Winstead, the acclaimed comedian and co-creator of The Daily Show, was addressing a roomful of her peers. One was the first woman to win a Tony for direction in musical theater, one had just received an Academy Award nomination, another had created NBC’s newest hit comedy. It was opening night of the Second Annual Athena Film Festival, and these women were about to receive awards that “recognize extraordinary women for their leadership and creative accomplishments.”
The festival, which ran February 9 to 12, came a few weeks after a disappointing round of Oscar nominations that featured no woman Best Director nominees and spotty results for women elsewhere; a panel in which a top Hollywood director was quoted by none other than George Clooney as refusing to cast an actress with whom he did not want to have sex; and the newest University of California study on gender inequality in Hollywood, which reported that “male roles far outweigh those for women, females are far more likely to be scantily dressed,” and the gender of films’ creators had an impact on all of it. After the study’s release Stacy L. Smith, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, issued a call to action via the Los Angeles Times: “Females represent half of the population and half of moviegoing audiences, but they don’t hit a third of the characters. Male consumers aren’t the only ones going to the movies, but our cultural storytellers today are male.”
It was to change that bleak picture that the Athena Film Festival was established last year by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, in partnership with the nonprofit Women and Hollywood. Athena Center director Kathryn Kolbert and Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein were on hand at awards night, and WVFC favorites Katie Couric and Gloria Steinem were present to introduce the five inaugural awardees. Each so honored, in turn, was asked to name a woman whose inspiration and support had been key to her success.
Theresa Rebeck—whose “Excellence as a Playwright and Author of Films, Books and Television” includes Seminar, currently on Broadway; co-authorship of the Pulitzer-nominated Omnium Gatherum; and years writing and producing Law & Order and NYPD Blue as well as the current Smash—named another group of honorees: Diablo Cody, Dana Fox, Liz Meriwether, and Lorene Scafaria. The group of friends and colleagues, known as “the Fempire, was honored for “Their Creativity and Sisterhood.” They couldn’t be present to receive the awards in person because “we are working our butts off in this male-dominated industry,” they wrote in a message.
Rachael Horovitz, honored “for her Exceptional Talents as a Motion Picture Producer,” from HBO’s Grey Gardens to the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, named as her inspirer 92-year-old Priscilla Morgan, who, with her husband, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, worked to bring the Spoleto Festival to the United States. As an agent in the 1950s, Morgan represented Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, and others on Broadway and NBC’s pioneering Philco Playhouse on TV. Horovitz met Morgan “when I was 5 years old and she came with my father to Spoleto,” Horovitz said. “She couldn’t be here, but she has inspired me ever since.”
Dee Rees, director of the new film Pariah and chosen with producer Nekisa Cooper for “Impact as Emerging Filmmakers,” named her Liberian grandmother for her survival, while Cooper gave a shout to Ava duVernay, filmmaker and founder of AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. “She left a successful career in public relations, ” Cooper said, “has made TWO award-winning films already, and she has helped so many of us. She is not only my friend—she is really, truly a model.”
Next, honored for “Her Vision and Courage as an Exemplary Director,” was Julie Taymor, introduced by Gloria Steinem as “the first person about whom I spontaneously used the word genius.” Steinem added that Taymor “is a joy to work with” and that “she has brought the world together” with travels to create productions in Japan, Africa and elsewhere. Taymor herself named multiple inspiring women, including Frida producer Sarah Green and Lynn Hendee, who stayed with Taymor and The Tempest and “was there in Hawaii when we ran out of money and couldn’t even afford to do the tempest!” Another was the late Laura Ziskin, “who pulled together the money for the movie I am working on now,” and was also the namesake for the evening’s last award: the “Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award.”
To introduce the latter was Couric, who had worked with the venerable Ziskin on one of her last big productions, the creation of Stand Up for Cancer. “Laura told me,” said Couric, that “‘in the 1980s AIDS activists brought all of their game to the fight. That’s what we have to do now.’ In September 2008,” Couric added. “we brought all three networks together and raised millions. That was Laura. She lived and fought until the day she died.”
Accepting the award, Ziskin’s daughter reflected that when she started in 1978, Ziskin “was often the only woman in the room . . . she had to look a little deeper. That’s how she found Fight Club: she didn’t accept the word no.”
