The lyrics of Helen Reddy, “I am woman, hear me roar,” live on as Paula Froehle quoted this in a recent interview. The Chicago-based filmmaker has been doing exactly this for “over 20 years” now. I chuckle as I write both of these quotes as Froehle and I are of the same generation, understanding the cultural references and silliness of worrying about our “experience” in number of years, aka “age.” Froehle has and continues to do for women in film what Redford has done for the independent filmmaker...provide opportunities for great storytellers. And the two will overlap in the upcoming 2018 Sundance Film Festival as Froehle’s company, Chicago Media Project (where she serves as co-founder and CEO) has six documentary films and the Gamechanger Film Fund, of which Froehle is a member, has three narrative feature films premiering at this prestigious festival.
Froehle, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a Master’s degree in filmmaking, began her career as a filmmaker then as an educator at Columbia College Chicago. A tenured professor, Froehle took a huge risk and left Columbia College and together with Rick Landry and Howard Tullman began Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Froehle found that the opportunity to design her own filmmaking school “...was a once in a lifetime chance so I took it!”
Success was obvious in the school and Tribeca Enterprises took notice, backing it financially and adding their name to the school. It was an immersive, hands-on school which set students up for experience and success in a professional environment. After several years and an implementation of a more traditional style of teaching, Froehle found it was time to begin another chapter in her work life. On the night of her resignation from Tribeca Flashpoint, she conducted Chicago Media Project’s first Big Table Dinner, inspired by an event called The Good Pitch Chicago, which she and Steve Cohen along with Danny Alpert of Kindling Group, Justine Nagan now Executive Director of AmDoc/POV, Impact Producer Erin Sorensen and fellow TFA colleague John Murray had organized in 2013. The Good Pitch event travels from city to city, pitching documentary storylines with social issues at their core to audiences in the hopes of connecting filmmakers with financial backers as well as networking to make their films viable.
Froehle recalled that event as an emotionally impactful one. “...People were so moved by the stories at the Chicago Good Pitch that they would give as much as $10,000 and as little as a hundred or 50 dollars – whatever they could afford.” She continued to describe an older woman, a grandmother, who instead of buying her grandkids meaningless toys or tangible items for Christmas, “...was taking all the Christmas money she would spend and giving it to the films. It was a very moving experience and people just started giving [more]! It was nuts! We raised almost $400,000!” After the success of that event, Froehle nonchalantly commented to Cohen that she would happily do this full time and this was the beginning of the Chicago Media Project, CMP, a not-for-profit organization.
Beginning in March 2014, CMP, now comprised of close to 60 members, hosts what they call Big Table Dinners. Pairing great food, a filmmaker, and a “...table populated with members of CMP who could through their own networks and funding help the film along,” Froehle finds that same inspiration at these events that she saw at the Chicago Good Pitch previously. “There’s this...magic that happens. A great documentary is the center that brings people together and...having great meals together has developed this wonderful community of friends.” The CMP members, Froehle explained, “... all come from different areas, all different career paths, but they come together around film; something they all love. Documentary film is this amazing kind of glue… films that are great stories about individuals who are connected to, influenced by and [in] some way affected by a social issue...” She continued, “...the goal with the films that we fund is to work with filmmakers who can find a story that has some shred of hope to it...take [viewers] someplace that they feel like they can do something about it.”
Froehle and Cohen along with five other CMP members joined the equity fund Gamechanger Films, which has, as Froehle explained, “... the specific goal of supporting women directors making commercially viable films.” These narrative films “...would help to break ground in Hollywood in terms of funding women storytellers and women who were directing the films...” The 2018 Sundance Film Festival will premiere three Gamechanger films: The Tale, a story about sexual abuse written and directed by Jennifer Fox; Nancy, a dramatic story blurring the lines of fact and fiction written and directed by Christina Choe; and The Long Dumb Road, a road trip movie filled with detours and bumps along the way, written and directed by Hannah Fidell.
Of the six documentaries premiering at Sundance this year, three find themselves in the prestigious position of being an opening night film: Our New President a story of Donald Trump’s election told entirely through Russian propaganda, Won’t You Be My Neighbor delves deeply into Fred Rogers ability to explore complex social issues, and 306 Hollywood the first documentary to be shown in the “Next” category, as two siblings “excavate” their late grandmother’s house and belongings, embarking on an educationally entertaining journey. Later in the week, the remaining films will screen: Brisbee ’17 tackles a dark celebration of history in Arizona and Of Fathers and Sons targets the life of a radical Islamist family.” The not-for-profit CMP is championing Dark Money directed by Kimberly Reed which focuses on campaign contribution transparency in Montana.
CMP also has CMPI/I or CMP Invest/Impact which is an investment fund, investing in documentaries “...with commercial appeal that also have a social issue.” Award-winning films such as The Eagle Huntress, Icarus, Trophy, and Step are prime examples of the CMPI/I films. Froehle excitedly shared that the rights to remake Step have just been sold and will “...likely be remade as a narrative film or it may go to Broadway!”
Froehle and I then began a deep conversation about women in the filmmaking industry. With a somber voice she said, “It’s certainly a complex world to navigate and I definitely believe that as a woman...you have had to double prove yourself and out-perform to be taken seriously.” Regarding the “news” that women have had to deal with sexual harassment and worse for decades, Froehle said, “No woman is surprised by what is going on. Not a one. I’m really hopeful for what this can finally mean. I have a 17-year-old daughter so I’m very hopeful that that world is going to be a different [one] that she steps into...” She continued, “...I’m both hopeful and...thrilled that under the equity fund, we’re going to be supporting Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s new documentary that looks squarely at the Harvey Weinstein situation.”
While Froehle is helping women in film and finds hope in the truth and future of filmmaking for women, we both laughed as I said, “Maybe this can happen in politics, too.”
© Pamela Powell (12/29/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: The Tale, a story about sexual abuse written and directed by Jennifer Fox (Mongrel Media)
Middle Photo: Director Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor (GENE J. PUSKAR/AP/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK)
Bottom Photo: Paula Froehle, Chicago Media Project