The idea for LA Femme International Film Festival, for women directors, writers and producers, came to me in 2004 as I sat with a bunch of women filmmakers at Starbucks in Park City, Utah.

That year, Sundance had very few films directed by a woman, and I thought that was insane. So I said, “We have to do something.” The others agreed.

I started jotting down names for a festival on a napkin. “Let’s support our own,” I said. “Who’s in?” But none of the other women rallied around, so I thought, well, I have to make this happen.

At that time, almost no one in Los Angeles seemed to believed that women could direct anything other than a romantic comedy. (That’s still the case, really.) Sponsors were few and far between— “Women in entertainment media? Who cares?” was the overwhelming response I got from studios. That first year, 2005, I also heard, “This is a lesbian festival, right?” I said, “No—we’re just women putting on content created by women.” But we had to get over that branding.

That initial year I had Lupe Ontiveros as my MC, and we honored Penelope Spheeris, Jacqueline Bisset and other female directors. We showed for two days, Saturday and Sunday, at Los Angeles Center Studios; there were 25 films that first year, projected on 35mm. Now we’ve got approximately 110 films in two theaters—the Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live—over a four-day timeframe. We have six seminars this year, put on by the likes of SAG-AFTRA, Columbia College Hollywood and the WGA. In addition to our screenplay competition, our TV pilot competition, launched last year, is exploding.

We are a high-end boutique film festival with a mom-and-pop feel. And as a nonprofit, our mission statement is education. We send out a massive email to selected films that details, step by step, how to market at the festival. And even if a filmmaker doesn’t get in, we offer them a VIP pass to attend the festival, so they can learn why they didn’t get in.

Aisha Tyler at LA Femme International Film Festival 2016. Photograph by Lori Rain

Besides screenings and seminars, we have our opening night gala and closing night award show, and we have late-night mixers at bars throughout Los Angeles. At the mixers, filmmakers often meet distribution or funding sources. In 2005, for example, sisters Emily and Elizabeth Dell had a proof-of-concept short called “B-Girl.” They met an investor at the festival, submitted the feature back to us in 2010, won an award, and now I see it on cable all the time. More recent successes include the features The Scarapist and The Morning After, which both signed deals in 2016 after screening in 2015 at the festival.

We constantly have women tell us, “You were my first festival and I didn’t realize how great it was until I finished the festival circuit. I’m coming back!” MM

– as told to Kelly Leow. Leslie LaPage is the founder of LA Femme International Film Festival.

LA Femme International Film Festival 2017 will run October 19-22, 2017. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2017 issue. Top image photographed by Lori Rain: Actress Gina Torres receives the Visionary Award at the 2016 edition of LA Femme Film Festival.