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Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please! (EP 3)

lisa gornick the round table

Limping my way towards questions that will help validate a market for films about women, I fell over the United States release of the comedy Bridesmaids. Written by Anne Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, directed by a guy, and produced by Judd Apatow. In an article in the Huffington Post, Jamie Denbo expressed concern about the consequences if Bridesmaids doesn’t do well, for the writers, directors and actors that she refers to as
…every creative, brilliant, funny woman in Hollywood [who] is (unfairly) being held hostage to a single film's opening weekend box office. Meaning no studio is likely to take any sort of chance on any new projects perceived to be ‘female driven comedy’ unless they have proof that it can perform. And perform well.
I know that I’m now concentrating on films about women, and here I’ve strayed back into the territory of women writers and (maybe) directors. But I think that one of the issues about audiences for films about women is about the division between ‘Hollywood’ movies and ‘the rest’, who have been working hard on strategies to get their (our) work out there. And in the comments that followed Jamie’s post came a suggestion I’ve never seen before, from InedaName, who wrote:
If Bridesmaids doesn't 'do' well, why don't the women in Hollywood pool their re$ources and do their own projects outside of the studio system? A quality feature film can be made for thousands, not millions of dollars. There are any number of ways for films to get seen; hundreds of film festivals, straight to DVD, online, etc. You can be just as creative in marketing, promotion, and distribution as in the actual making of the film. Think outside the box!
What would happen if women writers and directors and producers in Hollywood pooled their personal resources and thought outside the box, if they crossed over to ‘our’ side (I’m not talking about already well-resourced and powerful Hollywood actor/producers like Sandra Bullock and Jodie Foster)? I may be over-romantic about the resources available to Hollywood women who want to make movies, but when I think of Los Angeles I think of prosperity: residuals, alimony, spare houses, networks. All pooled. Or is that an irrelevant idea? Would their thinking outside the box help the rest of us? How? Is it already happening? Just this week, Real Girls Guide to Everything Else webseries announced a couple of serious new producing partners, Diane Charles and Antonia Ellis, so maybe it is.

This is a great time for everyone to think outside the box about new ways of working.There's evidence of a 10% drop in overall spending on entertainment, and a drop in takings for Hollywood films. And changing distribution models are affecting even Hollywood's major directors—including presumably their budgets. The other day, a powerful group of directors—including Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron among others—expressed concern that studios' plans to release movies simultaneously through video-on-demand and in cinemas would close cinemas and increase piracy. According to the Guardian article, the directors' letter to the studios said that "changing release patterns could irrevocably harm the financial model of our film industry". And now, research shows that 46% of all peak-hour downloads in the States come from online video sites like Netflix and YouTube, as people watch movies and TV shows on their laptops, game consoles and smart phones. Netflix's share is up from 20% six months ago, to 30%.

When I thought about all this, I also thought about what is and is not working for people who go the DIY route, and the DIY upgrade, Do It With Others (DIWO).

DIWO, Ava DuVernay & AFFRM
DIWO has certainly been a wonderful way to go for Ava DuVernay, founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) a black film distribution collective. She made her feature, I Will Follow, for $50,000 and founded AFFRM to release it and other black films. I Will Follow has just completed a 7-week theatrical release in 20 major US cities including NY and LA with no studio or corporate backing, no formal P&A, no four-walling, no touring, no service deal. It made $11,235 per screen and DuVernay tripled her investment. She wrote, in a recent post that invited indie film-makers to extend their worlds to include black film-makers (I’ve often wondered why Christine Vachon’s Killer Films hasn't done this):
With AFFRM, we sought to take the DIWO approach a step further, to give it infrastructure and branding. To align like-minded regional black film organizations and push them to go beyond their existing mission, to a renewed vision with national reach. It worked. Like, really worked.
And how and why did Ava DuVernay take this route? According to an article posted on the AFFRM website:
In essence, what we’re doing is empowering ourselves by distributing our own images. There are robust black film organizations all over the country. Our goal was to organize ourselves into a releasing entity, and our mission is to support black cinema in a very specific way–by offering a handful of black indies a theatrical release. We simply want to offer African-Americans quality black films, while at the same time create a safe haven for filmmakers of color to share their stories, their way.
In another article, DuVernay identifies elements that work for her. They seem very similar to those that worked for recent New Zealand films produced outside ‘the system’(The Insatiable Moon and This Way of Life which have made their way beyond New Zealand, Operation 8, Hook, Line & Sinker, Desert; and The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, now finding its global niche, starting in the United States). Tell stories from the heart. Focus on getting the work done to a high standard, and on your audience(s), not on big profits:
What we're doing with AFFRM is saying 'Tell that story that's true to you, tell the story that's in your heart that the studios don't want.' Are you going to make a million bucks? No. But are you going to get people to see your film and appreciate it? Yes. And as an artist, that feels really good.
This post galvanized me, and I especially loved this: “There are riches in the niches. Both monetary and cosmic.” Here’s wisdom, I thought. But there are also a couple of major problems to resolve.

