An Interview with Melissa Silverstein

It's no secret that the film industry is hardly hospitable to women. The Women's Media Center found that only six percent of the 100 top films of 2012 cast the sexes in equal numbers, and only 28.4% of those movies cast women in roles with speaking parts. Furthermore, men outnumbered women 5-to-1 in key behind the camera roles: women accounted for only 4.1 percent of directors, 12.2 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers of these films.

But Melissa Silverstein is trying to change that. She is the founder and editor of Women and Hollywood and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival. Silverstein recently took a break from preparing for the fifth annual festival to talk to the FBomb about why women are underrepresented in the film industry and what we can do about it.

It seems like, besides Athena, there are few other opportunities for female filmmakers’ work to be featured front and center at film festivals. What is the selection process like? What are your criteria for determining which filmmakers and which films make the cut?

Well firstly the interns (Barnard students) do a lot of research. The internship starts in June and then we talk about all the films that have happened since Athena ended and then they look at the lineup and talk about what we're looking for in terms of an Athena movie and it kind of takes a little of time and watching a couple of them to get what we're looking for. So we start with films that are about women, have a conversation and go from there. And then we put together lists of movies that have showed at film festivals and then we decide which ones we want to take a look at and then we make requests. Then we spend Summer and Fall watching movies and we also get a lot of movies submissions. I also spend my time going to festivals and talking to folks, looking for movies that we could potentially include.

Which female filmmakers should we be looking out for in particular?

I would say, looking at this year's features, you can't miss the career of Gina Prince-Bythewood, who tells stories of women, of women of color that are so moving and so beautifully crafted. So I am in awe of Gina Prince-Bythewood. I am also in awe of Jasmila Zbanic whose film For Those Who Can Tell No Tales we're showing. She's won the Golden Bear at Berlin before, she is a very experienced director. She's also a person who talks very passionately about how we need more opportunities for women and I saw For Those Who Can Tell No Tales a very long time ago and it never left me. And I think that's also one of the things we want to share with people at Athena, is movies that stay with you. Movies that you want people to experience because you've experienced it. That's why I think in some ways movies are never going to go away, that we're always going to have theatrical experiences even though we're going to watch more in our houses. Because you have that group experience, that group dynamic -- and film festivals are one of those places where you get that kind of sense of community.

Why do you think women are so particularly underrepresented in the film making? Is this industry just another example of how women are underrepresented in fields across the board, or do you think there is a unique dynamic in the entertainment industry?

Well I think there's something specifically unique about directing. I don't necessarily think that somebody had a meeting and said "Let's not let women direct" but I think what has happened over time is that women's stories aren't valued the same way as men's stories. So there's this decades long conversation where we're basically invisible. If you look historically at the film business there were many decades where women's stories and women actresses were as powerful if not more powerful than the men. So this is kind of a new thing in our business. Now there's always been a dearth of women directors. All of those great movies that were made in the 50s and 40s, they were never directed by women. But I think about the 1970s and 1980s and you look at Norma Rae and Silkwood -- these are amazing stories of strong women leaders and they're directed by men. I think that over the last decade or so we've really gotten used to the fact that women's stories are not as valid and it just perpetuates itself.

You’ve written before about how research shows women are the majority of moviegoers. How is it even possible, given this factual information, that film industry execs still promote male-produced, male-centric films?

If you believe business can be made by movies that are targeted at 15-year-old boys when none of the data supports that business implication, you have to take a moment and ask "What's the narrative here? Why does this persist?" The data comes from the MPAA, which is their lobbying group. But this is what we try to do at Athena -- interrupt the narrative. Interrupt the narrative that women are not successful, interrupt the narrative that there are enough women directors, interrupt that women's stories don't count. That's what we try to do and that's what you have to do.

You do such great work at Women and Hollywood and with the Athena Film Festival to augment women’s roles in this industry and raise awareness about their under-representation. Do you have other projects or goals in mind to achieve this?

I can't even think of another project. Women and Hollywood and the Athena Film Festival are like three jobs, so I just try to do my piece of this conversation and work a very small shop: Athena is a very small film festival, Women and Hollywood is a very small shop. We try to put as much content as we can out there to stimulate the conversation and get people to think about it and to provide those role models that are out there as much as we possibly can. Anything that comes after that is gravy. We want to change the world.

What advice would you give teens looking to get into the film industry?

I would say you have to have a story to tell. One of the things is just because you can pick up a camera and make a movie doesn't mean you should. You really need to have a story to tell, you have to have that burning desire in your gut to be a storyteller because this is a very hard business for men and for women, but harder for women. If you don't have that burning desire in you to tell stories then it's probably not the right business for you. And you need to work your ass off and do not expect anybody to give you anything. You have to work for everything. Talk to everyone and be humble and be open and suck every last bit of information up from people.

Any final thoughts?

I think that the FBomb audience is amazing young women who are about trying to be a part of the difference, and that's what we all want to do. And so I applaud all the work you do and I just want you to think about the fact that this is fun. These movies are fun to watch. This is not hard work in terms of going into movies and having these conversations -- you should enjoy it. Going to movies should be something that you love to do and we want women to love that, too, because they want to see themselves. I want people to want to go to the movies. I don't want people to be like "I'm not going to the movies because everybody's blowing up or everybody's getting shot." There are a multitude of stories out there that are dying to be told and we just need to create that opening.

For more information about the Athena Film Festival, visit the website here.

More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Media
More articles by Tag: News, Social media, Film, Television



Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.