Alliance of Women Film Journalists members celebrate big achievements in 2015 – if only there were more women film critics to celebrate

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Alliance of Women Film Journalist member Govindini Murty, right, and Rachel Newell have completed their women-led WWII sci-fi short film, "UFO Diary," featured in the January issue of American Cinematographer. Photo provided

Alliance of Women Film Journalist member Govindini Murty, right, and Rachel Newell have completed their women-led WWII sci-fi short film, “UFO Diary,” featured in the January issue of American Cinematographer. Photo provided

From winning state awards to completing women-led short films, members of the Alliance of Women Film Journalist marked an array of major milestones in 2015:

Maitland McDonagh this year republished three vintage gay novels through her company, 120 Days Books: the double volume Vampire’s Kiss and Gay Vampire and the standalone A Gay Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; each includes her own original critical essay situating the specific titles within their historical, political and literary context. Both books are available on Amazon in print and Kindle editions.

McDonagh was interviewed for Mike Sargent’s upcoming Bad Boys – A Documentary, “an in-depth, investigative film that examines why women, and society in general, are in love with ‘bad boys’ throughout history,” discussing vampires as the ultimate in alluringly dangerous lovers in literature and film, from Thomas Prescott Prest’s 19th-century penny dreadful Varney the Vampire to the Twilight movies.

Plus, she wrote the introduction to Hernan Moyano’s Manuel de Cine Degenero, a Spanish-language book by about Latin American horror films, and a new introduction for the upcoming first Italian-language edition of her own Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. She created film-related content for AMC-TV’s website, including posts about unintentionally homoerotic films, horror’s reigning “final girls,” diverse representation of gay and lesbian characters and overlooked aspects of horror classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. And she has been co-hosting episodes of Mike White’s podcast The Projection Booth, examining films ranging from the original Get Carter to Caligula.

Susan Granger, whose celebrity interviews, reviews and articles have been published in Redbook, Playboy, The New York Times and many other publications, was focused in 2015 on the publication of her upcoming book, 150 Timeless Movies. A compilation of her movie reviews, it is scheduled for publication later this year by Hannacroix Creek Books, Inc.

Martha Baker celebrated in 2015 her 40th year of reviewing films in St. Louis, Mo. (In March, she will begin year 41.) She’s contributed reviews to the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, PieceWork magazine, among other publications. For the past 24 years, she’s done reviews at KDHX radio.

Also in the St. Louis area, Sandra Olmsted passed her oral and written exams for her Ph.D. and has been digging in for her dissertation completion by summer, if not before. While furthering her education, she was also producing and editing packages for a local TV station, High Education Channel (HEC), and continuing to write reviews for The Independent News and FloValley News.

Karen Martin, an associate editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper based in Little Rock, served on the AWFJ jury for Best Female-Directed Documentary at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia, Canada. She’s also a member of the screening committee at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival that takes place annually in Hot Springs, Ark., and a voting member in the annual awards competition of the Southeastern Film Critics Association.

Carol Cling of the Las Vegas Review-Journal won the Nevada State Press Association’s 2015 award for best entertainment writing. Her entries included “A silver-screen love affair with the Silver State,” an overview of made-in-Nevada movies, from The Iron Horse and The Misfits to Ocean’s Eleven and Casino. (And, speaking of Casino, she wrote a 20th-anniversary account of Martin Scorsese’s mob chronicle in November, with comments from, among others, screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi and Las Vegas locals who worked on the movie.)

Jennifer Merin‘s role as movie critic for Women’s eNews expanded from a monthly to a weekly column, and she organized AWFJ juries to present EDA Awards to honor women filmmakers at IDFA, Whistler Film Festival, St Louis International Film Festival and Salem Film Fest. She also served independently as a juror at Salem Film Fest and at Kerry Film Festival. She established The Female Gaze Forum as a platform for the discussion of disparity issues faced by women film critics, as well as women working in the film industry in front of and behind the cameras.

- For my part, I won the Bill Crawford Memorial Media in the Arts Award last month at the 40th Annual Oklahoma Governor’s Arts Awards for Excellence in the Arts in recognition of more than a dozen years of writing about film, music, theater and the visual and performing arts for the statewide newspaper, The Oklahoman, our website, NewsOK, and my NewsOK entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog. The other award recipients honored by Gov. Mary Fallin at this year’s ceremony ranged from Pop Art pioneer Ed Ruscha (who grew up in Oklahoma City) to the tiny Guymon Community Theatre in the Oklahoma panhandle.

This is just a sampling of the achievements AWFJ’s dozens of members across the United States, Canada and the U.K. accomplished in 2015. It’s a varied and impressive highlight reel that shows the ways our membership is contributing to the diversity of film criticism, film journalism and even the medium of film itself.

Female film critics may have differing perspectives on movies about female characters, like Disney/Pixar's "Brave," than the male movie critics that dominate the industry. Disney/Pixar photo

Female film critics may have differing perspectives on movies about female characters, like Disney/Pixar’s “Brave,” than the male movie critics that dominate the industry. Disney/Pixar photo

Searching for female critics

Clearly, there are plenty of qualified women film journalists available – not necessarily just in the AWFJ ranks – which makes the underrepresentation of female film critics even more baffling, troubling and infuriating. AWFJ members are raising the volume on the discussion about disparity, and calling for equal opportunity for women and people of color in the field of film journalism.

