For the first time since ancient cultures, where stories were passed down from generation to generation through verbal communication…the world has now found a new, communal space to share and grow its stories that represent humanity. … In other words, stories are no longer simply stories, they are world views that will evolve with discussion, creation, and reviewIn that communal space, here on the internet, Development is linked with an informal, global, transmedial project to increase the numbers of feature films that women write and direct, and that tell stories about women's lives. (I hope that New Zealand will be the first country in the world where women write and direct half of all features. But I’m not holding my breath.)
This blog, and Kyna Morgan’s sister blog over at HerFilm, are as essential to the Development project as writing another treatment for Development-the-movie, and finding partners to work with on its production. So, looking at footage with editor Lala Rolls, going to meetings with Erica, and re-working the website with Meredith Crowe mix with tweeting about the women’s film preservation fund in New York and about global opportunities for women storytellers, contributing on FB and blogs, staying in touch with others who care about women’s movie-making, and feeling appreciative of their responses and support.
I find other filmmakers fascinating of course and they teach me heaps, the women especially.
Campbell X has just finished shooting Stud Life (check out the link for some great pix) and I’ve learned from her marvellous tagline: Who did you wake up with today? Your lover or your best friend? And its expansion:
Stud Life is a light take on the darker side of queer street life in London…a post-modern LGBT She´s Gotta Have It for the YouTube generation.She also recently posted a wonderful alternative to the Guardian’s 100 Power People in Film on her blog—where the banner reads when the lioness can tell her story, the hunter no longer controls the tale.
And I’ve admired Afia Nathaniel’s beautiful funding campaign for her thriller Neither the Veil Nor the Four Walls:
From a village in Pakistan, a young mother sets out on an extraordinary and dangerous journey to save her eight year old daughter from the fate of an arranged marriage to a powerful warlord.
And I’ve wondered why, although Afia has some impressive investors, she still needs funding. As does Campbell X. What needs to happen for films like these to find funding more easily?
And there’s lots of reading and thinking involved. Who would have thought that women actors would transform independent filmmaking, so that many strong female stories are making it onto film just because these actors have the clout to get their pet film projects made? What actors might attract funding to projects like Stud Life and Neither the Veil Nor the Four Walls, as producers or as actors?
Among stories from and about women filmmakers, a complex mix because each of us has her own realities and her own way of expressing them, my favorite non-fiction of recent weeks—alongside Peter Strickland’s response to the latest Development treatment, and the help two generous and talented mates have given me with my next version of the treatment—is Nicola Depuis’ MA thesis, from University College, Cork, Ireland, entitled: Celluloid Suppression: A Study of Irish Female Screenwriters and their Position in the Irish Film Industry. (I include emails and their attachments in Development's transmedia, especially emails I'd never have got without the connections to women's filmmaking transmedial events.) I was fascinated to read Nicola's thesis because, as Nicola points out, New Zealand is the closest English-speaking country to Ireland on the population index and is an island-country like Ireland, with a secondary indigenous language that is rarely utilized on film. What is different? What is the same? And I was pleased that—thanks to WIFTNZ—I’d also been able to share my PhD Report to the Industrywith her when she was collecting information.
I also welcomed Nicola’s thesis because she is a writer, “keen to avoid a heavily theoretical thesis in favour of one through which I could possibly raise consciousness and effect change”. Hers is a thesis like my own, by a practitioner studying her own working world. And it’s good to know she will extend it into a PhD. Celluloid Suppression is also an extension of Nicola’s exploration of female and queer representations in history, literature, film and television, which began when she researched and wrote her Mna na hEireann—Women Who Shaped Ireland and continued with ‘Portrait of Society’, a critique of the treatment of female writers in Ireland. At the International Screenwriter’s Festival in Cheltenham (2009) she produced an event where screenwriters analyzed the experience of writing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed characters. (Although Nicola views gender as a limited construct, a product of societal expectations, and believes that there are more genders than ‘male’ or ‘female’, for the purposes of this research, she uses the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ exclusively to define gender.)
I like many of the quotations Nicola uses within her thesis; I think they’re important and I want to share some of them here, in this communal space where stories evolve with discussion, creation, and review; these quotations represent significant aspects of the history that continues to affect women scriptwriters and their opportunities.