The Audience Pain Problem
A few days later, another comment on Jamie Denbo’s Bridesmaids post took me back to fundamental truths about films by and about women who are not African-American. GoingApricot (I read her to be a woman, but may be wrong of course) wrote:
Hollywood makes movies for people who regularly go to the movies, and the average movie is, well, average. It's mediocre. It's so-what. But that audience is 14-30-year old males. They see comedies, horror, superhero, and they don't care. They just go. Women do not show up for movies just because they have other women in them. Witness last year's Amelia or Kristen Wiig's appearance in Whip It. So the studios won't make those movies.
In fact, the under-25 male audience that Hollywood makes movies for is relatively small, and women over 25 are about half the movie-going audience in the United States. The depressing reality articulated by GoingApricot may mean that many women cinema-goers don’t care whether Hollywood movies have women in them, any more than they care about the gender of the people who write and direct those movies. They certainly don’t feel pain that will be relieved by more films about women. But among and beyond that audience maybe there are audiences who want something different than what Hollywood offers, or in addition to what Hollywood offers?

Ava DuVernay provided a little more information about the audiences for I Will Follow in a Women & Hollywood interview:
It (I Will Follow) is infused with people of color because so often we don’t see ourselves as regular people and that might sound strange hearing but for folks who love films and only see themselves as caricatures or in very broad comedies, it’s nice to see and make a film that was not about heightened situations. This is about an everyday situation and this is why folks of all colors and backgrounds have appreciated it but especially the African-American community where we hear again and again the common refrain is thank you for showing us as we are.
So, a large segment of this audience appreciates being shown as they are. I thought Great, many women, and men who love them, would like films that show women as we are. But GoingApricot presents another dimension of 'being shown as we are'–audiences other than black audiences may not care:
Go see Bridesmaids. It'll make it a *little* easier for women. And every little bit helps. On the other hand, look at the power of the black audience. By and large, that demographic supports its filmmakers and its actors in other movies, good, bad, and fair-to-mi­ddlin'. You do not see similar trending among Latino or Asian filmmakers. You do not see similar trending among gays. You do not see similar trending among Christian, ‘family-friendly’ audiences.
And when I asked GoingApricot “Why do you think that the black audience supports its filmmakers and actors and other groups do not?” her answer–which seems to imply that she’s also an African-American–conveyed a view that was similar to Ava DuVernay's:
Black people were so starved for images of themselves in drama for so long, I think, they show up wherever their dramatists are. There are actors I watch – movies or TV with those actors in them – that I enjoy watching, and hearing, that I can disregard the ‘quality’ of the rest of the production. It began in earnest with blaxpoitation and mushroomed once that audience was proven. You cannot say the same about Latino-Americans or Asian-Americans.
Is this true? And is it true that 'you cannot say the same about Latino-Americans or Asian-Americans'? I asked GoingApriciot another question, about whether she knew of statistics about the audiences she refers to, because I’m interested to know the extent to which black audiences’ choices may be based on different criteria than the other audiences she refers to—women, gays, families, Christians, Latino-American, Asian-American. I didn’t hear back (and if you have this info, I'd love to hear about it).

Is there pain among audiences starved for images of women? Does it compare to black audiences' pain? And if so, where is it most intensely felt? Are there women who will show up wherever 'our' dramatists are (yep, the storytellers again)? Perhaps not, because we haven’t been starved of images of (usually white) women. Are we satisfied with merely ‘being there’, however we’re portrayed? Are we content with stories that place men at the centre? Is that one reason why we don’t show up for movies just because they have women as central characters? And do the 'Hollywood boys' know this? Do they look at the figures and say "Well, women come to our movies regardless, so let's keep making the films we want to make, aimed at the male audience aged under 25"? Suddenly I’m back at the idea of Hollywood cinema as being a kind of violence towards women, a kind of violence that we’re desensitized to, that we expect and tolerate, so long as a story pulls us along with it. Back to remembering that even in children’s stories about animals, most of the animals are male. And then straight back to wondering what questions I can ask to discover an audience for films about women among people who want to see them/our selves as they/we are.

DIWO & The Women's Organisations Problem(s)
And when I took another look at what Ava DuVernay had said I found another problem here:
There are robust black film organizations all over the country. Our goal was to organize ourselves into a releasing entity.
What might DIWO mean for women? Are there women’s organisations might organise themselves into a releasing entity? There are many robust women’s film festivals and organisations round the globe (see sidebar) but even the very robust Women Make Movies, already a releasing entity, cannot easily gather voting support to help it with funding, and anyway may already have its hands full with its existing programmes. Women in Film & Television organisations round the world tend to focus on events and professional development. Furthermore, although many women have a lot in common with other women, we are also very diverse and that often makes organisation problematic, as every feminist knows.

