Of Films, Femmes and Fatales

Movies Features

When Ingrid Veninger told a room full of actors, screenwriters and directors that she wanted to see more movies written and directed by women, the crowd cheered in agreement.

When she asked that same crowd for money to fund a screenwriting lab for women—a lab that would produce the films these industry elites had just said they wanted to see—the crowd’s enthusiasm suddenly vanished.

It was the 2013 Whistler Film Festival’s awards brunch and Veninger had just received the Best Female Directed Narrative Feature award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists for her film, The Animal Project. She had also recently received film pitches from women across Canada who were hoping to be selected for her screenwriting collective, the pUNK Films Femmes Lab.

“Women [were] on my mind,” she says. “And then I just found myself talking. But my brain wasn’t catching up with what I was saying.”

“I [said], ‘Alright, I’m doing this pUNK Films Femmes Lab, where six Canadian women are going to write six scripts in the next six months, will anyone in this room—and I’m kind of thinking, What’s going on? What? What? What?—will anyone in this room step up with $6,000 for a first look at these scripts?”

The room was packed full. And no one said a word.

It was a telling moment for Veninger. The film industry had once again proven it’s all talk, no action. “I remember my body just calming and saying, ‘Of course this is what the answer back would be: nothing.’”

Luckily for the pUNK Films Femmes Lab, Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo was in the audience. After a few agonizing moments of silence, Leo sprung out of her seat, her arms stretched into the air, and yelled, “I’ll do it!”

Veninger had Leo’s check within the week, no strings attached.

Many agree that more women should be working in the film industry. Few people, however, actually do anything to make it happen. But female film collectives like the pUNK Films Femmes Lab are trying to change this. By pooling resources and banding together, women filmmakers are helping each other make movies—and reminding each other that they have a well-deserved place in the industry.

Fear, Females and Financing
One might think that, in 2014, women would know this inherently. But only six percent of the top 250 films of 2013 were directed by women, according to an annual report conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

There are countless studies, articles and press releases detailing the various “reasons” why women are so underrepresented in the film industry—the misconceptions that women only make films about women, that these films have a limited audience, that women are not natural leaders. But Leah Meyerhoff, the founder of New York City-based female film collective Film Fatales, says, ultimately, it all comes down to financing. Studios are hesitant to put a woman in control of a film if she hasn’t yet been proven, Meyerhoff says. And most women directors aren’t given the chance to prove themselves in the first place.

“It’s an institutionalized sexism. I don’t necessarily think it’s specific people trying to keep women and people of color out of this boys club. I think it’s much more pervasive than that,” she says.

“People with power and with financing, the ones who actually greenlight movies, are afraid to take risks and, therefore, they end up investing money into films that are directed by directors with a track record, who have already made several financially successful feature films. Statistically, those are going to be straight white men. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Warner Brothers recently made headlines by hiring Michelle MacLaren to direct the big-budget comic book flick, Wonder Woman. But their months-long, very public search for a woman director didn’t exactly send the message that the studio was overly confident in hiring a woman. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that sources had said, “there was pressure from within to hire a woman for the job as the character has such a strong association with the notion of female empowerment. But at the same time, Hollywood realities were forcing producers and execs to acknowledge that, while women directors increasingly work in the indie drama spheres or in TV comedy, few have taken on big-budget, CG-laden tentpoles.” That’s funny, because male directors are poached from TV and the indie world to direct blockbusters all the time. (There are actual lists of such directors). Game of Thrones director, Alan Taylor, was hired to direct Thor: The Dark World. And Colin Trevorrow directed the indie Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012, and is bringing us Jurassic World in 2015. So…

MacLaren’s very public hiring announcement aside, there are far too many women who aren’t being hired to direct feature films. And because of this, many women don’t see feature filmmaking as a viable career path. “Even now, there are no female directors who are household names. Maybe Kathryn Bigelow. Outside of the film world, people don’t know that women are directors at all,” Meyerhoff says.

The Rise of the Film Fatales
And for those women who are hustling to make a living behind a camera, it can be a very lonely industry.

But when she started Film Fatales, Meyerhoff created a space for women filmmakers to connect and discuss issues unique to them.

Film Fatales began in 2012 when Meyerhoff was preparing to direct her first feature, I Believe in Unicorns. As many first-time filmmakers do, she reached out to other directors for advice. She sent countless emails asking filmmakers out for coffee, and she found that the people who were most generous were other women. She decided it would be most efficient if all these women got together to share their wisdom at the same time. So she invited six New York City-based female filmmakers to her home for dinner.

“It was such a rewarding and empowering conversation that at the end of that dinner we said, ‘Hey, let’s do this again.’ Another woman in the circle said, ‘I’ll host next time.’”

Today, there are 12 different Film Fatales chapters in 12 cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Toronto and Sydney. And whenever Meyerhoff is at a film festival, she invites interested female directors to talk to her after her screening. “Sometimes there are none, but sometimes there are. Any time we have at least three interested female filmmakers in whatever city I happen to be in, we then try to start a local chapter.” Meyerhoff just started chapters in Missouri and Colorado, for example, because that’s where she was in November.