When a woman comes to write...she will find that she is perpetually wishing to alter the established values–to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important. And for that, of course, she will be criticized; for the critic of the opposite sex will be genuinely puzzled and surprised by an attempt to alter the current scales of value, and will see in it not merely a difference of view, but a view that is weak, or trivial, or sentimental, because it differs from his own. —Virginia Woolf
Ninety percent of the men directing movies have no interest in women in any real way, except as girlfriends or wives. They don't really want to make movies about them, and they don't. So the arduous task of getting someone to commit to something that had anything to do with my life was very frustrating. —Nora Ephron
To me [Juno] was a way of avenging teenage girls...they are always portrayed as melodramatic shits. —Diablo CodyAnd I like the personal elements to the back-story of Nicola's thesis, because they too—I believe—mirror the experiences of many people who live outside Britain and the United States. After hearing that she “was the most un-Irish person” her partner had ever met, Nicola began to realize that British and American film and television so strongly influenced her growing up that she was more in tune with their ideas of morality and life purpose than with the beliefs of her own locality. Films and televison from overseas had shaped her social cues and beliefs about love, death, sex, ambition, family and spirituality. From a young age, she’d had a passionate relationship with the screen and sometimes unconsciously used it as a surrogate parent, whose advice and direction she craved. When she realised that she had unsuspectingly been fed many of her beliefs by this surrogate parent, this made her “back away from the teat and look at [her] ‘parent’ anew”. In her thesis, this meant focusing on gender.
Nicola had four aims: to determine the extent of gender imbalance in the field of Irish screenwriting, and the extent to which formal and informal support systems address the needs of female screenwriters; to identify specific gender-based barriers prohibiting women’s progress in the field of screenwriting; and to use the findings to make recommendations on how the number of Irish films with female screenwriters attached can be increased. She did this through collecting and analyzing statistical information, by developing, distributing and analyzing a questionnaire for scriptwriters, and by interviewing people in the industry.
Nicola had the same initial problem I had with statistics about women scriptwriters’ participation in the New Zealand industry; there were none available so she had to collect them herself. And she found that of 164 features funded by the Irish Film Board (IFB) 1993-2009, Irish women screenwriters wrote 10%. (She notes that the majority of feature films funded by the IFB are comedies, gangster films, road movies and films chronicling the Troubles in Northern Ireland and that these genres are heavily dominated by male writers.) Women’s screenplays being developed with IFB funding were rarely making it to the production stage. In September this year, 25% of writers with feature films in development were female. But no woman had a screenplay in pre-production or production. As well, and not surprisingly, women screenwriters wrote only 8% of the international films released into Irish cinemas over a recent six-month period.
Nicola also found an Irish “reticence to discuss issues of gender discrimination in such a small community for fear of being ‘ghettoized‘ or ‘blacklisted’ or looked upon as a ‘gobby feminist’ has resulted in a culture of silence amongst female screenwriters”. (This reminded me of a similar New Zealand reticence, that has changed only very recently.) Nevertheless, 28 Irish women screenwriters, 3 men screenwriters and 5 British women screenwriters completed a questionnaire she created, and she followed up on some of their responses with emails that asked further questions, based on their answers to the questionnaire. She also incorporated feedback from three Irish female producers, one male Irish producer, two female drama commissioners, one male representative of the Irish Film Board, one female script editor, one female makeup artist, one manager of a film centre and one development executive.
Nicola identified both non-gender-specific and gender-specific issues for women screenwriters. The non-gender-specific issues are that Ireland has a small film community and therefore writers are all fighting for ‘a small slice of a tiny pie’. Work is unstable and there is little financial gain to be made, with the 2009 average annual income of an Irish screenwriter with produced work being EUR 9,275. Some people who participated in Nicola’s research mentioned that those who hold the current monopolies in production and distribution in Ireland are reticent to take chances and therefore employ the same writers repeatedly. Her informants also cited the readers the IRB hires to judge whether a screenplay should receive funding as a barrier: too much power rests in the hands of too few.
Nicola found that in Ireland, as in New Zealand, gender strongly affects any artist’s earning potential. For women screenwriters, gender-specific issues exist because they work within a culture in which Irish male storytellers are ‘exalted’ and their female counterparts ignored. As a result, men and their interests dominate the film world and women and their stories are not respected. And, as the statistics show, there are not enough role models—domestic or international—for women who want to write films. Women screenwriters in Ireland also carry the burden of domestic and caring responsibilities, and—unsurprisingly given the other variables—lack confidence in their work. The support systems that Nicola’s interviewees found useful were (in alphabetical order) agency representation, family and friends—including friends in the industry, film organizations (the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild and the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland) and the internet.
One unfamiliar insight I gleaned from Nicola's research was that the IFB allocates more advertising funding to films men write than they do to those women write. She provides Marian Quinn’s 32A (2009) as an example, a coming-of-age story about Irish teenage girls who are coming to terms with bras and boys. I don't think it's been released in New Zealand. Its trailer reminds me of other coming-of-age films like Gurinder Chadha's Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging (2008) and Lorne Scherfig's An Education (2009). But it also seems uniquely Irish.