On the other hand, African-Americans must also be very diverse, and maybe we can learn something from the way they’re organising. And in each country in the world we also have a variety of national resources and networks that we could share with those who live in other countries; I do think that women could get together cross-nationally to take advantage of state film incentives. How can any of us best find our shared niche(s) to sustain us and get our work to our shared audiences? Is there some way to cross borders with a brand, or a cable channel? Is this something those Hollywood women might help with if and when some of them move outside the Hollywood system? Or the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which is going from strength to strength? Or Oprah Winfrey? In the meantime, I treasure the global links with women who want to make movies, and women who write about films by and about women, whose FB and blog posts I share, whose tweets I rewteet, who share my posts and retweet my tweets. I think of these generous networks, and am optimistic that there are lots of people who want diverse films that show women as we/they are, and our worlds as we/they experience and imagine them. Back to those market validation questions! Still delighted to receive suggestions and comments!

Many thanks to GoingApricot and to InedaName, and to Ava DuVernay, because they’ve each helped me inch forward with my thinking. In my next post, I’ll write about niches I'm familiar with, where DIWO might work for people who want to make films about women. In the meantime, here are some trailers, as a reminder of our diversity. And, if you check out the numbers of YouTube viewers for each of them, a reminder of the gap between films that benefit from Hollywood advertising resources, and films that don't.

The original version of this post disappeared when Blogger went down for a while. And now, it looks as though Bridesmaids is going to do very well. Great. But I think it's worthwhile to continue to explore the problems. They won't disappear with one success in one genre.


  1. Hi there,
    I'm having trouble finding your contact details but I was wondering if you would be so kind as to discuss with me writing a piece for my website - I'm doing some grass roots advocacy for women in film in Australia and, seeing as your background knowledge is so broad on the subject, your opinion to be shared with us would be highly valued. Would you mind dropping me a line? - L

  2. I want to address the queer film niche.

    As far as queer audiences in the US go, there are very few movies made by big studios and even fewer art houses that play them outside of large cities (I mean large like NYC-large). If you're lucky, a local boutique cinema will have a fundraiser screening, but that's about it. What happens to queer indie movies made? Wolfe Video usually gets distribution rights and you can pick them up on DVD in most LGBT bookstores. General release box office receipts don't usually come into play.

    Let's use two big studio examples: "Imagine Me & You" (BBC/Fox, 2005) and "Kissing Jessica Stein" (Fox, 2001). In trying to reach out and tap the "pink dollar", Fox took a successful Off-Broadway play, "Kissing Jessica Stein", and made it into a movie. It did well. They didn't sink a whole lot of money into PR and relied heavily on the success of the film through the festival circuit to drum up attendance. It worked. Also, the fact that she ends up with a man is a bit of a safety net in studio movies, in my opinion. As long as the man isn't left alone in the end, the world is okay. (By the way, what is up with that?! Have/will you dedicate a blog post to this? I know quite a few feminists who bristle about the it's-only-a-happy-ending-if-the-guy-is-left-happy films.) "Chasing Amy" is an exception, but Kevin Smith is a whole different story.

    Since "Kissing Jessica Stein" did well, Fox decided to take on another movie to release in cinemas: "Imagine Me & You". It was not advertised well. There wasn't a big PR push in gay magazines or anything other than just the usual one-column reviews. They couldn't rely on anything else to drive attendance since it didn't run the festival circuit prior to cinematic release. I lived in a city roughly the size of Wellington with a large and active queer community. I saw the poster at the mall cinema for "Imagine Me & You" opening weekend and went to see it. This film left the women together at the end and the man was happy with a new woman. The film played for a week at the mall cinema and then was gone. It didn't do half as well, overall financially, as "Kissing Jessica Stein".

    Does this mean queer audiences don't support their films? No. Most of us have quite a collection on DVD because the films are never released in cinema or at least at a cinema within comfortable driving distance. Most early-90's gay indie films ("Go Fish", "Watermelon Woman", etc) were made exactly how you proposed: pooled resources. Everyone grabbed what friends, gear and locations they could and spent their time making what they wanted to see. A lot of queer cinema is still like this because, as I said before, there aren't volumes of box office receipt numbers to back up funding/large studio support.

    I love the "there are riches in niches" quote. This is true. Queer audiences are going to continue to buy DVDs and support their films, where available. Just like GoingApricot said about black audiences starved for wider representation, so are ALL audiences. Everyone wants to see portrayals of their own particular set(s) of people in film. I'm sure Asian audiences are starving for more representation in drama - not just kung fu and/or action movies. I'm sure Latino people are starving for more representation other than gang-related characters in the same way that queers want to see more expansion of characters other than campy drag queens.

    Maybe queer cinema has nary a NZ presence because the community is heavily closeted here compared to even Australia, but there's my two cents having originated from the US.


  3. Thanks very much, Johanna. Lots to think about here, and it's really helpful as I write EP 4. Look out for a longer response there!

    Just one thing more for now: I've been wondering whether Imagine Me & You didn't do as well as Kissing Jessica Stein because as well as missing out on the festival circuit it wasn't based on a successful play; there's quite a lot of evidence that connection to an already known 'product' makes a big difference to the size of audiences.

  4. Re: lack of earlier product backing up a film

    Most likely. The second-tier cast - familiar faces who don't come attached with HUGE salaries - is what seems like Fox was hoping would draw in audiences, which it did for me. It didn't have a book or play behind it. As poorly as many books are translated into films, I'm glad that it is a LARGE draw factor to go to the movies.



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