Bentonville, Arkanasas, a sleepy, tree-lined city that exudes a Norman Rockwell-esque vibe but whose citizenry is primarily made up of Walmart employees, morphed into a professional powerhouse of female filmmakers, artists and media gurus May 5-9 for the first annual Bentonville Film Festival, co-founded by Trevor Drinkwater and Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and sponsored by Walmart and Coca-Cola.
Bentonville was abuzz with a parade of A-list celebrities, such as helmer Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Twilight”), Robert De Niro, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Rosie O’Donnell, who flocked to the fest to inspire, educate and promote diversity and gender equality in film and TV, and to encourage an increase in the number of women working both in front and behind the camera.
Through a mix of musical events, film screenings (Janet Grillo’s “Jack of the Red Hearts” nabbed the jury award for best film) and industry-led panels, such as “When the War Comes Home,” featuring Soledad O’Brien, and “In Control of Her Own Destiny,” featuring O’Donnell, producer Kristin Hahn of Echo Films, Melissa Joan Hart and Sarah Megan Thomas (“Backwards”) and Alysia Reiner (“Orange Is the New Black”), co-founders of Broad Street Pictures, the BFF transformed small town America into a de facto cinematic think tank.
“The festival is providing a bridge so all of our stories can be told,” said Grillo, who directed “Jack” from a script penned by Jennifer Deaton. “It’s an amazing opportunity, and I hope that it will pave the way for other women to tell their stories.”
Reiner, who, along with Thomas, is producing “Equity,” the first female-driven movie about Wall Street, is hopeful that the fest will inspire a spike in dialogue about the importance of diversity in the entertainment industry.
“I love that ‘Orange’ has made diversity even more diverse,” said Reiner, who also plays Natalie on the hit Netflix skein. “I feel like ‘Orange’ really started that transgender conversation in a really amazing way. And it’s so important to think about diversity in terms of age, as well, because there is so much ageism in Hollywood. I remember when I was 32 and one my friends, also an actress, was the same age and she was playing the mother of a 17-year-old, who was played by a 28-year-old. So in real life there was a four-year-difference. It makes no sense.”
Reiner and Thomas are hoping that “Equity,” which is being financed by women who work on Wall Street, will break a pattern of gender inequality seen far too often in movies.
“The director and writer are both women,” said Reiner. “We’re hiring as many women as we can in front of and behind the camera — including the extras and smaller roles — which is very exciting. We’ve gotten so much support already. We have such amazing sponsors. We were at the United Nations last week – global goal No. 5 is gender equality. We’re part of that conversation. We’re going to the White House next week. It’s been just amazing.”
“It’s really important to us that ‘Equity’ is this really entertaining Wall Street film,” said Thomas. “You go to it like you’d go to ‘Margin Call’ or ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ but when you leave, there’s this backdoor social issue about why aren’t there more women on Wall Street? Why aren’t the women being paid as much as the men. And you can talk about that.”
Hardwicke, who led a Friday afternoon director’s workshop for fest guests teaching “the basic nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process,” can hardly remember a time in American filmmaking when women — including adolescent girls — were not hankering for richer, meatier roles.
“There really were no roles for a little badass 13-year-old,” said Hardwicke, whose next film, “Miss You Already,” stars Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette and is slated to bow later this year. “And I thought having (star Nikki Reed) write the screenplay made her being in the film all the more empowering. The way we wrote it, we literally acted out every scene. It was very alive, it was very kinetic. We thought it was going to be a comedy. And then we thought, no, we have to write the real stuff.”
The only fest with guaranteed theatrical, television digital and distribution deals for winning filmmakers through its broad partnership base, the five-day sprocket opera saw highlights includings “A League of their Own” softball game, which reunited co-stars and close friends O’Connell and Davis (Davis’ team won); a closing night awards ceremony with such presenters as Courteney Cox and Bruce Dern; and a special advance screening of what’s sure to become this season’s favorite female empowerment flick, “Pitch Perfect 2.”