Geena Davis: ‘Films With More Diversity Make More Money’

Academy Award-winner Geena Davis, recently cast in the pilot of Fox’s “The Exorcist” reboot, is one of Hollywood’s fiercest activists for women and minorities, pushing the biz to recognize that mainstream media need not be male-dominated to be commercially successful. In addition to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Davis founded the Bentonville (Ark.) Film Festival to increase diversity in cinema. The second edition of the festival will be held May 3-8.

In addition to being a platform for diverse voices and stories, what sets BFF apart from other film festivals? 

We’re the only film festival in the world that awards guaranteed distribution to our winners. This includes theatrical release in AMC theaters, on television with Lifetime and on DVD in Walmart stores, all of whom are partners. Basically, we want to help showcase what research has shown to be true, that films with more diversity and more female characters make more money than otherwise. It’s not about having a festival that says, ‘Oh, yay, here are some films made by women or directed by someone of color, and we hope you like it.’ We want to show how commercial these films can be.

Why do you think the studio system is so reluctant to entrust women with the budgets they need to make the movies they want? 

In the early days, women were absolutely involved in filmmaking and directing and producing and heading studios. It was a heyday for women. When (films) became big money-makers, men came in and shoved the women out. The status of women directors at this point is abysmal. It practically couldn’t be worse unless it was 0% of women directing films. It’s just horrible and needs to change. When Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar (for “The Hurt Locker”), the press was saying that things had changed. It just didn’t happen. There’s a deep, deep problem of bias against female directors and giving them a chance.

Last year’s fest drew about 40,000 attendees. What’s in store this year? 

Last year we had 45 films in competition, and almost 90% have distribution. This year, we’re adding a short film competition and also a focus on television. We want it to be about all media. We’re going to have some really big premieres at the festival.

What is your ultimate goal with the festival? 

My message has always been supportive and positive. The default in entertainment has been, for a long time, white and male. The idea of this festival is to get people just to picture something else, to expand our ideas of what the world looks like. I think Shonda Rhimes said it first in some fashion, but the idea is that we’re not trying to change the world — we’re trying to reflect the one that already exists.

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