The Refilmery Series podcast is the weekly show that takes you behind the year’s most exciting films and into the lives of the people who create them.
Culturally we believe we live in a meritocracy – a society that rewards hard work and allows talent to rise to the top. And yet, this is not the experience for our female filmmakers. In an industry dominated by men, women can feel like the outsiders to a boy’s club, and miss valuable opportunities.
Leah Meyerhoff is the founder of the Film Fatales – a global network of women filmmakers who meet regularly to mentor each other, share resources, collaborate on projects, and build a supportive community in which to make their films.
Leah joins us in New York to discuss the current environment, and what needs to change to usher in equality.
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David Joshua Ford:
How did the Film Fatales begin?
As I was prepping my first narrative feature, I invited six other female directors over to my house. I said, “I’ll make you dinner if I can pick your brain and get some advice,” and it started off as just a casual dinner party.
Those six women started inviting more and more women, and it’s grown exponentially so now we have almost 500 members and two-dozen chapters around the world. It’s tapped into a need that women directors have for community and for support.
We’re so often the only female director in the room that to finally be in a space where we’re not the minority and it’s a space of collaboration and support is really life changing for a lot of our members.
David Joshua Ford:
Why do you think female directors are a minority in this industry?
That’s a complicated question. There’s an institutionalized gender bias in the film industry, particularly in American cinema, because of the way that films are financed, and Hollywood is a risk-averse business, and those with the power to greenlight movies or invest in films are afraid of taking chances. This is why you see comic book movie after comic book movie, and sequel after sequel, or adaptations of popular novels and so forth.
So for the same reason, a lot of financiers are more comfortable financing films by directors that they are familiar with, and less likely to take a chance on a so-called unproven director, and statistically, 97% of those directors are straight white men, because historically, straight white men have been the ones in positions to direct films.
I don’t think it’s any one person saying, “We don’t want to see women tell their stories,” or people of color, or whatever minority we’re talking about. I think it’s much more pervasive than that. It’s that the structure is set up so that the same small subset of directors – who are primarily straight white men – are being offered the jobs that pay money, and that’s why you see a lot more female directors and directors of color in the independent cinema world.
David Joshua Ford:
So if approximately half the population is female and more than half people who buy movie tickets are women, why is it that we aren’t seeing the representation of female stories on screen?
It really is an old boys’ club, and more so than many other businesses. There are more women in Congress than there are women directors. Again, it’s a complicated answer.
On the one hand, you have the people financing films drawing from a very short list of familiar names who are in this boys’ club.
Then when they do take risks on a first time director, it’s often because they have a mentor. They have someone like Steven Spielberg saying, “Hey, this guy reminds me of me when I was young; I’m gonna give him a chance.” There aren’t that many women in those positions of power to be able to mentor younger women directors.
It really takes the straight white men who have the power in Hollywood to reach out to someone who doesn’t look like them, and doesn’t remind them of themselves, and give them that push up. That’s part of the solution.
Another part is women directors collaborating with each other and supporting each other. This is the idea behind Film Fatales. It’s a real grassroots movement: “Let’s all share our resources, let’s lift each other up, a success for one of us is a success for all of us.”
At the same time, we need Hollywood and the studio system, or even the independent producers and financiers, to take a top down approach and start financing more films directed by women.
Also the younger generation of girls growing up can look to groups like Film Fatales and say, “Oh this is a viable career path for me; I’m going to pursue this.” Previously it just didn’t happen. In film school, often 50% of film school class would be female, but often you’ll see the women students end up going into producing or acting or writing or any other field other than directing, ‘cause they just didn’t have that support system.
David Joshua Ford:
Within Film Fatales, how does that “gathering together” of women shift the dynamic in the conversation?
In a myriad of ways.
I wouldn’t say that we’re a girls’ club to counteract the boys’ club, it’s more that for so long, women have been shut out of this process that to just have this backbone and this structure of this space where for one meeting, you are not the only female director in the room, and gender no longer is an issue, is empowering and revolutionary in a lot of ways.
It’s had a real change; I’ve watched over the past two years women from the group to go on to co-write each other, or co-produce, or co-finance and proofread each other, and really higher each other and give each other work as well as recommend each other for other jobs. Jill Soloway, for example, has hired a lot of other female directors in the edit room and as guest directors on her show Transparent, so the idea is a win for one of us is a win for all of us.
You’re lifting each other up, and eventually be at the point where there are enough women on top that you can reach back and lift the next one up, and lift the next one up. Eventually it’ll hopefully be 50% women on camera. I think it’s a long time off, but hopefully in my lifetime, I would love to see that happening.
David Joshua Ford:
What’s the role of men in this movement? What do you need from men in order to help equality and to move things forward?
Like I mentioned earlier, men who are in positions of power to finance films or hire directors, to expand their list of who they’re going to and start hiring women directors. Taking that chance and reaching out to mentor other women in the field is the most helpful thing, as well as being vocal about this issue.
