When Geena Davis’ daughter was a toddler, the Academy Award-winning actress noticed something unsettling about the content of children’s programming that her little girl was watching.
“There were very few female characters in these series and films for kids,” Davis says. “Whenever I’d bring up this point to producers or studio executives, every single one of them would say, ‘No, that’s been fixed and we helped fix it.’ And then they would name a movie with one single female character in it — one. A vast majority of the people making (these shows) are unaware that there are so few female characters made for kids.”
Davis has since made it her mission to substantially increase the presence of female characters on and off screen through her Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media at Mount St. Mary’s U. in Los Angeles. The research-based organization works within the biz to educate and debunk stereotypes about girls and encourage producers and filmmakers to create children’s entertainment that features a diverse slate of strong female characters.
In 2014, the institute released “Gender Bias Without Borders,” the first-ever global gender and media film study. One of the most sobering stats: only 23.3% of the films evaluated had a woman as a lead or co-lead.
“When I saw the profound dearth of female characters I was absolutely stunned,” says Davis. “As a mother in the 21st century I’m thinking, how can we possibly be showing kids the world bereft of a female presence and expect those same girls to grow up valuing girls equally? And I thought, we have to fix this from the beginning.”
Fixing the problem includes providing meatier opportunities for women and minority filmmakers, which Davis and her team have successfully done through the Bentonville, Ark., Film Festival, the only fest to guarantee distribution for its winners’ projects. Co-founded with Trevor Drinkwater, CEO of ARC Entertainment, and sponsored by such corporate heavyweights as Walmart and Coca-Cola, the fest’s inaugural run in May was a success, drawing 37,000 attendees and 50 filmmakers, including Robert De Niro and Catherine Hardwicke.
“We were able to pull off this festival in a very short of amount of time because we had great partners, but there is a ton more we can do,” says Drinkwater of next year’s fest, taking place May 3-8, 2016.
BFF will also feature a symposium tour kicking off Oct. 9 when the fest’s 2015 documentary winner “In My Father’s House” is released through AMC locations in 20 markets across the U.S.