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Sundance ‘Breaking Barriers’ panel highlights women filmmakers

Sundance ‘Breaking Barriers’ panel highlights women filmmakers

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) hosted a much-needed panel at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in front of an eager and excited crowd. Women Breaking Barriers: Where Are We Now? took place on Jan 26 at the Packed Sundance TV Lounge, moderated by HFPA members Elisabeth Sereda and Silvia Bizio, including award-winning producer Cassian Elwes, Golden Globe-winning actress/producer Octavia Spencer, Golden Globe-winning actress Jenna Elfman and Golden Globe-winning actress and producer Kyra Sedgwick.

Sundance Institute’s Executive Director Keri Putnam opened the panel, along with Bizio, who announced that the HFPA will donate $50,000 to show support for the Women at Sundance program (in addition to last year’s $50,000 donation).

“When we look at submissions in the festival, the barrier comes when you have to get finances,” Putnam said. “Women represent only 20 percent of submissions, but this year 53 percent of the competition are women. We do a lot of support to get these stories told. We offer fellowships all year long for women to get their career started, their film made, and have an opportunity to shadow and meet people in the industry. You hear a myth that women are not ready, but at Sundance we know it is not true.”

Octavia Spencer shared that her goal as a producer is to make sure that all the women of color get equal pay. “When I started there weren’t many people like me on the screen. Now, times are changing. The only way to do it is to have these conversations and talk numbers with co-stars. We need all male counterparts to be in the fire with us.”

Producer Cassian Elwes made an important point that the number of women-directed movies in studios decreased four percent this year compared to the past four years, with nearly two percent being women of color. “Where are we now? On a steep learning curve in Hollywood. Two words - time’s up,” he said. “Hollywood is just starting to get the feeling there should be gender equality. Men need to go the same direction as women and that is when change will happen. I am trying to create a federal pipeline for female directors and trying to to change the way Hollywood thinks. I have joined the Four Percent Challenge - to hire a female director in the next 18 months.”

Elwes shared that when a woman brings a movie to Sundance, it takes an average of six years to make a new one in comparison to the white male directors who manage to make one in an year. “How do you survive?,” he asked. “How do you live? You can't make a living like that. So that's why many women fall out of this.”

Kyra Sedgwick, too, knows it's difficult to get female names out there. “Women always have to work harder than men because they are in a patriarchal system. If you are a woman in Hollywood and you are not reaching out and pulling out another woman, you are messing up. We work harder than men because it is still a man's world.” The actress-producer started her own women-focused production company, Big Swing Productions, with former DreamWorks executive Meredith Bagby and Fat Chance Films co-founder Valerie Stadler. “My desire is to see more women stories and more women in the workplace. The focus is the female gaze. The entertainment industry is one point of entry to that.”

In terms of solutions, the panelists suggested that agents should go to studios to pitch female directors and senior executives should hire women. “It starts with one person,” Elwes said. “For me, it is creative sponsorship to help women. That's where things can change.” Another solution he proposed is for women to urge others to go see a female-made movie as females typically make the money decisions in the household. “Part of the reason is not enough people go see the films. We need more women supporting female-made films.”

Panelist Jenna Elfman wants to see more stories of women who are strong, amazing and smart. “We know how to make men better. Have the men do the right thing,” she said, recounting her experience having to fight for her deserved wage. Spencer closed the panel with a call to action. “Tell your stories. That's where we have to start. Utilize every option available to you. Find your tribe. It's not a solitary journey.”

The event also included an exclusive clip from the upcoming documentary This Changes Everything, directed by Tom Donahue and executive produced by Geena Davis. The film highlights the underrepresentation of women in Hollywood and the conscious efforts to make change happen.

© Nikoleta Morales (1/31/19) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Elisabeth Sereda (HFPA), Kyra Sedgwick, Cassian Elwes, Jenna Elfman, Octavia Spencer and Silvia Bizio (HFPA) enjoy a laugh at the HFPA’s “Women Breaking Barriers: Where Are We Now?” in Sundance (Photo credit: HFPA)

Middle photo: Actress/producer Octavia Spencer and actress Jenna Elfman (Photo credit: Nikoleta Morales)