’s clear that even in our world (where, at least on paper, the grip of commerce should be a bit less firm) there are still deeply rooted systemic issues at play. Over the past 10 years, no major market festival has delivered a slate with at least 50 percent of films directed by female filmmakers (although this year’s SXSW lineup is up to 34%).

Perhaps this is because film festival programming teams have been historically and overwhelming run by men. At the start of 2018, with two notable exceptions (SXSW and Telluride), the top programmer at every major market festival was a guy.  

Programmers at film festivals might argue that the problem lies not in their lineups or in the inherent biases of male-led programming teams, but in the lack of opportunities available elsewhere for female filmmakers. This obfuscation of blame is ultimately a straw man’s argument: Film festivals are not powerless amidst the larger trends or roadblocks put up by the wider commercial industry.

Film schools (at least in the U.S.) have reached 50/50 gender equity. Film festivals can, too. Major market festivals get over 10,000 submissions a year. That surely presents a healthy pool of female filmmakers for programmers to choose from. If larger financiers and agencies aren’t funding films by women, film festivals need to start programming less agency-packaged films.  

Crowds Move Through the Austin Convention Center on the Second Day of South by Southwest in Austin Texas Usa 08 March 2014 South by Southwest (sxsw) Conferences and Festivals Offer the Unique Convergence of Original Music Independent Films and Emerging Technologies United States AustinUsa South by Southwest - Mar 2014

Crowds at SXSW

W. Smith/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

I understand the programmer’s impulse to not want to take ownership or personal responsibility for this problem. When I started out in the film industry as a 22-year-old white guy with all the confidence that a privileged upbringing can bring, I thought my job as a programmer was to choose “the best films” (which, naively, I defined as those films that moved me the most, or best represented the human experience as I understood it).

It was my boss and mentor Amy Dotson (the Director of Programming at IFP) who first made me question this perspective. At programming meetings, she would constantly challenge me about my personal biases. She taught me that every programming decision I made and every slate I announced served as a political statement. Not only with regards to the contents of the films represented, but also to the diversity of the people on the other side of the camera.

This sort of accounting felt like a nuisance to me. I just wanted to program the films that I felt were the best. Should I really be required to highlight a certain number of diverse voices each year, even if I felt that the “the best possible slate” for that year was the one features a majority of white guys?

Yes, of course I should.

Eventually, I realized the hidden truth that every festival programmer fears admitting: There is no such thing as an objective “best possible slate.” All festival slates are reflections of the subjective opinions and tastes of those who craft them (plus the tastes of the audience that the festival serves, and in most cases, business interests, too). Every independent festival has the luxury and the freedom to not worry about diversity. But our slates say something about us. They indicate our priorities.

Many festival programmers will view diversity pledges as a dent to their autonomy. They will argue that it stands in opposition to their ability to do their jobs properly. Programmers will feel heartbroken if they are forced to program something they view as “inferior” simply to meet a pledge for equality.

But forcing yourself to account for diversity doesn’t stand in opposition to good programming, it helps ensure it. Taste is subjective, but numbers are not. If your film festival slate fails to accurately represent the world’s population — if it consistently shows us the world through a predominantly white, male gaze — it is objectively flawed, it is incomplete, and it is poorly programmed.

People in the community (and certainly on Twitter) tend to cry censorship whenever calls for gender pledges arise. But this is not about censoring festivals: I’m not calling for a government mandate or any external action taken on independent organizations. This pledge should be voluntary, a litmus test. A way for festival leadership to publicly recognize that a lack of diversity isn’t just a problem for the rest of the world, but one that exists in their own homes as well. That it is an internal issue, an ongoing one, and one that will not be solved without firm policy changes.

As individual, autonomous actors, we need to admit our inherent complicity in a rigged system. We need to acknowledge that our own personal decisions have larger political and cultural implications, and we need to commit to self-regulation to ensure lasting progress. If we leave it up to circumstance and chance and our own programmatic whims each year, we’ll always find a way to let ourselves off the hook (“I wish that stat looked a little better, but oh well, I tried my best.”)

As Lindy West wrote this weekend in The NY Times, “Capitalism won’t germinate this kind of pure morality on its own, but we can choose it. If we really want to have this #MeToo reckoning — if we want to fix what’s broken — those choices are part of it. The movement can’t just disrupt the culture; it has to become the culture.“

We need to all start holding ourselves accountable, and those in power around us accountable as well. The major commercial forces of the industry are not going to adapt on their own.

Let’s be real: I have a hard time imagining old guard, male-driven festivals like Cannes pledging gender equity anytime soon. But perhaps reform will begin where it always does: on the grassroots level — in this case, the regional festival circuit. So if you run a film festival, no matter how big or how small, let me ask you: Will you pledge 50/50 gender equity for female directors by 2022?

Dan Schoenbrun is the former Senior Film Outreacher Leader at Kickstarter and a film producer who runs Eyeslicer Films.

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