“Money and a Room of One’s Own”: Mill Valley’s Mind The Gap Dissects Finance and Power in Hollywood

Mind The Gap is Mill Valley’s gender initiative that aims to amplify work by female filmmakers. By 2020, the Bay Area film festival hopes to have 50 percent of their films directed by women. 

Mill Valley Film Festival

This week, the Oscars announced their nominations, where no women were nominated for Best Director.

The same just happened with the Golden Globes. Women were not recognized for Best Director, Screenplay, or Motion Picture. The defense from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was as stated, “We vote by film”, but in a year of critical acclaims such as The Farewell, Honey Boy, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it had been especially striking to those advocating for diversity in the industry. According to Stacy Smith from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2019 even saw a slight improvement as 12 women directors would be in the top 100 films of the year.

The lack of support given to women directors is where initiatives like Mind The Gap in Northern California come in.

In October, Mill Valley Film Festival announced that 48% of their film sections were directed by women — a number that aims to grow in the next year, as promised by the MVFF’s Mind The Gap Summit.

Mind The Gap is Mill Valley’s gender initiative that aims to amplify work by female filmmakers. By 2020, the Bay Area film festival hopes to have 50 percent of their films directed by women. 

Women — especially Black women and women of color —are underrepresented in the industry. Look to pay gaps between actresses and actors — The Crowd’s Claire Foy was paid much less than her male colleague despite being the lead role. This past September, an Asian American woman was being paid 1/8th the salary of her white co-writer on Crazy Rich Asians. 

The Summit itself is a series of panels over a weekend discussing gender inequality. When MVFF’s Director of Programming Zoe Elton introduced the talks, she pointed out that the first session, two years ago, happened the same day the investigative reports about Harvey Weinstein broke. Then 2018’s Mind the Gap was during the same week as Kavanaugh hearings, where Christine Ford gave detailed testimony about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

“I think what we found is that this place became a place of refuge. A place where a community can be connected safely,” Elton said. “And we kind of needed that. 

This year’s theme was about money and power. From funding your picture to pay gaps, MVFF moderated these panels specifically addressing financial anxieties to a full conference room at the Mill Valley Outdoor Art Club. 

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s summit:

“Women are the most fascinating people on earth”

Olivia Wilde, of Booksmart, and Kasi Lemmons, of Harriet, came to the stage to discuss their experiences directing stories through the female perspective. 

Wilde said Booksmart gave her the chance to explore intelligent female friendships (without boys!). 

“It was the movie I wanted to watch and it was the movie I wanted my young self to have watched,” Wilde said. “And so that is why it had to be the first.”

Wilde said she believed it is essential to tell women’s stories– but it is not always essential to have only women tell female stories. 

“What I noticed that when you emerge as a female director, everyone sends you the female stories. It’s sort of confusing because on the one hand, we have this responsibility to tell those women’s stories through our lens but I don’t want to be pigeonholed as just being capable of those stories.” Wilde said. 

She added that her experience as an actress allowed her to connect with her leads more, as there is often a wall seen between actresses and male directors. There are also misogynistic assumptions on how women portray their emotions that directors can make.  

Lemmons agreed that she does not want to be pigeonholed in any way, but said she feels “nurtured by the stories of women.” She said she is especially filled with optimism for the future of women of color. 

There is also the perception of being the inadequate director in charge on set: Wilde said there is the fear of going over budget in-studio productions, which could mark some women as incompetent. 

“I would one day like to not be in a position where I don’t have enough time and I don’t have enough money,” Lemmons said wryly, mentioning a male director whose film was actually over financed that he gave his money back to the studio. “But we are in a period where we are proving how heroic we can be with budgets.”

French hours are one of the policies female industry leaders are installing as a way to push back again the poor quality of life seen in Hollywood. French hours is an industry term that skips lunch breaks and opts for food to be passed on set throughout the day. This allows for a better work-life balance, especially if people have children. 

“That’s amazing. If I have gone into the industry and said, ‘We are working French hours’, that would have been it,” Lemmons said. “I really appreciate now that we are able to have more control over what we are doing.” 

Lemmons said one of the reasons she is motivated to stay in the film industry is to let other young women know it is possible to succeed and be a parent. She recalled running into a pregnant student in film school who was crying after a professor told her she had to choose between family and work. 