“Film criticism is in the exact same position as late-night talk-show hosts,” B. Ruby Rich, UC Santa Cruz professor of film and digital media, tells Thelma Adams for a recent Variety story. “The hiring of Stephanie Zacharek at Time is positive. Manohla Dargis reviews for the New York Times and Ann Hornaday is at the Washington Post. And, yet, female critics who barely got a toe-hold anyway are often the last hired, first fired.”

Adams cites one-time heavyweight professional critics Janet Maslin, Carrie Rickey, Caryn James, Leah Rozen, Eleanor Ringel, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Susan Wloszczyna, Claudia Puig, Christy Lemire, Lisa Kennedy and Katherine Monk as among those who have either taken a buyout or been shifted from their high-profile perch. She reports that most are still writing, but their perspectives are harder to find as they navigate the passage into the digital seas and, in many cases, the loss of salary and benefits.

Martha Lauzen, executive director of Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, has been tracking the profession for years, and like so many other statistics she has uncovered about the film industry in recent years, the numbers are grim.

“Because men make up the vast majority of critics — 78% of the top critics appearing on the Rotten Tomatoes website in spring 2013 were male — films with male directors and/or writers receive greater exposure from critics,” Lauzen, an AWFJ Board of Advisors Member, tells Variety.

“In 2013, 78% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes were male and 22% were female. I repeated the study at the beginning of 2015 and the numbers were the same.”

The reason we need more female film critics is the same as the reason we need more women directors, screenwriters and producers: Without them, more than half the population is not fairly and properly represented in the movies Hollywood makes, which are a powerful and influential art form and global export.

I’m reminded of the critical response to the 2012 Disney/Pixar film Brave and how many male critics saw it as a conventional fairy tale, one that didn’t push the envelope enough or break much new ground. However, many female critics, including me, were happy to see a big-budget animated feature that thoughtfully handled a complex mother-daughter relationship. And we were even more thrilled to see a girl-centric fairy tale that didn’t ultimately require that girl to enter into a romantic relationship, which I had literally never seen before in a big-screen animated fairy tale. If you’re not a woman, it’s a little harder to see and appreciate the rarity of these things – remember, Brave was the 13th Pixar feature and the first to boast a female protagonist – which is precisely why we need more female film critics.

Or as Girlfight director Karyn Kusama puts it in Variety, “To me it’s the question of female directors, writers, cinematographers, designers, editors, actors and critics. If you have substantially fewer of them in the world, then we’re missing a crucial human perspective, and the world suffers for it.”

Film industry’s gender issues to stay in focus in New Year

Hollywood’s gender issues were a huge, ongoing story in 2015, and Deadline.com’s David Robb is predicting they will be an even bigger story this year.

He reports the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is expected to come down hard on the industry’s hiring practices once it concludes a sweeping investigation into the underemployment of female film and TV directors. If the EEOC sues the industry – and he reports that there’s a good chance it will – it’s going to be one of the biggest class action cases ever to hit Hollywood.

The numbers are simply indefensible: He cites a recent Directors Guild of America report that found neither Disney nor Universal had hired a single female to direct any of their combined 53 live-action films in 2013 and 2014. (That’s not counting Disney’s Frozen, the animated smash that was co-directed by Jennifer Lee.) At Sony Pictures, only 2% of its films were directed by women. None of the other major studios had more than 6%.

So, the government has got its eye on the big studios and their big-budget fare. But others are eyeing other genres.

Laura Poitras won the best documentary feature Oscar in 2015 for "Citizenfour," but she's one of only two female filmmakers to win that Oscar in the past 20 years.

Laura Poitras won the best documentary feature Oscar in 2015 for “Citizenfour,” but she’s one of only two female filmmakers to win that Oscar in the past 20 years.

Influential entertainment lawyer Victoria Cook has started a Facebook dialogue taking up the cause of women documentary filmmakers. Awards season is in full swing, and she notes that in the past 20 years, only one female director (Laura Poitras, Citizenfour) and one female co-director (Zana Briski, Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids) have won in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars.

“There is a misperception that the documentary category is more inclusive, less sexist and less racist than the other categories,” Cook writes. “Part of the misconception might be due to the fact that documentaries themselves often tell the stories of the underrepresented and involve issues of social justice which may make it feel like it is a more inclusive category but does not actually make it so.”

She adds, “In a business where winning an Oscar can mean being paid higher fees on the next film, having more creative control, and being given the ability to cross over into directing fiction or commercials (or electing not to because with an Oscar the career of documentary filmmaking itself becomes more sustainable), winnowing down the category to 90% white men is not only outrageous because I know in my bones that in the last 20 years many of the best documentaries have been directed by women, but it once again serves as a gatekeeper to stopping women directors from having bigger and more profitable careers.”

Clearly, just because it’s 2016 doesn’t mean that we don’t have much work to do on multiple fronts to ensure that women are fairly represented in film, and in film criticism.

Here’s to a successful New Year striving for those goals!

-BAM

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