Marian Quinn ia a writer/director living in the Northwest of Ireland. 32A was her first feature and it won the Tiernan McBride award for scriptwriting, premiered at the Berlinale, won Best Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh and has shown in over sixty international festivals. (She now has several projects in development including a rural drama set in the Northwest and a love story set in New York.)
The IFB funded 32A, as well as Mark O’ Rowe’s Perrier’s Bounty (2009), released around the same time. But it provided very little publicity for 32A, while posters for Perrier’s Bounty, a gangster movie, "peered from nearly every bus stop in the country". This suggested to Nicola that, perhaps unconsciously, the IFB pushes films with male-oriented content, and disadvantages female-oriented content. This practice may also be a manifestation of the lack of respect towards women writers that Nicola identifies. Or perhaps the IFB privileges men's projects because, like so many others, it clings to the outmoded view that the largest potential audience is men aged under 25, and therefore invests more strongly in films for this audience.
There's so much more than I've been able to describe in Nicola's thesis, and I hope it'll be online for everyone to read, soon.
Nicola concludes with a quotation from the incomparable Meryl Streep:
It’s up to us. Our job is to put our heads down, hold our hands out, and work like mad for all of our girls, to put their stories and dreams where they’re important, on-screen. To dispel the myth that it’s a good fantasy for a girl to want to grow up, stop eating, and at twenty-five marry a sixty year-old and have a fabulous ten years escorting him into his dotage. That’s a time-honoured fantasy for him; WHAT’S HERS? It’s up to us. We will paint the landscape of their dreams and aspirations. We will light them as well.In transmedial terms, within the complex international story about stories about women making feature films, Nicola's thesis contributes to my understanding of the non-fictional elements in Development-the-movie. It encourages me to believe that the themes in it are global, not unique to New Zealand.
It’s now a year since I submitted my PhD thesis: Development: Opening space for New Zealand women’s participation in feature films? Last week, I was one of four speakers at Christchurch’s Women on Air Suffrage celebrations, postponed because of the earthquake. I was really honoured to be part of this, alongside poet Selina Marsh, non-fiction writer Pip Desmond and singer/composer Jennine Bailey. They were wonderful, organisers Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout from Plains FM’s Women on Air programme were wonderful, and I had a wonderful time.
To prepare for the celebrations, alongside reading Nicola’s thesis, I re-read bits of my thesis, gathered up a DVD of our Development-the-movie promo (exciting to see it on a big screen in Christchurch, and to observe an audience of strangers enjoying it), and updated some of my research.
Development-the-thesis is a creative writing thesis, and incorporates transmedial elements. It includes the third draft of the Development-the-movie screenplay, a memoir, excerpts from this blog and my thesis diary, and some tweets. Because of the human rights implications of state funding, it also records where women writers and directors participated on the state-funded paths to Zealand Film Commission (NZFC)-funded feature films and how successful they were within various programmes. The analysis covered the five years that ended at 30 June 2009.(Development-the-movie does not refer to the NZFC, but is informed by what I learned during my research there, which tends to reflect what happens elsewhere in the world, and within New Zealand's creative industries, except its contemporary literary community.)
In my NZFC analysis, I excluded documentaries, because women’s participation globally has always been higher in documentary making than in drama (a catchall term for fictional films), and internationally other researchers also separate the two. I also paid little attention to gender and feature film producers. Because in New Zealand and around the world, women participate much more strongly as producers than as storytellers. And because as a writer I was interested in women storytellers and the stories we tell about ourselves. Producers are film-making’s publishers, and I see them, like publishers, as midwives—Keri Hulme’s metaphor that I remembered last week—who help writers’ and directors’ stories reach the world. Their responsibilities are different from the responsibilities of those who create the stories, some of who act as their own midwives. (And the babies have a life of their own of course).
I found that from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2008, New Zealanders based in New Zealand produced at least 75 feature films. The NZFC and its associated New Zealand Film Production Fund Trust (the Film Fund) funded the production for thirty of these (40%). Women wrote and directed 9% of all 75 features and 16% of the thirty NZFC features.
I was never able to establish why NZFC features did slightly better in the gender stakes than the other 60% of New Zealand-made-by-New Zealanders-in-New-Zealand films. But when I tracked NZFC development funding data from July 1 2004 to June 30 2009 I found (like Nicola in Ireland) that between early development and production women writers’ representation diminished in greater proportion than men’s did. Sometimes women-written projects dropped out after the NZFC gave conditional production funding, perhaps when their producers were unable to find the necessary finance to complete their budget, from outside the NZFC.
