When Brie Larson told the crowd at the Women in Film Los Angeles Crystal + Lucy Awards that the Sundance and Toronto film festivals planned to provide 20 percent of press credentials to “underrepresented journalists,” the news caught many in the film community off guard, but it shouldn’t have. The announcement came just days after a report by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that women wrote only 22.2 percent of 19,559 reviews of the 100 top-grossing films posted to Rotten Tomatoes.
While some critics called into question the scientific nature of a study that uses Rotten Tomatoes as its core resource, racial and gender imbalances continue to be a problem for the film industry, and the media is no exception.
Andréa Grau, TIFF’s vice president of public relations, said the festival’s efforts were a direct response to that growing realization. “We’ve been working on the idea of diversifying our media for a while now,” she said in an interview. “Our city is really multicultural, so it’s important to have the people who cover the films be that way, too.”
Grau said the festival was unaware that Sundance had agreed to an identical initiative when TIFF gave approval for Larson to mention the plans in her speech. “I’m really happy to hear they’re doing the same thing,” Grau said. “Ths a really important time not be competitors, to join hands. It’s important for us to increase our media core, but it’s also important for press outlets to hire more underrepresented journalists and for marketing teams to hire them. We’re one part of a larger equation and happy to do our part to move the dial.”
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Sundance’s assistant director of media relations, Spencer Alcorn, told IndieWire by email that “this is a key part of a larger plan to ensure that the work we showcase will be discussed by a wide and inclusive range of voices and critical perspectives.”
Sundance has addressed this challenge many times in recent years. At the opening press conference for the 2015 edition, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam touched on the challenges of bringing the diversification of the film community to a bigger arena.
“The pipeline of young talent interested in telling stories is there, but somewhere along the way they fall out of the business equation of getting that work made,” she said. “So as money comes into the equation, diversity — whether it’s gender or racial — seems to step out. It’s about really looking at that issue systematically and understanding: What is it that collectively the field can do to begin to address that?” (In 2016, IndieWire partnered with Sundance and RogerEbert.com on the first edition of the Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism, which was exclusively comprised of women.)
Sundance’s director of outreach and inclusion, Karim Ahmad, said that the Park City festival was aiming to develop more plans for helping a more diverse media presence on the ground. “The pass helps with physical access, but there’s a different kind of access that comes from familiarity of environment, knowing publicists, things like that,” he said. “There’s a qualitative part of it in terms of reaching out to the community.”
Both festivals said they defined “underrepresented journalists” as women and people of color. Grau added that new forms for accreditation include non-mandatory questions about gender and how journalists self identify. Because those questions are new this year, the festival has no statistics on the diversity of its media in previous editions.
“It’s not a question everybody wants to answer, and not a question that everybody has to answer,” Grau said. “But in order for us to grow, we need to have a better understanding of who’s coming.”
In 2017, TIFF media attendance totaled 1,300 people; Grau stressed that the 20 percent figure was additive, and she expected it to play a role in growing the overall volume of festival media. The festival intends to give priority press passes to underrepresented journalists. The new allocation of priority passes is a marked shift from previous editions, when priority press badges typically only went to larger outlets.
“The good news is that we do have the capacity to increase,” she said. “I’m thrilled when larger outlets have a higher number of underrepresented journalists. On the flip side, the up-and-coming bloggers are the new voices in this area. Those are people we absolutely need to cultivate and take care of.”
The initiative has been supported in part by TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign, launched by the festival last year as a five-year commitment “to increasing participation, skills, and opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera.” The initiative includes prioritization of gender parity.
“The conversation that’s been happening over the past year and a half about the gaze and how we’re seeing things is really so important,” Grau said. “Industry stakeholders and donors are coming to the table to ask how they can help. It’s hit this high pitch in which everybody’s paying attention, which is amazing.”
Sundance also plans to allocate priority passes to underrepresented media. “Everything we’ve done before has been anecdotal,” he said. “We’re just gathering metrics about the demographics. Knowing that’s the area where there’s the greatest opportunity for improvement, this is the beginning of what we hope will be incremental change.” Ahmad said he expected to accumulate more efforts to improve diversity at the festival beyond an increase in attendance. “This is, very much, the beginning of a multi-year project,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to throw another 20 percent at the problem and say we’re done.”