Within the film industry, it’s common knowledge, but in the public at large, people don’t realize that more than 95% of their stories are being told from a relatively monolithic point of view. Just raising awareness, raising that publicity, doing interviews like this, is the first step towards change.
David Joshua Ford:
Does everyone actually get the same opportunity?
In film and the arts in particular, at a certain point, it’s somewhat arbitrary and it really is a game of who you know, happening to be in the right place at the right time. Because women are on the outside of that circle, it’s this self-perpetuating problem. They’re not being given those opportunities.
Personally I didn’t realize it until I got to the end of my time at film school. In school, there are Title IX laws and for a whole historical reason, school is relatively more gender equal than most of the actual world. It’s still not perfect – I didn’t have any female directing teachers, for example – but there were female teachers, at least half my class was women, and there were people of color.
It really did feel more like a meritocracy, and I think partially it’s because there are affirmative action laws in place in this country, partially because it’s often a mission of the education system to foster equality and give each student an equal chance once they’ve been selected for that school.
Once you come out of school, once I started traveling the film festival circuit with my first short film, that was when I became hyperaware that the odds were stacked against me because of my gender. I would be at a film festival and there would be 100 films in the festival, and I would be the only female director again and again and again.
The festival programmers are men; the film critics are men. The people who are in positions of power throughout the system in the independent film world up to Hollywood traditionally are this small subset of our population. People are comfortable with who you know. Especially in a world like film where business sales can happen over a beer, and films can get financed at a party, if women aren’t part of that culture, they’re on the outskirts.
When you get up to Hollywood budgets, there are no women directors because they’re not being given those opportunities. It’s not for lack of women wanting to direct. It’s lack of the people financing films writing those checks and hiring women directors.
David Joshua Ford:
How do we take gender off the table and create a meritocracy?
I think again it’s going to be a long time coming, but I think the first step is raising awareness.
The second step is legal action. I’m very excited about this ACLU class action lawsuit in Hollywood against the studios. I think the reason we’ve seen more gender parity in the educational system is because there are laws in place.
I’m not suggesting that Hollywood will ever be regulated to the degree that maybe Canadian or Australian or other countries that have government funding could be, but at the very least there should be an awareness of producers and financiers funding films if there are two qualified candidates, one’s a man and one’s a woman, to have that woman be on their list and bring her in for an interview. Just that degree is where we’re going to start to see change.
At the same time, audiences supporting films directed by women in the theater, when that does happen (I mean it’s so rare that you have a female director’s film even get a theatrical release, because by that point, she’s already a minority) but if more films directed by women start making more money, that’s going to change the system in a rapid way. As people financing films realize it’s good business sense to hire women, hopefully that’ll have a snowball effect and will reach a tipping point.
David Joshua Ford:
What would the new world look like, and what would the stories be that we would discover that were there all along and weren’t being told?
In an ideal world, I would love to see equality behind the camera as well as in front of it, so I would like to see half of the films being told, being written and directed and produced by women.
I’d also like to see on screen half the characters that we’re watching in films be women. Right now, less than 30% of speaking characters on screen are women. The films we’re watching, not only are they predominantly made by male directors, but they’re predominantly about straight white men, so I would love to see a world in which the diversity of the real world around us is accurately reflected on screen and that holds true for women, people of color, transgender, all minorities.
I think that is going to be beneficial for our society as a whole, and expand our consciousness and our perception. Cinema is this tool for empathy, and it’s this wonderful collective ritual that we do. We go into a dark room with a bunch of strangers and watch another person’s story unfold on screen, and for that hour and a half, as audience members we’re putting ourselves in that other person’s shoes and experiencing life from their perspective and understanding what it’s like to be that type of person a little bit more.
If we can have just, for example, half of those stories be about women, in all the diversity and variety of what it means to be a woman, male audience members are going to benefit from that just as much as female audience members.
Right now men in the audience are missing out; they’re not seeing what it means to be a mother or a daughter or a sister in a real way where that female character is the protagonist of her own story, and she’s her own hero.
These heroic journeys, she’s the hero, rather than being a supporting character in the background where she’s actually a subject rather than an object. I would love to see that transition happen, and then hopefully that’ll also lead to more women being behind the camera.
David Joshua Ford:
I’m from Australia where the system is different – there’s a lot of government funding. Screen Australia has predominantly women who are in the top positions giving out funding, and yet the same problem exists.
Yes it’s better than America, but it’s still not 50/50; I think it’s something like 20%. We see that in America too, you actually see women as studio heads, but they’re often the only one, and they have often had to fight.
There’s this older generation of women who’ve come before me who I think they really were the only women in the room. There was a time, I think probably Kathryn Bigelow’s generation, or maybe even before her, where for a woman to get to that place of power, she had to really fight tooth and nail to get there and be one of the boys, for lack of a better way to phrase it.
By the time she gets to the top, she feels like she can’t take a risk and reach back and help other women up ‘cause people aren’t going to take her seriously. They’re going to think she’s playing favorites because of her gender, and so often that generation of women in power are just replicating that same gender bias that they had to fight against, and it really takes more than one woman in the room.
