New allegations against prominent men in Hollywood are becoming public on an almost daily basis, threatening to topple the careers of prolific figures such as Ben Affleck, Louis CK, and Jeffrey Tambor. All told, recent events have made it difficult not to equate being a female filmmaker with inevitable victimization.
When I arrived at a loft in the west end on November 17 for a panel on female leaders in Canadian film, I was expecting these current events to set the mood for the discussion. The panel was one of several events hosted this past weekend by Shedoesthecity, a Toronto-based lifestyle website, as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. The event was co-presented by Telefilm Canada and began at 8:30 am, which made it all the more surprising to find that, far from the doom-and-gloom-type atmosphere I was anticipating, the room was buzzing with an excited energy.
The seemingly unending bad news from Hollywood was alluded to briefly before being set aside for a focus on the good: the fact that, slowly but surely, women are gaining ground in the film industry. “This feels like a tipping point,” said Jen McNeely, Shedoesthecity founder and editor-in-chief obefore officially kicking off the event.
The panel discussion, moderated by Amanda Brugel, who plays Rita on Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, featured four Toronto women who have had success in film: cinematographer Maya Bankovic; writer and director Molly McGlynn; Joanna Miles, Vice President of Marketing at Entertainment One Films; and Vice President of Advancement for Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) maxine bailey, who spells her name in the lower case.
As much as this was visibly a woman-centric event — an all female panel, hosted in the shockingly beautiful headquarters of Knixwear, a Toronto-based, women-led lingerie startup — the emphasis was less on the sex of the panelists and more on their identities as filmmakers: their stories, their achievements, and their goals for the future. The fact that the event’s official title makes no mention of gender, simply billed as a “Leaders in Canadian Film” panel, may reflect a deliberate attempt by the organizers to avoid undermining their guests’ accomplishments by placing them in the ‘movies made by chicks’ box.
None of which is to say that gender did not have a presence. There can be no separating being a woman from one’s experience in the film industry. In 2016, women directed a dismal seven per cent of the top 250 highest-grossing films at the American box office. Between the panelists and their audience, almost entirely women, there was a tacit understanding of the travails that are part and parcel of being a female creator — or perhaps just being female — that set the tone for the discussion.
This much was clear in one interesting moment after McGlynn, responding to a question about asking others for help, gave an answer that seemed to resonate: “Don’t diminish yourself to make other people comfortable.” Amid the ensuing applause, a number of people around me let out an audible sigh — a couple chuckled darkly. In both cases, the message was clear: ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about.’
There is still a ways to go before women stand on equal footing in ‘the biz.’ While Bankovic pointed out that advances in technology have made it easier for diverse populations to produce professional-quality films, bigger change still needs to happen for women to get a foothold in bigger-budget movies. “We have to do better. We have to demand better,” said bailey.
At TIFF, bailey has helped create the Share Her Journey initiative to create more opportunities for women in film over the next five years. But she also reminded the audience that the onus was just as much on them to enact change, saying, “It’s about voting with your pocketbook.” Buying tickets for films made by diverse casts and crews tells production companies they’re doing something right — all the more reason to look forward to the Wonder Woman sequel.