ScreenTalk is pleased to present an on-location exclusive

Women Make Movies
Executive Director Debra Zimmerman
in a conversation
with ScreenTalk Producer Robin Rea

straight from NYC

Women Make Movies has been around for twenty-five years, but women in film have been around a lot longer.
Debra Zimmerman, executive director of WMM, reminds us, ďIn 1928, 25% of the screenwriters were women.Ē

I talked to Ms. Zimmerman recently in New York City about the NEA, sexism in Hollywood and chick flicks...

Rea: Ever heard the expression ďchick filmĒ, or is it a West Coast expression?

Zimmerman: What is it?

Rea: Never mind.

Zimmerman: ďChick filmĒ?

Rea: I know, it sticks in the throat.

Zimmerman: Well, I donít know about ďchick filmsĒ, but I can quote Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season) who said she didnít think that films by women were any better, just different.

Rea: In what way?

Zimmerman: When you see films by women, youíre getting womenís perspectives on women, youíre not seeing the way men think about women. For years, since the beginning of the industrialization of Hollywood, men have been in almost all of the key roles, either writing, directing or choosing which films get made. And those films respond and relate to their dreams, desires and fantasies and not very much to womenís dreams, desires and fantasies.

Rea: Despite some successes, most recently First Wives Club , womenís stories are notoriously hard sells in Hollywood.

Zimmerman: Itís not impossible to write and get scripts made that have a woman as the central character. Look at films like Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes and Sense and Sensibility, all written by women. When good stories are told, thereís an audience for those stories.

I think itís just part and parcel of the problem that no matter what happens in Hollywood, itís never credited to be because it appeals to women. If a film like Thelma and Louise is successful...

Rea: ... Itís because of the director.

Zimmerman: I always say the military and the film industry are the toughest places for a women, because both are closed, hierarchical systems with very defined roles.

Rea: Yet the opportunities are there for women to challenge that hierarchy.

Zimmerman: I agree. Look at the recent release of Eveís Bayou . Itís a wonderful film, more commercial than the kind of films we deal with here, but a great story with incredible camerawork. The story about that film is that the director, Kasi Lemmons, who is also a screenwriter and an actress, had the opportunity to make a short film before she made the feature. The producer she worked with said, "look, I understand you want to direct so Iím going to give you the opportunity to see what you can do." So, she chose a female cinematographer, and they worked together so well, she was able to bring her on as D.P. for Eveís Bayou , although up to that point she had been a second A.D. cameraperson.

Rea: You mentioned before that women are not being represented in the festivals. Do you think this is because primarily men make the decisions as to which films are seen?

Zimmerman: Absolutely. Women are making more shorts and features. Yet, at the New York Film Festival this year there were three films by women. At the Cannes Film Festival last year, there were six films by women entered in the competition. That is an horrific percentage, but not surprising when you look at the fact that all around the world, out of something like 225 world-wide festivals, maybe 10 of them have female directors or womenís programs.

Rea: They could counter with the films werenít up to the standards of the festival.

Zimmerman: Thatís what they always say. In Toronto this past year, I spent four days seeing only films by women, including Sally Potterís Tango Lesson and Agnieszka Hollandís Swept out to Sea. Now, why is that these films were good enough for Toronto but not good enough for the New York Film Festival?

Rea: What is about Toronto?

Zimmerman: Thereís a lot more films, first of all, so thereís greater opportunity. And it does so happen that there is a female administrative director at the festival and one of the programmers is a feminist who also makes her own films.

Rea: Letís face it, itís very subjective.

Zimmerman: Very. A while back there was a cover story in the New York Times Magazine on black filmmakers -- all men -- there was no acknowledgement of black female filmmakers except in the last three paragraphs of the story when they mentioned Julie Dash.

What I found most interesting was John Singletonís account of how he got Boyz N The Hood made. He sent the script to one of the guys in Hollywood and this guy loved it, said this is an amazing story, 'this is the story of me and my father,' and he greenlighted it.

When Julie Dash made Daughters of the Dust , she went out to Hollywood, and everyone wanted her to make girl gang films. She couldnít send out her script, which happened to be about mothers and daughters, and have some guy say this is the story of my life, because guess what, itís not the story of his life. He could more easily relate to the story of a black man and his son then he could to a womanís story, and Iím afraid thatís what happens over and over again.

Rea: There are a lot of influences , primarily economic, that studio executives can point to as factors in their decision to greenlight or not greenlight a film.

Zimmerman: When we talk about the history of womenís films in the marketplace and those films not having an audience, we also have to look at how much money was being spent on marketing those films and how they were marketed. Daughters of the Dust did not get distribution for a very long time because no one thought there was a market for it.

The company that eventually picked it up contracted it out to a womenís marketing/public relations firm that actually knew how to get that film to African-American women, and it was incredibly successful. It played for weeks here in NYC until it was launched for release throughout the country.

