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The Road to Gender Parity, Italian Style

Key representatives of Italian media joined with their American counterparts in Rome Sunday morning to usher a call for greater inclusion in the local entertainment industry.

During a panel on the final day of MIA hosted by Women in Film, TV & Media Italia, the group presented the tools of ReFrame, the American organization promoting a formal action plan to achieve gender parity in film and TV, and debated how they could be used to address systemic challenges facing women in Italian media.

“The ecosystem is…breathing with one single lung,” said Domizia De Rosa, of Women in Film, TV & Media Italia. “[Women are] the half which is missing.”

De Rosa was joined onstage by Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film, L.A.; producer Paul Feig; Desiree Akhavan, director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”; MIA director Lucia Milazzotto; Stefania Ippoliti, president of the Italian Film Commissions; and Stefano Sardo, a creative producer and TV writer. The Sundance Institute’s Anne Lai moderated what was a lively and at times contentious discussion.

During her opening presentation, Schaffer laid out the practical tools for inclusion that have been introduced by ReFrame, a partnership between Women in Film, L.A. and the Sundance Institute. Among other measures, the organization has created a 14-point road map that offers suggestions at every stage of production on how to achieve greater inclusivity, and has launched a joint venture with IMDBPro, ReFrame Stamp, to certify gender-balanced films and TV shows.

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Schaffer presented the group’s three-pronged approach, focusing on building a business model that highlights the profitability of inclusion; urging execs in leadership roles to advocate for change; and expanding the pool of available talent among women. “When those three things are happening at once, then we have inclusive and innovative culture,” she said.

Feig is one of more than 50 industry leaders, including studio heads, agency partners, senior network executives, and talent and guild representatives, who have signed on as ReFrame ambassadors since its launch last year. The group has formed a sponsorship program in which ambassadors actively look to place qualified women on film and TV projects. “What’s great about this…is basically all of us have some say in the business,” he said. “We are going in and advocating for new female directors [and] women across the industry in a meaningful way.”

Much of the group’s energy has gone into bolstering the careers of women who achieved some measure of success before hitting a glass ceiling. “There are a lot of pipeline programs in the U.S. that are helping women get into the system,” said Schaffer, who added that ReFrame was born out of the dearth of possibilities for women looking to take the next step. “The biggest drop-off is between indie and features, between directing television [episodes] and getting to direct pilots.”

Akhavan offered herself as a case study, highlighting some of the challenges she faced with “Post,” a film about a teenage girl who’s sent to gay conversion therapy after she’s caught with another girl in the backseat of a car on prom night. The director said she struggled to finance the movie, which took nearly two months to find U.S. distribution after winning the top prize in Sundance —something she attributes to the film’s overt depiction of female sexuality. “I think there’s something really scary about female power, behind the camera and on the screen,” she said.

Addressing the question of on-set diversity in her films, as well as in “The Bisexual,” a comedy series that bowed this month on Channel 4 in the U.K. and will be released on Hulu in the U.S. later this year, Akhavan added, “It shouldn’t be homework. If you put power in the hands of a diverse group of people, it will come naturally to keep it a diverse set.”

As the conversation shifted to how ReFrame can be applied to the Italian industry, De Rosa highlighted the country’s struggle for gender parity by offering statistics from the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, which showed Italy lagging far behind much of the developed world in indicators like economic opportunities and wage equality for women. “Where are the women in our industry: in front of and behind the cameras, in front and behind desks?” she asked. “Where are they, what are they doing, and are they paid as they deserve?”

“Among writers, we have a lot of women, because writers don’t count enough in Italy,” noted Sardo. “If writers were at the top of the system, then suddenly, we [would] have male supremacy again.”

The tone of the discussion shifted course as Milazzotto cautioned against making creative concessions in the name of what she described as political correctness. “It doesn’t matter if our battle is women, or diversity,” she said, while acknowledging a glass ceiling in the industry. “Political correctness is not our cup of tea….And we are going very much onto that route. So one thing is opportunity, the other thing is chains. And I hope that our industry doesn’t go there.”

Others onstage pushed back. “I think there’s a little bit of a difference between a workplace equality issue, which is who is being hired, and what the content is. And that those things don’t always have to be the same,” said Schaffer. “If you’re trying to hire more women on your crew, and you can hire great women…that’s not going to make for a politically correct set.”

Toward the session’s close there was a contentious exchange between Akhavan and Sardo, who attempted to make a point against P.C. culture by offering the hypothetical example of a mob drama that wouldn’t be allowed to present the “ugly truth” of the criminal underworld, including brutality against women. Akhavan jumped in. “I’m so tired of women getting raped on screen, though. I’m hearing you, but also like, maybe tell a different story,” she said.

Sardo maintained that the possibilities available to indie film directors in the U.S. weren’t as wide-ranging for creative producers – a distant Italian cousin of the American showrunner – who had limited freedoms in the rigid world of Italian television. Akhavan pushed back again. “We’re talking about reinventing the rules,” she said. “I would rather make things on my terms.”

Sardo countered, “If you want to do it in television [in Italy], with real money, you cannot now do what you want.”

Attempting to reach a consensus, Lai shifted the focus back to the question of gatekeepers in the male-dominated industry. “It’s a systemic change,” she said. “It’s a huge organism, and it’s not just about the content creators, but it’s about the platforms, and who are in those positions of power to provide the space for really bold work, or different work, to be seen?”

As for how that would apply to the Italian biz, De Rosa concluded, “We believe the change can happen. Probably in Italy, it will take a little bit more.”

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