You need to have several so that that one isn’t the token woman representing all women in the boardroom. If she has ten others with her, they can say, “Hey, let’s finance more films directed by women. Let’s tell more stories about women, and let’s get rid of this myth.”
I think all audience members would like to see a diversity of stories on screen, and once we break that perception – that going into a film that has five female characters instead of male characters is just as valid without being this anomaly – I think that is when we’ll know the revolution has arrived.
David Joshua Ford:
What is the group looking at in the next year?
We are continuing to expand, and we’re hoping to become more sustainable in the system we have in place. It’s been up until this point somewhat arbitrary where we have chapters, it’s been what country I’ve been to.
I’m hoping that Film Fatales will become more structured. Right now it’s largely volunteer run, it’s working female directors helping each other, but we’re all really busy. We’re all independent directors. I’d like to get to the point where we can raise rounds of financing and have a staff and grow some roots as an organization, while still keeping the intimate grassroots nature that makes it so special.
What sets Film Fatales apart from some other organizations out there that do exist that are more institutionalized, is that we are in it because we care and we love it and these are all women who are actively producing films and still set aside time every month to get together and help each other out.
David Joshua Ford:
How can people find you or get involved?
The best way to find us is through our website, which is www.filmfatales.org, and there’s a contact page on there, and you can reach us that way.
This transcript has been condensed for readability. Listen to the full episode on the Refilmery Series podcast in iTunes: iTunes.Refilmery.com.
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The show is recorded at our live event in New York at WeWork SoHo West – the perfect venue to meet fellow creatives and movie buffs.
Join us in person and you’ll receive complimentary beer and popcorn and get to see the film on the big screen. The intimate venue means you’ll actually get to meet the filmmaker.
Credits: project management and graphic design by Francesca Rimi; theme music by Julian Bell; film curation by Christina Campagnola; event photos by Thi Ho; produced by Refilmery.com; hosted by David Joshua Ford.
Members of the New York chapter of Film Fatales, January 2014. Photograph by Danielle Lurie. Back row from (L) to (R): Marielle Heller, Paola Mendoza, Drew Denny, Angela Tucker Front row (seated) from (L) to (R): Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Leah Meyerhoff, Danielle Lurie, Laura Checkoway, Deborah Kampmeier. Photographer; Jennifer Kirschman, Stylist; Vesta Goodarz, Makeup; Photographed at Hayden 5 Studios.
“You Cannes Not Be Serious” was the motto of an international protest movement that formed during Cannes 2010, when not a single woman made it into competition again. The resulting outcry helped raise consciousness for the gender gap in the film business worldwide.
Despite the fact that half of moviegoers are female, filmmaking largely remains a boys’ club, especially in the world of big budget productions. According to the recent 2014 Sundance and Women in Film Study, just 2% of the 2013 top-grossing box office films were helmed by women. Of the top 500 films released in 2012, only one third of speaking characters were female. Across the industry, there’s a ratio of 5 men for every 1 woman working in film. While the numbers of men and women at film schools are roughly equal, women fill only 15% of executive positions in the industry. Only 5% of the top grossing Hollywood films last year directed by women. Yet as audiences increasingly value authentic new stories with women at their centers, female filmmakers are finding more ways to collaborate to bring these narratives to the screen.
Film Fatales is a support network for female feature directors based on peer to peer mentorship. At monthly meetings members discuss current film projects and ask for help from other members in concrete and specific ways. Although primarily a directing group, members increasingly team up to cowrite, coproduce, and crew for each other. Film Fatales also hosts separate writing groups where members give feedback on each other’s screenplays, master classes in which one member teaches the rest of the group in an academic setting, field trips and group outings to theatrical premieres, and an assortment of panels, workshops and special events. The entire organization functions based on the idea that female filmmakers are in the best position to offer hands-on advice and help each other make their films.
Based in New York, with local chapters across the globe from Los Angeles to London, Film Fatales is a collective of female filmmakers who have directed at least one feature narrative or documentary film. By offering a space for mentorship, peer networking and direct participation, Film Fatales hopes to promote the creation of more stories by and about women.
About The Director
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature film I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS is being released theatrically by Gravitas Ventures in the spring of 2015. It premiered in competition at SXSW 2014, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Atlanta Film Festival, Best Score at the Nashville Film Festival, Honorable Mention at the Woodstock Film Festival, and additional awards from IFP, SFFS, TFI and the Adrienne Shelly Foundation. Meyerhoff’s previous short films have screened in over 200 film festivals, won a dozen awards, and aired on IFC, PBS, LOGO and MTV. She is a fellow of the IFP Emerging Narrative Labs, IFP Narrative Finishing Labs, Tribeca All Access Labs, and the Emerging Visions program at the New York Film Festival. Meyerhoff is also the founder of Film Fatales, a female filmmaker collective based in New York with ten local chapters around the world. She holds a BA in Art-Semiotics from Brown University and an MFA in Directing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
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