I found that the percentages of women-written and -directed feature project applications to NZFC decision-makers did not vary greatly over the five years I analysed. (Various decision-makers allocate NZFC development funding, depending on factors like where a film is in the development process and how much is requested or has already been allocated to a project. The decision-makers include the Staff Committee, CEO delegation, Development Committee and the Board.)
When I broke down the figures by writer gender (all projects had writers and producers attached from the beginning but quite a few had no director) the decision-makers allocated funds to projects with women writers attached in roughly the same proportions as the applications made, from under 20% to just over 30%. But there were a few exceptions. In 2006 for instance women writers were attached to over 40% of the projects seeking funding for advanced development from the Development Committee, and to just over 30% of the projects approved for funding. In contrast, in 2008, 30% of the Development Committee applications were for women-written projects and 40% of the approvals. In 2009, Development Committee women-written projects made just under 40% of the applications and received just over 40% of the approvals.
The most interesting spike in the five years to June 30 2009 came at Board level. The Board becomes involved in development funding decisions only when a project is in advanced development and has already received significant funding. In the three years before 2008 development funding applications to the Board, from projects with women writers, steadily decreased, from just under 30% of all its applications to well under 20%, with a commensurate decrease in Board approvals. Then, in the 2008 and 2009 years, these percentages suddenly rose, to 65% (2008) and 60% (2009).
At the beginning of 2008—it seems a lifetime ago—I released my PhD Report to the Industry. When Dr Ruth Harley (then the CEO at the NZFC and now CEO at Screen Australia) read the report, she acknowledged that the NZFC had a ‘gender problem’ and resolved to ‘keep an eye’ on gender parity.
In February 2008, there was already a little group of women-written and -directed features in production (The Strength of Water, Apron Strings, The Vintner’s Luck). These had been in development since before I started the research and Ruth perceived them as a ‘blip’; she predicted that their release would be followed by a gap, similar to the gap that preceded them, after Whale Rider and Perfect Strangers. But by late October 2008 she was more optimistic: it seemed that more women-written and -directed features than she expected were moving towards production. Her optimism was justified. In the year ending 30 June 2009, there were nine applications to the Board for conditional production funding. Six applications were successful, and three of these were for projects with women writers and directors. My conclusion, a year ago, was:
Collectively, with the Short Film Fund decisions this year, all this data seems to indicate that some change has happened. But so many questions still. I hope that New Zealand will be the first country in the world where state film funding is allocated equally between men and women writers and directors. And I hope that…other researchers…will take over.I was (cautiously) delighted, but a little concerned about the informality of ‘keeping an eye’ on gender parity. And Ruth acknowledged that if there is nothing written into the NZFC’s legislation, into its statements of intent, or into the policies it uses in its decision-making, ‘keeping an eye’ will work only if and when there are individuals within the institution who are committed to doing this. And later, I was very disappointed that the positive changes with the Short Film Fund—an important step on the pathway to feature filmmaking—were not sustained.
Against this background, the other day I looked at the NZFC Annual Report for 2009 and its newsletters from the report’s closing date to the present. Remembering that conditional production funding is often dependent on other funding, I asked “Did all three women’s projects approved for conditional funding get made?” No. Gaylene Preston’s Home by Christmas (the last film on my list of 75 films produced in New Zealand to 31 December 2008) and Simone Horrocks’ After the Waterfall and four men’s projects, as well as a woman’s documentary, are listed in the annual report. That’s 33% of the ‘dramas’. Terrific, a big increase from 16%. And when I went through the newsletters from June 2009 to date it’s three out of nine—33% again, with Roseanne Liang’s My Wedding & Other Secrets, Emily Corcoran’s Stolen, and Kirstin Marcon’s The Most Fun You Can Have Dying. My Wedding & Other Secrets is in post-production. I have no up-to-date info for Stolen, but according to a recent NZFC press release, The Most Fun You Can Have Dying will be shot here and in Europe in the next couple of months. I long for more women-written features with women protagonists (only Stolen and My Wedding and Other Secrets out of the eight recent features). But with The Strength of Water, Apron Strings and The Vintner’s Luck and then two years with 33% of all features, it seems that the NZFC may be well on the way to the 50% I long for. (I’d love to compare the NZFC figures with the-made-in-New-Zealand-by-New-Zealander features outside the NZFC. Do these other features still account for 60% of local production? Are well over 90% of them still stories men have written?)
