Local Interview: Geena Davis on the Bentonville Film Festival

Geena Davis and Courtney Lawless

Guest post by Courtney Velasquez Lawless

Celebrity sightings happen on a regular basis in New York and Los Angeles.

bffIn Arkansas, they happen much less often and everyone takes notice.  This week, I got to meet Geena Davis when she came to town to announce the 2016 Bentonville Film Festival.

We talked about the Festival, but also about being a mom, raising a daughter, and the overall topic of  diversity in media.

Geena, stunning in person, looked great in the cutest white dress with huge pink watercolor flowers on it. She spoke with such eloquence and grace.

She’s a smart lady! Years ago while watching children’s programs with her young daughter, Davis noticed a disproportionately large ratio of male characters to female characters. As an actor in Hollywood, she knew fewer quality roles for women existed than for men, but watching shows with her daughter helped her realize the scale of the diversity problem.

“I started watching things specifically made for kids with her and decided I had to do something about it,” said Davis. “I didn’t realize that kids’ media was so bereft of female presence.”

After doing some basic research on her own, she sponsored a formal inquiry into the topic of gender diversity in media, eventually founding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007. In studies that cover 20 years worth of programming, the research discovered that nearly 3 male characters existed for every 1 female character in film and TV. Crowd scenes contained 83% men and only 17% women.

After 9 years of advocating for diversity, Davis knows she has made an impact on the industry. The Institute sent a follow-up survey to everyone in the film and television industry who has heard her presentations on gender diversity and found that 63% of respondents said it impacted 2 or more of their projects. Forty-one percent said it affected 4 or more of their projects.

She encourages her peers to advocate for change during their productions when the opportunity presents itself. They can have a tremendous impact by making simple suggestions that don’t have to offend anyone or ruffle any feathers.

“They can say, ‘I’m the star of this movie. When I give that speech tomorrow, can we make sure the crowd is half female? Or I’m the President, can half of my cabinet be female? What do you think if my landlord or my boss or best friend was a women instead of a man or a person of color? Nine times out of ten they’ll say ‘Why not? That’s a great idea.’ We have a lot of power that we don’t wield.”

The Bentonville Film Festival plays a key role in Davis’ work to create opportunities for women and minorities, not only in film but to empower people to become whatever they want in life.

“I have been an advocate for women for most of my adult life,” she said. “The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is dedicated to improving the representation in gender and diversity of talent, filmmakers, and business leaders by growing awareness through research, education and advocacy. The Bentonville Film Festival is a critical component of how we can directly impact the quantity and quality of females and minorities on screen and behind-the scenes.”

The 2016 Bentonville Film Festival will be held May 3-8 in Bentonville, Arkansas. You can keep up with the all the latest Festival news on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Courtney Velasquez Lawless works at Collective Bias and blogs at DetroitMommies.com and DiscoveringArkansas.com. She is an avid cyclist, philanthropist and lover of the art and culture in her home town of Bentonville, AR.