It’s a hectic week for Geena Davis, who heads to New York in a couple of days to start filming “Marjorie Prime” with Jon Hamm. Before that, the Oscar-winning feminist actress is doing her utmost to bring attention to the Friday opening of “In My Father’s House.” This is the first winner out of Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) to hit theaters — some 20 AMC movie houses across the land — accompanied by a symposium tour with filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.
“It’s a great, fascinating story,” she says of the saga of hip-hop artist and songwriter Che “Rhymefest” Smith, who purchased his childhood home on Chicago’s South Side with the idea of raising his new family in the same house where he grew up — and soon found out that his estranged father was a homeless alcoholic living only blocks away.
Davis launched BFF to bring attention to films made by women and minorities, with a key proviso being that the top three winners would be guaranteed distribution. But BFF has done much better than that. She is thrilled to let us know that 87 percent of the films shown at the fest in May have been picked up by distributors.
This is the latest push in a long drive for Davis, who’s identified with such strong female roles as Dottie Hinson of “A League of their Own,” Thelma Dickinson of “Thelma & Louise” and the title character on TV’s “Commander in Chief.” She started her Institute on Gender in Media nearly a decade ago now, the impetus being her observation of a vast discrepancy in the number of male and female characters in the children’s programming her daughter was seeing.
“It made no sense to me that in the 21st century they not show kids equally,” Davis says.
“People kept telling me they were sure the problem was fixed” — but that was hardly the case.
In fact, research eventually showed that there had been virtually no change in the percentages of male-to-female characters in children’s media since 1946. A study supported by the Institute, led by Stacy L. Smith, PhD, at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism,
referenced 275 prime time programs in the Spring of 2012 and found that only 38.9 per cent of the characters seen were female — which was better than the female representation found in samplings of family films (28.3 per cent) and children’s shows (30.8) in the same study.
Davis says, “Right from the beginning my philosophy has been: ‘My approach is going to be positive. It’s not going to be public. It’s not going to be shaming. Quietly, in my friendly way, I will talk to my colleagues in the industry. I will talk behind the scenes to leaders and decision-makers, directly.’ It seemed more efficient that way,” adds Davis, who knows anyone who is anyone in film and TV.
Response has been good. Disney, for example, has asked her to come and talk to different divisions in the company on multiple occasions. “They’re very interested in making the change, so we’ll see.”
Speaking of the representation of females and males seen not only in children’s programming, but across media, she says, “I feel very confident that within a few years, for the first time, there will be parity. When the needle finally moves, it’s going to be historic. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be equal.”
The outlook for women filmmakers is a whole other matter. “The problem of female directors is just awful, it’s terrible. Awareness has not helped in that regard. Every year statistics come out that show it.” When Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win a Best Director Oscar in 2012, “people said, ‘Now it will change.’ I said, ‘I certainly hope so, but I’m not sure. We’ll see. We’ll keep trying.'”
Meanwhile, there’s “Marjorie Prime,” which she’ll begin shooting Sunday. The sci-fi dramedy, based on the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison, has Lois Smith as an octogenarian who, thanks to the wonders of technology, has a hologram of her late husband as he was in his 30s and 40s in her house. Hamm plays the hologram and Davis is Smith’s understandably anxious daughter.
“It’s an interesting premise without being too cute or too sci-fi,” she says. Will she be doing some green screen work? “You know, I think there will be no special effects,” answers Davis. “I’m almost sure there will be no special effects, which is exciting to me.”
What’s also exciting about the film? Its gender-balanced cast.