The recent Escalator Te Whakapiki announcement was also encouraging. Escalator Te Whakapiki is a low-budget ($250,000) initiative and although only two of the twelve finalists had women writers and directors, women have written or co-written and will direct two of the four greenlit projects. One of the women’s projects has a female protagonist, and one of the men’s.
Then I turned to the development funding details in the recent NZFC newsletters. In the past, I had access to development applications. This time, I did not. So I focused on comparative development investment, regardless of applications made and the decision-makers. And, again because some projects do not yet have a director attached, I focused on each project’s writer’s gender. In the year ending 30 June 2009, 31.5% of all projects allocated development funding had women writers attached; these projects received 32.4% of the total development funding.
And then it gets kind of interesting. In the newsletters that cover the period from July 1 2009 to the present (the last newsletter was issued in September), the figures are different. Twelve of the fifty-one applicants are projects with women writers attached: 23.5%; and these projects received 21.6% of the total funds allocated. (There is also a couple of projects with mixed gender writers.) This is a significant drop, and the only obvious difference seems to be that the Board did not allocate any development funding over this period. On a brighter note, because I like to feel sunny, six out of the thirteen writers given development loans during this period are women, who will be able to work on their scripts before any producer is attached.
In the recent past, when often women writers’ participation was low at early development and steadily declined between early development and production, we ended up with few NZFC-funded features that women wrote and directed. Is this going to happen again? Will the NZFC's smaller investment in developing women’s stories—except through its development loans to individuals—in conjunction with the NZFC’s current low investment in women’s short films result in fewer features in the next year or so? Perhaps the NZFC's Fresh Shorts programme—which unlike its established and expensive Short Film Programme is not devolved to industry producers—will redress the current investment imbalance? How fragile are the current gains? How flawed are the NZFC processes?
I worry. If, as seems possible, there has been a cultural shift within the NZFC, it is important that filmmakers know about this. In the Escalator Te Whakapiki's original 251 teams, the NZFC did not make a gender analysis. It could only say about a third of its primary contacts with the teams were women. In the boot camp, there were twenty-six men and six women, the same proportion as feature films actually produced 2003-2008. And now half of the greenlit projects are written or co-written and will be directed by women. And 33% of projects offered conditional funding over the last two years are written and directed by women, and half the recent NZFC development loans have gone to individual women writers. Is some reverse discrimination going on? And if so, why do I worry? Surely I should be happy that more women-written projects are being funded? Well, I am, for those women. But otherwise I'm not.
I worry because there is no discussion about the contrast between the numbers of women involved in Escalator Te Whakapiki at the beginning of the process and the numbers of women involved at the end, a discussion that needs to address strategies for encouraging women's participation from the outset of every NZFC programme. I worry because there is no discussion about the drop in NZFC development investment in women-written projects with producers attached, in contrast with the NZFC's gender-equal investment in development loans to writers working alone. Will the women writers who received development loans find it difficult to find producers and to access further NZFC development funding? I worry because the numbers of women's projects being offered conditional production funding is disproportionate to current NZFC investment in development funding for women-written projects (other than the writers development loans). I worry because there is no discussion about the gender imbalance in the most recent Short Film Fund round.
I worry most of all because the NZFC is not acting transparently. There are no relevant statistical records kept and published, which carefully distinguish between applications and approvals and between storytellers and producers. The NZFC is absolutely silent about any attitudinal change it has had, and any informal gender policy it has developed, and this silence affects all filmmakers, men as well as women. If for instance the Board has instructed the NZFC to change its assessment practices to take account of storyteller gender, we all need to know. If the NZFC is looking for more women-centred stories, we all need to know. If women storytellers are now more likely and men storytellers are proportionately less likely to get funding in some programmes, we all need to know. Gender equity works both ways, and if it's happening, the NZFC needs to acknowledge this, and establish a formal policy, and transparent practices.
I have many other feature-film-related questions, many of them about about media convergence, and about feature film’s role in transmedia. What’s happening with webseries in New Zealand? What’s happening at the crossover between film and television now that award-winning writers like Fiona Samuel, and Donna Malane & Paula Boock, regularly write one-off feature-length television dramas, and have feature film projects in development with the NZFC? And, given the complexity and popularity of some television series, with their multiple and extended character arcs, given the participatory element of games, given the glut of product, given the rise of webseries and given the mores of the communal space where humanity now shares its stories, is it possible that the single-protagonist drama’s commercial life on the big screen is coming to an end, globally, with a few exceptions? I'm hoping that before too long I'll no longer have to think about gender equity at the NZFC, because the rest of it is soooo exciting.