I donít think itís an answer to say womenís films donít make it at the box office. Let me see them put the dollars behind the film in terms of marketing and then letís see if they fail at the box office.

I always go back to the story of "Cagney & Lacey." It was incredibly successful, then CBS took it off the air. Lifetime picked it up, and it's been running ever since. It was a show older women really loved, but sometimes people in power donít do what the marketplace says they should be doing.

Rea: In the early 80ís, WMM began focusing on distribution. Can you talk about that shift and the reasons for it?

Zimmerman: Itís simple. We realized more women were making films, but those films werenít being seen. Fortunately we understood that there could be a market for these films, even if it meant building that market ourselves.

We now distribute about 400 films: animation, documentary, features, shorts. We focus on documentaries and shorts, because our primary target is the educational market, such as universities, museums, small art cinemas.

Rea: In a sense, youíve been a stepping-stone for some major filmmakers. I see early "seminal" films in your catalog by Jane Campion, Julie Dash and Sally Potter.

Zimmerman: In many ways, weíre like a laboratory. And thatís fine. Thatís really what we want to be. We want to be developing new talent. We want to give women the feeling, yes, they can make a film, even if theyíve never made one before.

Rea: Several of your films have enjoyed a high profile this year. "A Healthy Baby Girl" was recently on PBS. Girls Like Us won best documentary at Sundance. And you had two films on HBO, "Rachelís Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer" and "Calling The Ghosts."

Zimmerman: We are having an impact. This year we were represented at something like 10 to 15 festivals around the world, who actually did sections of the festival as a celebration of WMMís 25th anniversary. At Denver this year, our retrospective program was one of the first programs to sell out. So it really means there is an audience for this work.

Rea: As you build your distribution catalog, what kind of films do you look for?

Zimmerman: We look for films by women and about women. Films that are focused on women as central characters, that are neither sexist nor racist, that examine issues that donít get discussed in the mainstream media or from the perspective of women.

Rea: Letís talk about your production-assistance program, which is certainly a vital aspect of WMMís commitment to films by women getting made.

Zimmerman: What we do is act as an umbrella organization to filmmakers. We offer the use of our tax-exempt status, review their proposal and budget, give them funding suggestions, facilitate connections, offer workshops and seminars on production management, licensing, contracts, distribution and marketing.

Rea: What kind of projects do you accept?

Zimmerman: The films donít have to be about women, but to be frank, we do prioritize films that fit with our mission: basically films in which women are in key roles. The director has to be a woman, however the producer can be a man.

Rea: How about the other way around?

Zimmerman: Weíre not really interested in women producers working with male directors. We feel if thereís a woman producing the film, thatís a good way to ensure thereís a woman in the role as director.

Weíre looking for projects that are viable, that really have a chance to be made.

We look at the overall experience of the filmmakers, the advisors to the filmmakers,and the crew. Have they done their homework? Can they write a budget? Do they have access to funding? How good is the proposal, and will it attract investors?

Rea: You lost your NEA funding this year. Do you want to talk about that or is it still too painful?

Zimmerman: It started with a film in our production-assistance program, The Watermelon Woman , a film about a black lesbian made by a black lesbian, Cheryl Dunye. A congressman, who shall remain unnamed, wrote a six page letter to the then chair of NEA, Jane Alexander, saying her organization was funding pornographic films.

Rea: It appears congressman X was misled by the word ďsinĒ in some of the filmís titles.

Zimmerman: Seven Women, Seven Sins was a collaborative effort by directors like Chantal Akerman and Bette Gordon about the seven deadly sins. Sin City Diary was about prostitutes who work around a military base in the Philippines. Neither of these films are pornographic, but I feel we were used as a way to try to close down the NEA.

Rea: Are you optimistic about women in film?

Zimmerman: I am. When I first came to WMM in the early 80ís, I could count the women in Hollywood making films on two hands. Now, it would be impossible for me in the next hour to list all the women directors I know whose films are being made and released in Hollywood. Thatís an incredible accomplishment and makes me very optimistic.

On the other hand, I pick up Entertainment Weeklyís special issue on independent film, or the New York Times Magazineís issue on independent film, and there are no women! I find that very scary because I feel like weíre losing some of our ground. People think women have made it, that they donít need special help anymore.

Rea: Or theyíre sick of the sexist charge.

Zimmerman: The truth is, itís still more difficult for a woman to get a film made, whether weíre talking about getting money for the film, getting it into a festival, or getting it distributed. Thatís just the way it is.

You started out asking me whatís a ďchick filmĒ? I donít know what L.A. thinks it is, but I can only imagine. A gushy, mushy, sentimental film. What I do know is that until womenís stories are considered as important as menís stories, weíll continue to have labels like that.

"WMM is a national non-profit media arts organization which facilitates the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women."

For more information on WMMís distribution company or production - assistance program, you can e-mail or call (212) 925-0606

To order a film from WMMís distribution catalog, call (212)925-0606 ext. 360

And look for their upcoming web site!