SPOTLIGHT February 2019: Kirsten Schaffer, Executive Director, Women In Film Los Angeles

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AWFJ’s February SPOTLIGHT illuminates the career and accomplishments of one of the most inspiring women making a difference in Hollywood. Kirsten Schaffer, Executive Director of Women in Film: Los Angeles, has been a leader in the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, and has been in the forefront of the fight for parity and safe working environments for women in the film industry through the Weinstein and other abuse scandals. Kirsten has been spearheading new projects since she joined WIF: LA in 2015, and augmenting those already in place since the premiere advocacy organization was founded in 1973 by Tichi Wilkerson Kassell, former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter.

While 2018 was a truly stellar year for female filmmakers, with movies like Debra Granick’s Leave No Trace, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me, and Chloe Zhao’s The Rider being celebrated by critics and movie lovers alike. these superb films still top a long list of movies whose female helmers have been overlooked by The Academy, the Director’s Guild, and other awards that often lead to a career boost for directors.

It may be true that no female directors were nominated for Oscars, but Schaffer is quick to point out that more women were nominated than in any other year, with 63 nominations. She says the problem is bigger than the Oscars. “I’m very excited for the women that were nominated but disappointed that there weren’t any female directors nominated in the Oscars, as well as a number of other awards. It’s a systemic problem, it’s not an Academy problem, and it just means we have to double down on our work. This year there were four or five films directed by women that were real contenders in the awards race, and you can’t say that every year. We are hoping some of them win at the Spirit Awards. Also there are more men of color nominated this year, and when we think about diversity and inclusion, that is part of our joint story, so we’re happy to see that.”

There is much more work to do It’s gratifying to know, then, that we have insightful, creative advocates committed to doing that work. For women who continue to struggle to be seen, respected, and paid fairly in Hollywood, as well as for those who wish to see better representation of themselves onscreen, what better definition could there be for a real life “she”ro?

CHANGING THR CULTURE

As a child of two teachers growing up in Tacoma Park, Maryland, a close, extremely liberal suburb of Washington DC., (Tacoma Park has been a “nuclear-free zone” for way longer than it was in fashion for a neighborhood to declare itself as such), near museums and independent movie theaters, Schaffer was exposed to art and culture early on. The stepmother of a childhood friend from the Czech Republic constantly took her and her friends to see foreign films. When she could rent her own, she became obsessed with movies like The Gods Must Be Crazy, Brother From Another Planet, Harold and Maude, and the French film Diva, watching them repeatedly.

Schaffer also had a passion for doing good, and started volunteering for nonprofits at a very young age. She got involved with the National Organization for Women and other charities, and created an environmental group at her high school. Though she first went to college in the hopes of becoming an environmental educator, she fell in love with the film program, and started making movies and curating film festivals. She says, “I loved that work, because as much as political activism is an important part of getting laws and policies changed, it is cultural change that often comes first. If you can change the hearts and minds of the people, then the laws follow. When you watch a narrative film, and you fall in love with those characters, and they become familiar to you and like family. That emotional resonance creates empathy and starts to shift the mindset.”

CURATION AND COMMUNITY BUILDING

Her love of curation led to a job in Seattle with the nonprofit Three Dollar Bill Cinema, which promotes queer cinema, developing the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, now the largest festival of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. From there, she moved to LA to become Director of Programming for Outfest, and over her 14 years there, ultimately becoming Executive Director. Of the move, Schaffer says, “I loved being a curator watching stacks and stacks of films to find those hidden gems. I didn’t have any aspirations to be executive director, then the opportunity to be the executive director arose and I realized there was so much more I could do.”

It was during her tenure that she shepherded a number of new programs, including The Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, the Fusion LGBT People of Color Film Festival and OutSet, the Young Filmmakers Project, and gained training and learned valuable lessons that would prove invaluable when she moved to Women in Film. When asked for an example, she said, “I like to solve problems and build community. Years ago Outfest had a robust community collaborator program that brought together a cross section of non-film-related organizations, each one supporting an individual film, but not interacting with each other. So the question was how to use the festival as a community building platform? We sat down with our community partners to brainstorm that, and came up with FUSION, the LGBT People of Color Film Festival. It seems a bit outdated now, but at the time the programs and the audiences tended to be homogenous and our goal was to be intersectional — and it worked. FUSION is thriving 14 years later.

NOTING THE GAPS

It was with her move to LA for Outfest, she began to really notice the gaps in representation for women working in the film industry. She saw her female filmmaker friends’ careers stall. There was a marked difference in how often they were hired and how quickly they rose to success, regardless of talent or received accolades. With the career trajectories of the women directors she was programming verses the male directors, the men were getting their second and third movies in a much faster rate than the women. When she was offered the job of executive director of Women in Film: LA, not only had her past experience prepared her, she was already deeply committed to their mission, and passionate about finding a way to solve the problems women in front of and behind the camera were continuing to face. Right before Schaffer joined WIF, they had begun a partnership with The Sundance Institute to better understand why women were falling out of the pipeline. These excellent films by women were going to Sundance and winning awards, why weren’t these filmmakers on the same career trajectory as their male counterparts? The research conducted by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, helped Sundance and WIF better understand the problem and move toward solutions.

REFRAME AND THE SEXUAL HARASSMENT HOTLINE

Along with 50 ambassadors, WIF and Sundance launched ReFrame with a well-researched plan to work together as an industry to achieve parity for women working in all areas of the screen industries. They also take advantage of allies in the industry and fans of television and film eager to help bring more balance to what is on their tv and theater screens.

Another program that has been initiated since Schaffer has been at Women in Film is something that is turning out to be essential to a safer, brighter future for women working in Hollywood. Says Schaffer, “When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, we started getting calls from our members. They would say they too had been abused or harassed on the job, and would ask where to turn to for help. We started realizing there weren’t many resources. That’s when we launched the WIF Sexual Harassment Helpline, which refers callers to pro-bono attorneys, therapists, and support groups. We hear over and over that having a place to call, having people to talk to, to help process the events, all those things are hugely important. They generate a sense of safety, because women can’t excel in their careers if they don’t feel safe. We will never really know the number of women that have left the industry because of something that has occurred on the job of super talented women who didn’t want to put up with an environment of harassment and abuse, but there has no doubt been a creative cost to the industry.”

THE NEED FOR DIVERSE VOICES

Schaffer believes, as do most female film critics, that more diverse voices in film journalism will help amplify the work women are doing in the industry. “It’s hugely important. An accomplished producer I know talks about the film she made directed by a woman coming out of Toronto Film Festival got panned by mostly male critics and it totally effected the distribution deal they got and the overall visibility and ultimately box office for the film. This is a huge issue. A couple of other entities are taking this on: Times Up has a critics initiative and Sundance has a new inclusion initiative, and Women in Film: LA is supporting those any way we can.”

WHY WE CHOSE HER:

Being a women in Hollywood, whether in front of or behind the camera, continues to be challenging. It takes amplification of those doing good work, identifying the problems and showing research that they exist, and helping the talented professionals who get lost or feel invisible even as less creative, less diverse voices are failing upwards. Not everyone is up to that task, nor can many people patiently, diplomatically find solutions that will lead to the equality in Hollywood deserved by not only women but all film fans. Kirsten Schaffer is one of the champions leading the charge. AWFJ is grateful Kirsten Schaffer is working for systemic change. Now that you know who she is, we’re sure you are, too. — Leslie Combemale

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.