It feels great to like something first: to know the band before they get radio play, to be a regular at the restaurant before it is hard to get a reservation, or to love a film before it gets Oscar talk.
Well, that’s how everyone must feel that attended this year’s Bentonville Film Festival (BFF), which ran May 3 to 8. That’s right, we’re talking about Bentonville, Arkansas—home of Walmart headquarters and now an independent film destination that could soon compete with Sundance, Toronto and Cannes as a place to premiere and sell your film, or even launch your career.
In its impressive second year, the festival was attended by more than 63,000 people—a 70 percent increase from year one, according to a festival press release. There were celebrities, studio execs and major sponsors present to support the cause that co-founders Geena Davis and Trevor Drinkwater implemented: “Championing Women and Diverse Voices in Media.”
“If they can see it, they can be it.” That’s the message actress and activist Davis has been promoting for years. A noble and necessary pursuit, considering minority voices are still greatly underrepresented in entertainment. As listed in the BFF brochures, women represent only 7 percent of film directors, 14 percent of TV directors and 31 percent of all speaking characters in top-grossing films. People of color represent 12 percent of directors and speaking characters in TV and only 13 percent of leading characters in film are people of color.
So while Hollywood continues its century-old practices despite ACLU investigations, sidelining 51 percent of the world’s population (ahem, women), the audiences of Bentonville, Arkansas did not. They warmly welcomed and celebrated the implausible. It was something akin to spotting Bigfoot, the Lochness Monster, quadruple upside-down rainbows and unicorns all in one place: At BFF, diversity was the majority.
Most of the films were directed by women. Many stories represented the LGBT community. African American, Latino and Asian filmmakers and actors shared their stories with the locals—and guess what? Their screenings sold out. The conversations around town, in bars, restaurants, art galleries, local businesses, parks, bike paths, street corners and shuttle rides to the many panels were positive, hopeful and energized. This felt like a movement. This felt like we were all a part of history in the making.
A few celebs, like Bruce Dern, Meg Ryan, Robert Townsend, Jon Voight and Nia Vardalos, were in attendance. Executives from Starz, Vudu, HBO, Paramount and Google were present, some participating in panels about transforming the entertainment industry. Sony, Nickelodeon, Broad Green, Disney, eOne, Marvel, Lionsgate and Warner Brothers were just some of this year’s studio sponsors. And even with enormous amounts of money being poured into the sophomore event from the big event sponsors Walmart, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s, somehow, the festival felt small and wonderful and completely genuine. These big corporations were getting on the right side of history, shunning exclusionary policies like gender discrimination in North Carolina. Walmart was spearheading a diversity program, people—and it didn’t even feel like a marketing ploy.
So as new partnerships were made between filmmakers, producers and financiers, there is no doubt that the spirit is right. But is their mission working? We asked Drinkwater, ARC Entertainment CEO and BFF co-founder, what actual, actionable ways the fest can create changes in diversity in media.
“This week is when we try to get decision-makers to visit the festival, meet people, hear the conversations and set a path forward,” he said. “Then we leave Bentonville and actually do the hard work. This festival experience puts people in the right mindset. Everyone comes here, enjoys their time and sits next to someone that can actually make a difference. We believe they will take this positive energy back to the studios and distributors and agencies.”
“We all need to help break the cycles that hinder diversity,” added Davis. This is why she launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, after all, and why Walmart and Drinkwater came to her to co-found the BFF.
Many of this year’s BFF filmmakers I spoke with seemed pleasantly surprised by the festival’s stellar outreach, organization, accommodations, staff and volunteers. It was impossible not to fall in love with the picturesque downtown Bentonville. Could this be the new Sundance of the Upper South? The residents were welcoming. The weather was lovely. I overheard someone say that they felt like they were on The Truman Show—it all seemed so perfect.
Alas, closer scrutiny on the festival revealed a few cracks in that perfect shell. Although the screening venues were cool (repurposed shipping containers called Cinetransformers), technical difficulties cropped up; each Cinetransformer could hold only 90 audience members, with only one screening per film. With a new Bentonville Theater in the works, hopefully this won’t be an issue again, but proper screening venues would go a long way.
The festival’s closing awards show was another disappointment. After a week of being immersed in conversations about diversity and change, almost all the prizes—Best of Fest, Audience Award, Best Family Film, Best Ensemble Film, Highest Diversity Score—went to men. (For the record, one of these male directors was black, one Asian American.) That left just a few women to accept the remaining awards for Best Actor (in a male-directed feature), Best Narrative Feature and Best Documentary. BFF didn’t throw a closing party, so attendees found no collective place to celebrate and (for those who felt overlooked) vent, and the awkward silence was deafening. Perhaps the lack of diversity in the awards only goes to show how saturated the industry is with the male influence—and how systemic a male-centric worldview is—even at an event that does its utmost to program films telling stories of diverse experiences.
These last missteps shouldn’t diminish the important work being done by Davis, Drinkwater or anyone responsible for launching a one-of-a-kind, “league of their own” festival that offers full distribution to all of the winning films. It shouldn’t diminish the very diverse group of directors, producers, actors and designers that were invited to share their work, their stories and develop new ideas together. And if the Bentonville Film Festival is on its way to becoming a real catalyst for progress, that’s more than enough reason to applaud its efforts and support its cause and growth.
“We are so thrilled to see an increased interest in the festival, this year from both a filmmaker and attendee perspective,” said Davis. “We look forward to seeing the festival grow, as we continue with our mission of championing voices of women and diversity in all forms of media.”
Because the more outlets that celebrate diversity, the more we will all see it and more storytellers will be encouraged to be it. MM
The Bentonville Film Festival ran May 3-8, 2016. For more information, visit the festival’s website.