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Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please!

lisa gornick woman and sun

Every Wednesday evening I run down the hill to central Wellington, to spend three hours with a small group of people who have amazing ideas that they want to develop for the market. I love being with them, go WOW a lot. Grow Wellington has brought us together on a course it calls Activate. And it calls us all ‘activists’, which makes me smile. I’m there to develop my ideas about sustainable structures that will support women who write and direct feature films, so they can do their work and get it to their audiences. Especially if they want to make movies with women as central characters. I want women filmmakers to have their place in the sun (thanks for the image, Lisa). And I want their various audiences to see the films that I believe they are hungry for.

Last week, a visitor introduced us to market validation, and I came up against some hard questions. How do I know that there’s a market for movies by women? Who cares if a woman writes and directs a movie? Isn’t a good movie just a good movie, regardless of who makes it? There are already films about women, what’s the problem? Where’s the research that shows that there’s a market for films by and about women? Or films that pass the Bechdel Test, are about women who talk to each other about something other than men? Women make up about half the movie-going audience in the States, in roughly the same proportion as in the community as a whole, so doesn’t that mean that women are happy with what’s already on offer? And if they’re not, don’t they have television and the net?

For the first time, I’ve realised that the research to date—as far as I know—has focused entirely on concerns about gender representation among film-makers and within films. For example, there are few women writers and directors of studio projects. State funders (see sidebar for New Zealand examples) and others run programmes that don’t attract many women participants who are storytellers, and rarely seek out women who might participate if the conditions were different. Women and girls are under-represented and misrepresented as characters in most movies and in most movies women rarely talk to each other about topics other than men. Maybe it’s time to find out whether there’s a market for the films that women might make, especially films that that represent women as central, active, and diverse.

Perhaps more films by and about women are being made. The costs of making long-form films has dropped and it seems that more women now engage with crowd-funding on Kickstarter or Indie-Go-Go to generate just enough money to make their films but not enough to pay all the cast and crew. Many others create webseries, some so they can tell a long story in manageable bits. Others, from The Age of Stupid to Pariah and on, are connecting with their audiences in ways that inspire. But my understanding is that few of these projects generate income for their makers, and income is necessary if they are to sustain their work. And I think that the distribution and monetisation problems that currently affect the entire industry often affect women more, partly because investors lean on the tried and true (white guys’ projects) in hard times, but also because we’re not often enough closely connected to our various audiences. And that may be because we haven’t asked the hard questions about who these audiences are, have made assumptions that we haven’t checked.

What kinds of long-form screen stories by women and about women and girls will people pay for? Feature films? Games? Transmedia experiences? Web-series? Tele-movies and series? And on what screens? In theatres? On television? Computers? Readers? Phones?

So, I’m going to develop a simple online survey—ten to fifteen questions—and I’d love some help. My thinking is primitive at the moment. At the beginning stage, like Lisa Gornick's new movie (somehow Lisa always comes up with images just when I need them).

lisa gornick my new film

I'm considering questions like:
Are there films about girls and women do you really really want to see? If so, what kinds of films?
Do you/would you pay to see feature-length films because they are written and directed by women?
Do you/would pay see films with women and girls as central characters? 
Do you/would pay to see films with women who talk to each other about something other than men as central characters? 
If your answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, do you have a preferred genre for these films?
What platform would you most like to watch them on? 

What do you think? How could I improve on these questions? Do you have questions about the markets for feature-length films by and about women (narrative or documentary) that you’d like me to ask? Are there genre questions? Questions about delivery platforms? Audiences you’ve wondered about? Questions about men as audiences for films by and about women? If you don’t want to write in the comments here, please email me at wellywoodwoman(at) (ASAP).

The hard truth may be that film-goers don’t care who writes and directs a film so long as it’s entertaining. And there may be only a very very small market for films that pass the Bechdel Test. But I really want to know.

image from Nikyatu Jusu's blog about her first narrative feature


Who watches movies?
Lisa Wade on movie-goer stats

Research on women writers and directors
Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film
Writers Guild of America West Hollywood Writers Report 2009 
Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism  (also about content)

Feminist Frequency on The Bechdel Test
Feminist Frequency on Tropes vs. Women: #3 The Smurfette Principle
Geena Davis Institute, Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti again, on Female portrayals in family films (link within great, optimistic, article)
Miss Representation

Crowd funding
Film-maker Meg Pinsonneault with up-to-the-minute info 

PS (When I hear Anne Thompson of Indiewire say "We need more films for women, we're starving", in this part of a great three-part interview with writer/director Massy Tadjedin, whose Last Night with Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington has just been released, I think "How can I turn that statement into a question that will be useful?")


  1. Market validation is a concept that is fantastic for traditional businesses but is more iffy for the arts. Standard business practice is to create a product that fulfills a clearly defined market need, for which customers would crawl over cut glass for a solution to their problem. But in the arts, do customers know they want a song or movie or painting before it's in created form? Unfortunately not. Unless they know that piece of art is by an artist who's work they have already got a liking for (ie they have become a fan of existing work).

