Dispatches from the 2019 WIFTI Summit

“Run towards trouble.”

Last week, delegates from chapters of WIFTI—Women in Film and Television International—gathered for their biennial summit, this year held in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand alongside The Power of Inclusion, a two-day conference focusing on issues of representation and equality in the global entertainment industry. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing findings, interviews, and more from The Power of Inclusion. For all who could not attend, read on for an account of the WIFTI summit, held on October 2, 2019.

Our hosts for the week were the New Zealand Film Commission and WIFT NZ, led by Executive Director Patricia Watson. She arranged for two WIFT NZ members—writer/actor Shoshana McCallum and Executive Director of the Directors & Editors Guild of NZ Tui Ruwhiu—to lead a guided tour of the western coast of the country’s North Island and the rugged Waitākere Ranges. It was an excellent way to acclimate to the time zone difference for summit speakers including WIF L.A. Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer, The Black List founder Franklin Leonard, Disney’s VP of Multicultural Audience Engagement Julie Ann Crommett, Raising Films founder Hope Dickson Leach, and activist Maria Giese.

Upon arriving at the Aotea Centre the next day, the scene was instantly set for the subsequent discussion of issues of gender equality in entertainment. Posters about sexual harassment and bystander intervention were on display, provided by ScreenSafe and the Screen Women’s Action Group (SWAG).

ScreenSafe is an initiative of New Zealand’s Screen Industry Guild, a collaborative effort to support and promote Health and Safety in the New Zealand Screen Sector. SWAG, formed in response to the #MeToo movement, is committed to changing the culture that enables sexual harassment, discrimination, and other abuses of power over women in New Zealand’s screen industry.

Master Class with Philippa Boyens, Academy Award®-winning writer of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy

  • On a Danish study of the most common words to describe female and male characters in literature (“beautiful, sexy, gorgeous” and “brave, rational, righteous,” respectively): “Men will see the story of her beauty, whereas women will see the story underneath her beauty.”
  • “One of the most important things when you’re talking about ‘the power of inclusion’ is access to childcare, because it’s so important. And especially with crew members, it’s one of the things that can exclude people if they can’t make it work. … I’ve seen 60 trucks moving a city, loading lights and props and sets and equipment for THE LORD OF THE RINGS… if they can do that, they can set up a crèche [childcare]; it’s not that crazy.”
  • Boyens’ advice for anyone who wants to make it as a screenwriter:
    • “Be up for it! It’s hard; don’t be afraid of it being hard. It’s still hard for me. And especially for younger people: have more than one story. You should write about what you need to write about—not just necessarily women’s stories. You have to write for an audience.”
    • “What you need to understand—and this is definitely for young screenwriters out there—with a script is that this is just the beginning of a million compromises you’re going to have to make. Because of studio decisions, budget, actors’ interpretations, the director, the editor… And that’s as it should be! Remember, it’s a collaborative process. Do fight your corner, but understand what you’re talking about.”

Universal Issues, Regional Challenges

Delegates took advantage of the summit to learn about successful case studies in moving the needle on gender equity, and brainstorm necessary next steps. One of the initiatives shared by WIFTI President Helene Granqvist is the #5050together initiative, in which post-production partner companies give a 10% discount to productions that fulfill equity criteria (inspired by the ReFrame model). She also presented a partnership with HerFlix. WIF members, contact wifti@herflix.com if you’d like your content shared on their channel, and 10% of the proceeds will support WIFTI operations.

To discuss collective challenges, WIF L.A. Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer was joined by activist Maria Giese to emphasize why this cause is so much more than just about one industry. Giese spoke about how voicing issues of gender bias affected her dynamic within the Directors Guild of America.

“The (largely white, liberal) men that create most of the content coming out of Hollywood know how much influence they have on geopolitics. They do more than just tell stories. They represent who we are as a people, and women are not represented. We have a right to say how we are represented,” she said, to applause.

A member of the crowd asked about balancing the energy it takes to persevere as a filmmaker with the energy it takes to fight for equality. Giese responded, “This is a small, tiny little industry that is based on personal relationships, and if you speak out, or are an activist, you can get blacklisted. So you have to say, ‘I don’t care if this hurts my career; I have to go to the ACLU.’”

Schaffer reinforced this point: “Maria essentially sacrificed her career for this work, so we thank you for that.”

Activism On-Screen from WIFT Canada and Australia:

One of the most striking moments at the WIFTI summit was when delegates from each chapter present stood on stage to speak about the particular challenges facing women in entertainment in their region. Here are the words that came up the most:

A large portion of the day was spent in breakout groups, brainstorming collective actions that members of Women in Film and Television chapters globally can take together to fight for gender equity in our industry. We’ll be keeping those conversations offline for now until next steps can be announced—you’ll see results in practice soon!

There’s far more to say about what was discussed at the summit and The Power of Inclusion. Stay tuned for further dispatches covering topics including racial discrimination, ageism, culture change, sexual harassment, and much more. We’re so grateful to our hosts—the NZ Film Commission and WIFT NZ—and honored to have spent this time with all of the WIFTI members who came to be a part of the solution.