On the first Monday of every month, the Fatales gather at the home of a member and discuss issues that are relevant to their careers. They update each other on their projects and can ask other members for help with their films. “Out of these monthly meetings, many members of the group have gone on to co-direct or produce for each other, or even shoot for each other,” Meyerhoff says.

Though it’s grown into a group that also organizes workshops, panels and special events, at its core, Film Fatales is a peer-mentoring and support network, she says.

When you’re the only female filmmaker at a festival—a common experience for women filmmakers, says Meyerhoff—that weighs on you. And it’s not just the barriers to your career that can be demoralizing, she says. “It’s the micro-aggressions, too. When you go to the film festival and there’s a circle of people talking and they think you’re the actress. Or, they don’t invite you into the conversation.”

“[Film Fatales] kind of tapped into a need, I think, amongst female filmmakers to support each other and learn from each other and feel like they have a space in which they can have a voice.”

In Search of Urgency
Having this support in an industry controlled by men is vital to the success of female filmmakers, says the Femmes Lab’s Veninger.

In 2008, she was traveling the festival circuit with her first feature, Only, and saw other films written and directed by women. But over the next several years, while Veninger continued to travel with various films she’d produced and directed, she didn’t see any of the female directors from 2008 return with other projects.

“I was a little bit unnerved by that,” she says. “Sometimes coming back with a second feature film is not just a matter of not getting the funding. It’s a matter of not feeling supported, not feeling encouraged. It’s not just a financial thing. It’s also [that] nobody around you wants you to keep going.”

Veninger realized that if she was going to continue making films—and her goal is to direct 10—she needed to join forces with other women filmmakers.

So on November 18, 2013, Veninger put a call out on Facebook. She asked Canadian female filmmakers who had already written or directed at least one feature film to contact her if they were interested in participating in a one-time-only, six-month screenwriting collective. From January to June 2014, the five women chosen for the group would meet once a month to work on their films. By June 2014, they’d each have a finished feature screenplay.

“I was really looking for a kind of hunger—a hunger, a passion, an urgency to make very primal, personal work,” Veninger says. “And there had to be a first draft at the end of June, no matter what. And that was a tough order because all of the women that submitted were very, very busy with other things—with family, with life, with pre-production on other projects, or post-production.”

Pictured, l-r: Sophie Deraspe, Danishka Esterhazy, Michelle Latimer, Ingrid Veninger, Mars Horodyski, Anais Granofsky

The five women chosen to participate in the lab with Veninger came from all across Canada. And the money that Melissa Leo donated was split between them.

“Every woman was assigned a month, and that month would be led by that woman,” explains Veninger. “The only instruction was to bring what inspires you most to the group. Then we would share our work and announce our target or goals for the following month.”

One month, Sophie Deraspe, a Femmes Lab participant, invited the group to Montreal to discuss their films with prominent women producers. Another month, the group headed to Mars Horodyski’s cottage for a weekend retreat. Food and wine—and sometimes Absinthe—were always involved.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that—the kind of community that it was,” says Anais Granofsky, another Femmes Lab participant.

“It was sort of a sisterhood of champions. We were championing one another but we were also very much challenging one another. But it was always constructive,” Veninger adds.

Production Value
Though the two collectives function differently—one is an ongoing, monthly support and mentorship network, the other a six-month, one-time-only initiative—they both have the same goal: to help women make more films.

And they’re doing just that.

In August 2014, four of the six Femmes Lab participants travelled to Leo’s home in upstate New York to discuss their finished scripts. “She gave incredibly constructive feedback that was very specific to each project,” Veninger says. “We all walked away empowered.”

Now the next step is actually making the films. After all, Veninger says the point of the Femmes Lab wasn’t to “generate more screenplays in the world that sit on shelves, but to generate more feature films written and directed by women that are brought to the marketplace.”

“We’ve written these scripts, but the real power in numbers is going to come from us now proceeding to make these films and going into production. We all hope to be shooting in the 2015/2016 year.”

For Meyerhoff, the thing that sets Film Fatales apart from other organizations devoted to women in film, is this commitment to doing.

“It’s a real direct, grassroots, hands-on way to change something,” she says. “It coalesces all of these individual filmmakers who are up against the same thing; it brings them all together. They can share notes, and they can share stories, and they can lift each other up. I don’t know if that’s going to change the world, but in a small sense I think it already has.”

In the last year, Meyerhoff says she’s seen at least a dozen Fatales start production on films that had been stuck in development.

With more women making films, studies show that audiences will see more women on screen. And Meyerhoff says this isn’t just good for the women moviegoers hungry for more stories about themselves. It’s good for all audiences.

“If all we’re watching as audiences are stories of wealthy straight white men, that’s so limiting to our consciousness. If we see a story, like Pariah, [about] a black, disenfranchised lesbian woman, if we can identify with her struggle and care about her emotionally, I think that goes a long way to promoting equality and empathy for others. I think it can really affect who we are as a culture.”

And if we start making and watching more films by women, maybe someday filmmakers like Ingrid Veninger won’t have to deliver an awkward appeal to a largely disinterested audience for $6,000 to fund six films. The money will already be there. Meyerhoff won’t be the only woman director at a film festival. And Warner Brothers won’t make a show of hiring a woman director for Wonder Woman, because it won’t be a super-heroic feat to have done so.

Regan Reid is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.

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