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How The Sundance Institute And LA Film Prize Are Aiding Inclusion

By Kristy Puchko | Think Pieces | July 8, 2016 |

By Kristy Puchko | Think Pieces | July 8, 2016 |

It’s harder out there for filmmakers who aren’t white and male. That’s not SJW rhetoric. It’s facts.

Directors like Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World), Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man), and Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) make the leap from standout debut to massively budgeted tent pole so regularly that it’s become a Hollywood cliche. Meanwhile, heralded helmers like Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Dee Rees (Pariah), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) and Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), have been offered no such easy rides to the top, and struggle to fund a follow-up.

The Los Angeles Times just ran an insightful and infuriating piece about the unique battle that first-time female filmmakers face in getting a second film made, citing the troubles of Anna Rose Holmers whose drama The Fits was a touted hit at Sundance. Reporter Rebecca Keegan writes:

First films are often made in a democratic fashion — on low-cost cameras, with crowd-funded budgets and crews made up of college friends. But second movies typically rely more on the machinery of Hollywood, a machinery that has often excluded women and minorities. That exclusion has received new attention lately thanks to both the diversity controversy around this year’s Oscars nominees and a government investigation into gender bias in hiring.

But just as the influx of new Academy members brings hope that Oscars won’t be so white, there are signs that things are shifting for female filmmakers and filmmakers of color. Pressure is being put on studios as the disparity narrative gains attention. Celebrated directors like Ava DuVernay (Selma, Queen Sugar) are publicly making inclusion a part of their filmmaking mission. Then there’s the Sundance Institute’s FilmTwo Initiative, which is specifically dedicated to getting promising new filmmakers (especially those of color and of the female persuasion) on their way to a second film.

Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam explains of FilmTwo, “There seems to be a lot of imagination about how a small first film by a white guy can lead to a bigger film. We don’t see that same imagination extended to women and filmmakers of color.”

But what about filmmakers pushing toward their first full-length feature? For them, opportunity blooms in Shreveport, Louisiana. There, a fast-growing and highly rewarding short film festival is outpacing Hollywood on opportunities for female filmmakers and directors of color.

Now in its fifth year, The Louisiana Film Prize boasts 500 entries vying for its top 20 spotlighted shorts. The filmmakers behind these 20 shorts will be feted over a weekend celebration where the community of Shreveport/Bossier City embraces them, and where they are encouraged to network with each other and visiting judges from various aspects of filmmaking, from production to academia, distribution and criticism (raises hand.) The top award of $50,000 is one of the world’s largest cash prizes for short film, as well as a healthy start to funding a feature, just as last year’s winners are.

LA Film Prize is a unique opportunity for aspiring filmmakers, whatever their color or gender. The fest proudly proclaims:

Of the films that reach competition stage, over 40% are by women directors or producers, three quarters of which sit in the director’s chair - a number that dwarfs the major studio rate of less than 5% women directors. In addition, over 25% of the filmmakers and producers identify as belonging to a minority group, compared to 12% in the studio system.

Past LA Film Prize judge Destri Martino, who is the founder of the women in film advocacy group The Director’s List, praises the fest for being “committed to diversity,” adding, “A conscious effort is required to increase diversity in all aspects of film- as time has showed us in Hollywood, it won’t just happen on its own.”

It won’t happen on its own, but it needs to happen. The ongoing debate, inclusion initiatives, and festivals proudly promoting their diversity are a great step toward making it happen.

Inclusion—in front of and behind the camera—benefits us all. It’s not about us feminist hug boxers getting a big warm fuzzy feeling. It’s about how the best, the most talented artists cannot rise to the top, if gatekeepers are turning people away, not because of their lack of skills, but because they don’t look like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Hitchcock.

Inclusion raises the bar for all of us. Better access to the tools of production means we the audience get to enjoy new stories, unexpected perspectives, and challenging voices. And in times like these, we could all benefit from some new stories.

Kristy Puchko isn’t so much an angry advocate as much as an exhausted one.

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Kristy Puchko is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.