"We are 50 percent of the population and our stories matter": Athena Film Festival founder Melissa Silverstein on sexism in Hollywood

The festival celebrating women and leadership this weekend will honor Jodie Foster (Update)

Published February 4, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1", Rosamund Pike in "Gone Girl", Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs"
Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1", Rosamund Pike in "Gone Girl", Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs"

This post has been corrected.

This weekend marks a major event for women onscreen: the fifth annual Athena Film Festival, an annual celebration of women and leadership held at New York’s Barnard College. The four-day festival was founded in 2011 by two prolific women's rights advocates: journalist and lawyer Kathryn Kolbert, who argued the landmark Planned Parenthood v. Casey case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, and journalist Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood and author of “In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing.”

Each year, the festival shows a unique lineup of films, documentaries and shorts that display women's leadership, both in real life and onscreen, while honoring significant female leaders in the entertainment industry. As the events of this past year remind us, combating Hollywood's gender imbalance remains as pressing an issue as ever, from the pay disparities revealed by the Sony leaks to the egregious exclusion of women from the Academy Awards lineup.

This year's festival honorees include some of the leading lights of the entertainment industry, including Gina Prince-Bythewood, director, writer and producer of "Love & Basketball" and "Beyond the Lights," Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman, and president of HBO documentary films Sheila Nevins. Actress and director Jodie Foster -- who needs no introduction -- will receive the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the week leading up to the festival, we spoke with co-founder Melissa Silverstein about some of the major issues facing women in Hollywood, from Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub to the box office power of “Hunger Games,” and how to fight industry sexism from the inside.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the idea for the festival came about?

Kathryn Kolbert, my co-founder, and I, we’ve known each other for many years doing activism in the women's community in a variety of ways. She had come to Barnard to start the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. I had been doing a variety of things with my website Women in Hollywood, and there were a lot of women directors there talking about how difficult it was to make films, especially films with strong female leads — strong female protagonists. We just put our heads together and the Athena Film Festival was born.

How has the festival grown and changed during your five years there?

Oh my goodness, in every single way I think it’s changed. I think one of the biggest things is the fact that people are ready to talk about these things in a different way than they might not have been five years ago, and how the conversation has evolved related to issues and women onscreen and women behind the scenes. So the festival has taken on a different kind of meaning. People want to talk about why they are not seeing themselves onscreen. People want to talk about the lack of opportunities for women behind the scenes. While we show films directed by men and women, our whole slate of film is women onscreen. So we’re completely opposite to what the Hollywood mainstream box office offers you, which is bereft of women. We’re only women onscreen. So it’s like a great kind of moment, where you can pause and you can say, "Oh, we are 50 percent of the population and our stories matter."

So you show films directed by both men and women, but starring mainly women?

We encourage as much as we possibly can women directors, but our focus is onscreen. Also we firmly believe that in order to change conversation you need men to be a part of it. So we are so excited to have these amazing men who are making films about women and most of them are making these films because they have daughters. To see them stand up there and talk about why they’re inspired to do this is pretty breathtaking.

As we saw with this year’s Oscar nominations, this year has been a particularly shameful year when it comes to recognizing women in film.

I actually don’t think, sadly, that this year is particularly egregious. This is consistent. And this is the thing that I’ve been doing on my website, and tracking all the statistics, is that women don’t get nominated. A woman has never been nominated for a a screenplay. [Note: Women have been nominated in the past, but no women were nominated this year.] Only 1 percent of all the movies that are proposed are by women. Only four women have been nominated for best director. Hardly any movies that have female protagonists get nominated for best picture. I mean, this is something that has been going on for many years. We are just kind of now in a place where, it’s like, this is wrong.

There’s a lot of talk about Ava DuVernay not getting a directing nomination for "Selma." Do you think that the academy has a specific bias against women and against people of color, or do you find it to be a reflection of the industry as a whole?

I think it’s both. I think the fact that for years this business has been really white, really male, and so that’s what the academy membership is made up of. They feel really comfortable voting for themselves. They don’t look outside. And so when people come along and shake things up, it shatters their perspective. Do I think that was a good thing? No, I think it’s awful. But Ava DuVernay just announced a new project. Not getting an award is not going to hold Ava back, or award nomination, not for a second.

What do you think is the best way to challenge gender disparities in Hollywood from the inside?

I think part of it is continuously talking to people who have power, because a lot of them don’t understand, or don’t realize, how egregious it is. Their jobs are to make money, to make movies that make money, and they get put forward with the directors, they get these scripts, everything becomes like a cycle. You need to put a pause on it and say, "Maybe the cycle’s not working anymore, we need to think outside the box." Sadly, even though we’re half the world, thinking about women is outside the box.

I noticed that you wrote recently about the Sony leaks and how poorly that whole saga reflected on the sexism in the industry in general.