    It therefore strikes me that you may be asking the wrong question- I don't think people will watch a movie just because it is stamped 'made by women' because people seek out movies primarily that meet their entertainment
    needs so they are looking for stories that they connect with. Rather I think it's about making the same kind of movies as people already watch but making those stories fit the Bechal test, cast women in traditionally male roles (see girls on film's reenactment of fight club), let 'movies made by women, about women' be you internal business philosophy rather than your external selling point. Therefor I think market validation questions should be to identify what kind of movies people already like, why they like them, what is it that gets them to choose that movie over another - and what things they don't like and put them off from watching a movie. Then make a movie that meets their interests as well as your business philosophy. These will be answered differently by different market segments, so it might be more effective to set parameters on who you ask, or ask some demographic info that will help you filter answers by gender, age, etc.

  2. Many thanks Luci. This is very helpful, and makes so much sense, though I'm not sure where to go from here, as I want to develop a structure that will work for different kinds of films and filmmakers. So that women who make films have an alternative. Most filmmakers already crawl over cut glass to get their work done, but women seem to have to crawl over more of it (as I know you know). I'm asking myself now if there some way to create audiences that will crawl over cut glass to see women's films? What kind of external selling point might work? I think the filters you suggest are vital, too.

  3. PS I bet that Oprah does market research, & would love it if someone could help me find it.

  4. It's the story line that will attract the audiences. More scripts, more stories. I am interested in the story of Margaret Hoffman of K-Road, what incidents in her story drove her to live on the fringe of life? I think about scenario's in Margaret's life, though i do not know about her life, the little incidents that would shape her destiny. Good luck with your project.

  5. Thanks Merlene. I agree with you. Lots more scripts, lots more stories, lots more risk-taking. I thought Margaret Hoffman was amazing, and hope that she inspires someone to tell another story. Tonight I keep thinking about William Goldman's classic statement about movies: 'No-body knows anything'. & I'm not sure that it's altogether true. I think that with the right question(s) it will be possible to know more than we know now. But am struggling a bit (as you can tell). Please, don't hesitate to send me even the tiniest question!

  6. I agree with the 'hard truth' you mention above, as well as Lucy's and Merlene's comments. My experience is that it's the story line that attracts audiences (and often the cast in addition to that), regardless of the gender of the writer/director/characters. That’s what I go for, and only once I’ve seen the film I take ‘proper’ notice of who made it and keep an eye out for future films - or avoid them, as the case may be. As much as I LOVE going to the movies (and I actually feel there are plenty of movies out there I'd love to see), in the last couple of years I’ve also fallen into the category of audience who due to financial reasons tries to select which movies are a must-see in the big screen, and many of the films I really love (people stories, relationships - whether made by women or men) fall in the category of ‘it’ll be fine on the small screen at home’. It’s a shame, because if I could, I’d be at the movies everyday! Personally, I don’t enjoy so much watching on internet, games, etc, I like the traditional movie experience. Having said that, your quest to better understand what women want to see, and help women film-makers find an easier and successful path is worth your efforts, and you're right, you can't get answers if you don't ask the right questions! Good luck with all this... You’re probably already one of the best informed women in the world in regards to women & film!

  7. Thanks very much Desiree. This is really helpful as I work on the next bit of thinking. So much I don't know-- But plan to learn more!

  8. The 'comments' options on this blog are set so anyone can comment. But a few people are having difficulty, & there's nothing I can change to help. Maybe try a couple of times if at first it doesn't work? Or email me? Ta.

  9. I agree with Luci. In terms of using business models to understand artistic writers, very few filmmakers make A LOT of money. Most of us don't.

    I had some of these discussions when I was on a business course. Finally I was able to articulate that making independent documentaries is not a profit product driven industry, for example. but a non-profit community service. given that films may be made with arts funding, festivals mostly do not pay to screen the films, TV pays a few thousand at best to screen them, you can sell some copies at screenings if you follow your film to screenings (often at your own expense). Or through online distribution.

    IF I can get enough money to pay myself to make the film, and all the women who work on it. That is success. As I prefer to work with women as crew given how under-represented we are in most of those positions, I am no longer willing to have women work for free in any role. Which does mean if the film doesn't get funded it doesn't get made, but that's life (and there are many reasons about what gets funded as you have referenced eloquently elsewhere). Unless a film goes in to theatrical release, the money from screenings mostly won't go to the filmmaker anyway......... Film Festivals are more of a exhibition opportunity, like galleries are for visual artists.

  10. ps i coined the term 'artivist' to describe activist artists like myself who advocate for change ( : through art and within the arts, representation etc

  11. Thanks very much Meg. I'm looking for some kind of sustainability, not too far from your practice, where everyone gets paid, preferably paid the same. So it's good to know what's worked for you, and how. But because I've learned that state funders (in every country except France) support women filmmakers less than they support men, I'm exploring how to develop other kinds of sustainability that results in more films that women write and direct. I have no idea whether I'll come up with anything new & good, especially as so many others have thought longer and more deeply than I have and not found long-tern solutions. But I hope I'll develop a hybrid business model that will help in some circumstances.

    Love 'artivist', a little more subversive-sounding than 'activist'.


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