For the next four days, the festival would continue in that same spirit, with panels, screenings, and brainstorming sessions in which veterans offered tips to emerging or aspiring filmmakers. BriAnna Olson, currently directing short commercial films like this GemGirls music video featured on NPR, was thrilled with Friday’s panel “From Script to Screen,” featuring Pariah’s Nekisa Cooper, Precious producer Lisa Cortes, and Mary Jane Skalski (The Station Agent), among others.
“It was fabulous,” Olson told me. “I learned a lot, and it was great feeling to be part of something larger—that there’s not this huge gap between me and the film world.”
Still to come: Film reviews and more festival details, including how Gloria Steinem stopped hating the HBO film about her.
The Wednesday Five: Schooling and Startup Advice, Reinvention Advice from Jane Pauley and Guidance from Helen Mirren
Our weekly assortment of blog hits includes Jane Pauley live!, tips from Startup Boot Camp, worries about the dearth of women on Broadway and Dame Helen Mirren, in the video below, explaining how Shakespeare’s last play can be a feminist statement.
- Jane Pauley, AARP’s “Your Life Calling” Ambassador, will be part of a live chat at noon tomorrow, September 16, “shining a spotlight on people who are reinventing themselves after age 50.” Earlier this year, Pauley highlighted professional knitter Betsy Lee McCarthy and Devin Jopp, Ed.D., of the small-business mentoring organization SCORE. If you come to the chat, which also brings in other exemplars of reinvention, Pauley notes that “perhaps they’ll inspire you to pursue your life calling.”
- As school systems scramble for new federal Race to the Top funds, Lynn Parramore at New Deal 2.0 convened a virtual education summit. “As the school year kicks off,” she observed, “parents, students, employers, workers — just about everyone with a stake in education — can see that our system isn’t working as it should. Yet we all know that education is the key to the future. What, then, is the single most important priority for improvement? I looked for answers in the realms of policy-making, public education and universities.” The roundtable includes the Roosevelt Institute’s Kirsten Bell; Maya Rockeymoore, President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, and Vinetta Bell, special projects coordinator for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
- Speaking of education, sometimes we need a little ourselves to push new business ideas forward. But we needn’t forget what we already know, writes Gina McCauley at WhatAboutOurDaughters.com. McCauley, one of the co-founders of Blogging While Brown, writes that after a weekend at a startup boot camp in Austin, Texas, she overcame her initial boredom-crossed-with-terror and was able to develop some good startup ideas, including her own boot camp for folks often not invited when the venture capitalists come to call. “I met some new people. Made great contacts. Learned a bunch about the mythical world of startups (It’s not rocket science),” she writes. “Most important, I can OWN MY EXPERTISE.” Among her long list of tips: Teamwork can be your friend, push yourself on stuff you don’t know — and “when in doubt, imitate others until you figure it out.”
- Women are making strides in film, but “Broadway has a long way to go,” says Deborah Savadge at OntheIssues Cafe. First noting the encouraging rise of directors like The Lion King’s Julie Taymor, Savadge notes that “The coming season is bleak for women trying to earn a living in the theatre…Scour a list of some 20 plays and musicals planned for Broadway this season. No female playwrights are included. Zero. Only two female directors and one female co-director are proposed. Of the 11 new plays and musicals, one, only one, has a female at the helm.” Next season may be better, Savadge writes, with the upcoming move of Susan Stroman’s The Scottsboro Boys and the rumored opening Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning The Mountaintop, featuring Halle Berry and Samuel Jackson.
- On the bright side (and speaking of Julie Taymor), the film of The Tempest garnered raves at the Venice Film Festival for director Taymor and for star Helen Mirren (Shakespeare’s Prospero having been transformed to “Prospera” in this adaptation). Dame Mirren’s speech at the premiere, writes Melissa Silverstein at Women in Hollywood, went straight to the feminist heart of the matter: “Women have been punished for being in power, for being powerful for many centuries and I thought that was the remarkable thing about making Prospero into Prospera … You can bring in that history of female struggle, and certainly in Shakespeare’s day and for many centuries before and after women of knowledge were punished for that knowledge.” Watch her below, and brighten your day.