Founded in 2015 by actress/gender-equality advocate Geena Davis and ARC Entertainment executive Trevor Drinkwater, the Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) concluded its third annual week of, as it proudly says in its mission statement, “championing women and diverse voices in media.” The 2017 festival ran from May 2-7, with 70 films — episodic content, shorts, and feature-length dramas and documentaries — competing in several jury- and audience-awarded categories.
This year’s jury awards went to the adventure drama The Sun at Midnight, directed by Kirsten Carthew; the documentary Served Like a Girl, directed by Lysa Heslov; mother/daughter drama Let Me Go, directed by Polly Steele; and the family film Saving Sally, directed by Avid Liongoren.
The audience, meanwhile, recognized films including A Happening of Monumental Proportions, an ensemble comedy from established actress/first-time director Judy Greer, and Woman on Fire, a documentary about New York’s City’s only openly transgender fire fighter.
PANELS AND WORKSHOPS
There were also almost 20 panels and workshops, many of which featured celebrity participants, from William H. Macy and Meg Ryan to Aisha Tyler and Jane Seymour. As always, the annual “Geena and Friends” panel — during which Davis and a few famous female friends do gender-flipped table reads of scenes from iconic movies — was a particularly hot ticket. This year’s event, in which Davis, Ryan, Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz (both of Brooklyn Nine-Nine) read scenes from movies including Reservoir Dogs and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was standing room only.
Other popular events included the In Control of Her Own Destiny panel, in which Davis, Greer, Jewel, and others talked about making their way in Hollywood and life, and A Night of Style and Substance, a panel/fashion show organized by Essence magazine.
Other panels covered everything from the need for a wider range of media role models in STEM careers to how the companies that make kids’ products are working to make their brands more inclusive. Overall attendance numbers haven’t been finalized but were expected to be well above the 63,000 figure for 2016 (which itself was almost double the 37,000 attendees during the festival’s first year in 2015). Mingling with filmmakers, press, and panelists were thousands of local/non-Hollywood movie fans, including families.
So, why Bentonville? It’s the 10th-largest city in Arkansas, but chances are you haven’t heard of it unless you work for Walmart, which has its corporate headquarters there. The Walmart connection is the main reason for the festival’s northwest-Arkansas location; Walmart is a founding sponsor, and it has a huge presence every year. As does Coca-Cola, which is the other top-shelf sponsor (you can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without being offered a cold Coke or Dasani water).
The loud, proud corporate sponsorship might make some film lovers worry that the Bentonville Film Festival has already “sold out.” But happily, the BFF’s drive to draw attention to female filmmakers and those who support the need for increased diversity in Hollywood is passionate and genuine. In fact, in order to qualify for the festival, films must meet two or more diversity requirements in the specific roles of director, producer, writer, lead character, or cast/crew/extras.
Thanks to partnerships with the likes of Starz, Lifetime, and other media platforms, the festival also guarantees distribution deals to some of its winning films (and, ultimately, it helps almost 90 percent of competition films obtain distribution). That’s unusual — and very appealing to those competing, many of whom are women.
NETWORKING AND INSPIRATION
The festival is packed with artistic, creative, ambitious female directors, writers, actors, and producers representing films that portray a huge range of human experiences, both female and male. Most are shown in 90-person “Cinetransformers” — mobile theaters that are about the same size as a semi trailer (downtown Bentonville doesn’t have an official movie theater). You might sit next to Jewel at Letters From Baghdad, a documentary about Gertrude Bell or rub elbows with one of Davis’ costars/teammates from A League of Their Own (a reunion baseball game happens every year) on your way to catch a film.
This is the kind of positive, inspiring (in the best sense of the word) event that the Hollywood community should be doing all the time. It sounds like a cliche, but there’s really something for everyone. Kids and families are everywhere, there’s a dog-friendly pet village and an excellent art museum (Crystal Bridges), and you’re more likely to get a warm hello from actors and filmmakers than a cold shoulder. (Getting an interview with Simpsons veteran/In Search of Fellini screenwriter Nancy Cartwright was as easy as saying, “Oh, hi, Nancy!”)
For more information on programming and upcoming news, visit the Bentonville Film Festival website.