What the Sony leaks did was reveal things that we as regular people don’t get to see, but that most people who work in the business probably already know. I don’t know if salaries are shared, but the transparency of these Sony leaks has really empowered and emboldened people to fight back, especially the story that we’ve heard about Charlize Theron getting a pay raise for “The Huntsman.” What it illuminates is the stark disparity that exists at all levels of the business. There is a huge gap of opportunities for women onscreen, behind the scenes, everywhere. It’s just a chasm. And one of our goals is to bridge that chasm so that more women have opportunities. There is not a lack of tolerance, there is a lack of opportunities.

What would you say to someone like Aaron Sorkin who would charge that stacks of amazing scripts featuring female characters just don’t exist out there?

It’s hard to answer something that’s completely ridiculous. It’s not true. They exist but there’s not the will, and people don’t want to see beyond their nose. They want to do what they know. Hollywood’s very comfortable doing what it knows, that’s why we see sequels over and over again of the same thing. Mr. Sorkin, a decade and a half ago, wrote some of the best female characters we’ve ever seen on television. But I don’t know, my experience says that there are great women out there, we need to just figure out a way to get them to be seen by the people in the industry. One of the other pieces of what we’re doing: The film festival has created this project called the Athena list which is similar to the Black List but focuses directly on female protagonists onscreen, female leaders onscreen. We’re about to do our second list this year. It’s like the Black List but it’s for female protagonists, female leaders onscreen.

Would you say women have more opportunities on the small screen than on the big screen?

Yes. I mean, the thing to understand is the difference between the television business and the movie business. The television business is driven by advertising. Everybody knows that women buy everything so they want women because they know women are going to buy their products. The film business operates on a very different mind-set. They still have this narrative in their heads that films are driven by young boys. There is a false narrative because every statistic that I’ve seen does not show me that boys go to movies more than girls.

Do you think that Hollywood’s recent obsession with comic book movies and action hero franchises, which tend to be really male-centric, is a dangerous trend for women in film?

I don’t think it’s a trend. I think it’s the reality. I mean this is what’s it’s been for the last decade. This is how it’s going to keep going forward. The studios are making less and less movies, but bigger movies. And that’s how this business is working. So we got to figure out how to get some of those movies to be about women because people go see the movies in the multiplex, and 80 percent--and of course these numbers are all changing as video demand changes all this kind of stuff--based on my last understanding of these data, 80 percent of all movies are seen in multiplexes. Multiplexes are the places where you only see the big budget movies. So you can’t see women because they’re not there. So we have to put women out there so people can make those kinds of decisions. If you look at, not a strong female protagonist movie, but the box office data for the Jennifer Lopez movie. It made $15 million this weekend, 70 percent of the audience were women, and it cost $4 million to make. That seems like a success to me.

And “Mockingjay” just surpassed “Guardians of the Galaxy” to become the biggest film of the year. That seems to dispel any rumors that a female lead can't carry a blockbuster action franchise.

Two years in a row, “Hunger Games” movies are the top-grossing movies in domestic box office. That hasn’t happened in 40 years. So clearly we have a trend happening. One of the things is it was a very beloved book and people were really interested in it so it had a lot of name recognition ahead of itself. And they got really lucky having Jennifer Lawrence, who was perfect for it. These are things that people have to push and take chances on. I think we’ll see more of them. I want to see older female protagonists too, not just teenagers.

Who are some women in the industry who you think are doing really good work right now?

Well, if you look at what Reese Witherspoon and her partner Bruna Papandrea are doing over at Pacific Standard: "Gone Girl" and "Wild" this year. I think there are a lot of women actors who are picking up the mantle and buying scripts themselves and developing scripts themselves, Nicole Kidman’s been doing this for years. Jessica Chastain is doing great work and she’s been speaking out on this issue the last couple of months nonstop. Cate Blanchett is always good on this stuff. It’s all about having the will and I’m sure I’m missing a thousand people who are doing great work, so I can’t give you a really good answer at this moment. But I feel that there are a lot of women who are understanding what they need to do in order for them to keep working and a lot of them are moving into directing. And what you see is women who want to direct are writing their movies so they get the chance to direct.

I know Jodie Foster is one of this year's honorees. How did you pick the honorees and what makes these women important role models?

Well, I think all the years, two years ago we honored Ava DuVernay; what we’re trying to do is really look at people who are doing great work in the business and also try to think outside the box, and for people who are not getting necessarily recognized as much as we think that they should. Really what we want to do is be conversation starters and we want to be ahead of the crowd. Jodie Foster is a person we all know. But she doesn’t get honored in the same way for the rest of her work, for being at the forefront. I’ve watched her acceptance speeches for her Oscars in the early '90s and she was calling herself a feminist in 1991. So I didn’t remember that at all, but that’s why we’re excited to have her there.

By Anna Silman

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Athena Festival Athena Film Festival Jodie Foster Melissa Silverstein Women Women In Hollywood