“And we stood in the parking lot and I cried with this girl. And I’m like, ‘You can absolutely do both. You can have everything. There is pain involved. There are choices involved. You will be pulled in different directions. But you can absolutely do this,’” she said. “And it motivated me because I was pregnant when I got my first green light and I was pregnant with my daughter when I got my second one. It motivated me to keep working.”

The Pixar Shorts Panel and the animation gap

Rosana Sullivan and Kristen Lester from Pixar were highlighted as directors of (absolutely adorable) their respective animated shorts, Kitbull and Purl. They were accompanied by Lindsey Collins, VP of Development at the animated company. 

The two short films came out of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, where employees are given half a year to develop their own projects. 

Purl feels especially relevant: It is about a talking pink yarn ball who gets hired into a “human-dominated” company and struggles to fit in her new workplace. 

Lester said her own animation school was mostly 50/50 when it came to gender equality. However, that turned out to not be the case in the industry, where she felt like she had to push her feminine side in a room full of men. 

She recalled the time when she presented the initial cuts of the film to her coworkers. Someone had suggested that Purl find her acceptance within the workplace by using her “yarniness” to prove her worth in the office. 

Lester said this was a similar trope she has seen before, where women often have to “earn their right to be there” by being smarter than their male coworkers. 

“I felt really bad for this person but I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this because that’s like a trope,’” she joked. “But I think came from…the inherent sort of the female perspective that comes from female filmmakers. So that’s what I think that’s really what the female gaze is about. It’s just sort of connecting with your characters in a deeper way from your own experience, which sort of prevents a trope-iness that we see in a lot of films that don’t have the female gaze.”

Not adhering to tropes allowed female characters to be messier. Purl was even written to be drinking whiskey, throwing up yarn, and yelling “ass” in early drafts. 

“That was a first for Pixar,” Collins said. 

Who gets through the door?

One of the featured directors was Pratibha Parmar, best known for her documentary “Warrior Marks”, made with Alice Walker, about female genital mutilation. She heavily criticized both the US and the UK for relying on unpaid internships and, in some cases, paying for an internship, as a form of gatekeeper. She reasons that economically disadvantaged people would not get the chance to work on films with these restrictions.

Emily Best is the founder of Seed&Spark, a film crowding funding website. She created the organization after producing a feature film and realized the difficulties of securing funding, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. The group relied on their home, creating a wedding-registry type list of services and equipment, allowing the community to be more involved in its creation. 

While she jokes the film wasn’t that good, Best mentioned how a distributor said to her that the movie could do better if it included “lesbian erotica”. It changed the course of her career.

“What I realized that the vast majority of the business was built to understand male audiences and didn’t know shit about a film audience,” Best said. “The people in those positions simply do not know how to market to women and therefore these amazing movies made by amazing women and starring amazing women come out and they flop because there is literally not a marketing infrastructure to support it.”

Seed&Spark allows a way for filmmakers to have a direct connection to their audience “because that’s something nobody can take away from you”. Crowdfunding is the specific tool that completely allows directors to control the relationship of the picture to the viewer and build a genuine community, she said. 

Best also gives some reality checks too. (Reality checks for me, anyway.)

“What I see too many creators do is that they are trying to create their opus when they have not built their career,” she said. “It’s a film that should be made for $10 million and they’re going to try to make it for a $100,000 and it’s inevitably going to suck.”

Fail first. She said as you move along in your career, you are growing the market value for your ideas and the female gaze. (So keep your Marvel-esque movies in your backlog for now.)  

Throughout the panels, there was a universal emphasis on connections with other filmmakers and writers. Parmar’s recently just directed an episode of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar. She described getting a message from DuVernay when she first accepted the offer to direct. 

“She said, ‘Welcome to the sisterhood’,” Parmar recalled. “Now that was a notion I haven’t heard of in quite a while because it has gone out of fashion to talk about sisterhood. As soon as it was announced that these were the new directors coming in for season four and I was one of them, I had emails and on Twitter and social media from previous women directors from Queen Sugar writing to me, ‘We are here for you.’”

By the time she arrived to set to the Queen Sugar set in New Orleans, Parmar felt like she already has been there.

“And I think it’s that kind of generosity and lifting each other up and opening doors for each other is what we need to work on a lot more with intention,” she said. 

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