I’m on the phone with two influential women in the entertainment industry. The founders of the Athena Film Festival, a celebration of women and leadership that is now in its third year, Kathryn Kolbert and Melissa Silverstein are about to tell me some of the secrets to their success – and just how they manage to do it all, while staying in shape and learning new ways to please their partners.
Actually, scratch that. Instead of sharing dieting tips and Cosmopolitan quizzes, Kolbert and Silverstein tell me their opinions on the entertainment industry, feminism and why they think the director of Zero Dark Thirty did not receive an Oscar nomination.
That sound better? I thought so.
Kolbert is the Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College and Silverstein runs the blog Women and Hollywood. Self-described “partners in crime,” their collaboration resulted in the Athena Film Festival, which was first held three years ago, as an attempt to celebrate women in leadership and to bring exposure to films that otherwise might not be seen by the public. The festival celebrates women in leadership positions in multicultural communities, focusing on female leaders in fiction and real life. The four-day festival features conversations with directors and actors as well as workshops for filmmakers, all of which explore leadership through collaboration and diversity.
“Any one of the films on its own is a great film, but when you put them together and spend a whole weekend watching women in inspirational roles, making a difference in their lives and communities, it changes the dynamic of what you think leadership is,” Kolbert said. “I think our audiences have responded to that and grown every year. The women we attract to help us develop and be on our advisory board are very proud of participating in this venture because they understand it’s critically important to highlight women in leadership and around the world.”
Silverstein recognizes what she calls “a deep hunger and very good will” for the film festival’s mission, noting that participants who travel from around the world to attend.
This hunger is evident when researching the statistics of women in Hollywood, both on-screen and off. According to Women and Hollywood, only seven percent of Hollywood directors are women. The LA Times states that the Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, and men make up more than 90 percent of the five branches of the Academy, with 6 of the 43 members of the governing board of the Academy being female, and only one being a person of color.
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reports that five percent of the top grossing films in Hollywood were directed by women, and only four women – Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow – have been nominated for Best Director in 84 years. One has actually won. It also reported that in the 400 top-grossing films rated G, PG, PG-13 and R that were released between 1990 and 2006, of the 15,000 speaking characters, only 27 percent were female. And according to a study conducted by the Celluoid Ceiling that tracked women’s representation as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2009, women make up 20% of production designers, 25%/44% of production managers/production supervisors, 5%/5% of sound designers/supervising sound editors, 1% of key grips and 1% of gaffers.
The lineup at Athena Film Festival includes more than 300 films, features documentaries, shorts, independent films and major releases. For a film to be considered, it must feature a woman in a leadership role – a requirement that makes the selection process much more narrow than some might believe.
“One of the culturally typical responses to women over the last ten centuries is that they really are invisible,” Kolbert said. “The role of women is really a nonrole, a role that’s very quiet and unassuming and fades into the background. When you have to challenge that within the culture as a whole, it’s not surprising that Hollywood doesn’t reflect women in strong leadership as well.”
“Over the last decade, studies have shown that women have not made as much progress as the media portrays,” Silverstein said. “It’s still a struggle for women to get financing for their films. What the festival can add is to show strong women in their films that are successful…we put them together into a program that highlights great leadership that women show in films all over the world.”
The diversity that is featured is a highlight of the festival, Kolbert said, citing that a broad array of women are featured in leadership roles in all aspects of life and location.
“You see leaders in countries, women who box, sail, mow lawns at baseball parks….it’s an amazing array of women taking leadership roles,” she said.
One film that featured a woman in a leadership role that has been the topic of many a conversation this awards season is Zero Dark Thirty, whose director, Kathryn Bigelow, was notoriously denied an Oscar nomination despite having received numerous other awards. When asked if films featuring strong women are appealing to box office audiences, Silverstein noted a trend in that direction that she hopes will continue to spread and progress.
“She made a movie about a female protagonist who is a strong, unapologetic woman,” Silverstein said. “I do think [movies about strong women] appeal to audiences, and you can see from the box office of Zero Dark Thirty. I think they have to be sold right, and I think they have a harder time. I think women are hungry for these kinds of characters and the box office only proves that. Look at The Hunger Games – huge success. Look at Brave – she’s a strong, young character. There have been a lot of success and the problem is there aren’t enough movies like this.”