Europe’s Indie Film Biz More Open For Women to Launch Careers

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Hollywood and the global film business have a long way to go before approaching gender parity, but in Europe, the independent film biz has been a fertile place for women to foster careers. Government subsidies and national funding organizations that put an emphasis on art rather than commerce are among the factors helping women gain a toehold in the business. But as the Berlin Film Festival gets ready to unspool on Feb. 11, many acknowledge that inequities aren’t hard to find despite gains.

The U.K. has been a fantastic launchpad for female execs and creatives. Home-grown producers ranging from Elizabeth Karlsen (“Carol”) to Alison Owen (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “Me Before You”) to Debra Hayward (“Les Miserables,” “Bridget Jones’s Baby”) to Faye Ward (“Suffragette,” TV series “The Crown”) have mastered the indie financing game to bring top-notch product to screen, and the country has produced scribes such as Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady,” “Suffragette,” “Shame”) and Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”). Top casting director Nina Gold boasts credits ranging from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to “The Danish Girl.”

A few years ago, all three of the country’s public film funds — the British Film Institute, Film4 and BBC Films (which invest a combined $68.5 million per year in feature pics) — were headed by women. While two commissioners have since stepped down, Christine Langan remains BBC Films chief. But women are still gatekeepers at the orgs: The BFI’s CEO is Amanda Nevill, while Sue Bruce Smith remains head of distribution at Film4.

France, meanwhile, has a host of top international sales companies led by women: Carole Baraton and Adeline Fontan Tessaur run sales at Wild Bunch and Elle Driver, respectively, while Anna Marsh is head of international sales for Studiocanal. The legendary Hengameh Panahi is president of Celluloid Dreams.
“Suffragette” producer Ward says independent filmmaking may be an easier place for women to get into the movie biz due to the amount of risk involved when it comes to financing a project.

“The very nuts and bolts of independent filmmaking is that your budget is lower, so the risk is less, and then you can, in some ways, take more risks,” she says. “Maybe that’s why people are able to push women into opportunities in a way that perhaps the Hollywood industry hasn’t.”

BBC Films’ Langan agrees: “There is something more accommodating in a system that depends on jigsaw financing. That aspect means there is more of a dialogue and diplomacy and collaboration that have enabled women to find a way, whereas monolithic structures (with) a big, vertically integrated machine are not as easy to crack.”

Radiant Films Intl. topper Mimi Steinbauer, who has sold female-directed pics throughout her career, including Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and Sophie Barthes’ “Madame Bovary,” says the European indie film biz is driven by broader factors than the U.S. indie biz, with public funding orgs that have different agendas, which may enable them to tackle the issue of gender equality more directly.

“The subsidies and incentive structures available to European filmmakers give films in general a broader cultural mandate,” Steinbauer says, “and the different selection of mechanisms used to determine which films get made allow more and different people to be involved.”

Yet inequality lingers. The European Women’s Audiovisual Network reported last year that women’s share of national funding, with the exception of Sweden, is not proportional to “their active presence as directors.” The EWA found that female-directed films have lower budgets than those of their male counterparts. The report said: “Taking small (less than €800,000 or $863,000), medium and large budgets (about €3.5 million or about $3.8 million), all female documentaries fall in the lowest category, and most female fiction falls below the middle of the medium-budget category. France is the only country where budgets for women fall in the highest category.”

When it comes to taking direct action in putting females at the forefront of the film business, Swedish Film Institute chief exec Anna Serner has been a pioneer. Since joining the SFI in 2011, Serner has revolutionized the Swedish movie business, insisting on equal gender funding across all productions, and in 2014, the proportion of feature length, commissioner-approved fiction films with a woman as a director hit 50% for the first time.

“My experience in film and any other industry is that the more private and commercial the money is in a film, the more it (adversely) hits women,” Serner says. “We realized that just talking about this issue made no difference.”

Serner says projects were scrutinized equally and targets were set. “We didn’t earmark money,” she explains. “We just counted every decision we made, and communicated the numbers so that no one could forget that there are numbers and there is progress.”

In Norway, gender parity is prevalent in government and corporate society (the country has a female prime minister), and this has spread to its film biz: the Norwegian Film Institute reported that of feature fiction films it funded in 2014, key staff (director, screenwriter, producer) were 53.9% female.

Ingrid Pittana, head of acquisitions at Teuton distrib SquareOne Entertainment, notes that “the gender balance of many Northern European countries deserve recognition, and may slowly be paving the way for change.”

But U.K. producer Karlsen is mindful of how many more miles must be traveled on the road to parity.

“Women’s history is a silent history, and women are still on the margins of society,” she says. “You can have female commissioners of film funds and yes, that may make a difference in one way, but overall, white male domination still has ramifications on the subject matter of films we make. And there are so many things that still need to happen in society at large to change that.”