Sundance-winner Amy Adrion: Spielberg's Oscars plan will shut out independent films
'Half the Picture' director also has a simple solution to Hollywood's gender imbalance: hire women
Documentary-maker Amy Adrion was in the UAE this week for screenings of her Sundance #WhatNext Award-winning documentary Half the Picture. The film features interviews with some of Hollywood’s leading female directors, including Selma’s Ava DuVernay, Girls’ Lena Dunham and American Psycho’s Mary Harron, as they discuss their experiences in Hollywood from the perspective of women and women of colour in the monolithic, white, male world of Tinseltown.
The visit was well-timed as it follows Steven Spielberg’s announcement – that ultimate symbol of the Hollywood white, male hierarchy – that he plans to tackle Netflix, a leading employer of female and ethnic minority directors, head on with the Academy Awards’ board of governors in the hope of excluding it from future Oscars success.
Spielberg is 'out of touch'
I ask Adrion what she makes of Spielberg’s plans. “I’m a firm believer in the power of a film in a cinema, but not many women and people of colour get those theatrical releases, period,” she explains. “So you have to be in support of any institution that gives opportunity for those creative people to have their stories told.”
Among Spielberg’s plans for future Oscars is a desire to lengthen the cinema run required for an individual film to qualify. Adrion, in common with many other indie directors, thinks this is a terrible idea. “I hear they’re talking about a four-week release in theatres? That shuts out so many small films,” she says. “Theatre releases cost so much money, then you need advertising spend for anyone to even know your film is out there. God bless Steven Spielberg, and I love his work, but I think he’s pretty out of touch with the realities of indie filmmaking and distribution.”
Adrion levels a similar accusation at The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, a key ally in Spielberg’s anti-Netflix campaign, and also one of a group of directors who form a powerful lobby against digital filmmaking in favour of good, old-fashioned, 35mm film. “It’s the same with Nolan. ‘Shoot on film,’ he says. Well, you’re Christopher Nolan, you can do that. Most of us are shooting on whatever we can beg, borrow or get our hands on.”
Adrion’s film certainly lays bare some fascinating, and shocking stories of abuse of power – Wayne’s World and The Decline of Western Civilization’s Penelope Spheeris’ ascerbic tales of male domination are a particular delight, if only for the telling, rather than the tale.
But panels on women in cinema – which the movie is, in a sense, an on-screen version of – pop up at every film festival. So can much actual change be brought about by a group of women sharing their experiences to an already converted festival audience? “These things can encourage and highlight issues and build communities, but do they actually activate change? The only thing that does that is hiring women,” Adrion says.
“There’s a lot of time, and energy, and money, spent by studios to have shadowing programmes and initiatives and saying ‘how can we attack this problem?’ Well I can tell you how to attack the problem for free – just hire more women!”
The fear of speaking out
One of the key takeaways from the film and from talking to Adrion is that for many years, women in Hollywood have been afraid to speak publicly about the industry’s inherent sexism for fear of the damage it may do to their careers. The film clearly shows that’s beginning to change, though it has not been without backlash of its own.
Adrion gives the example of one filmmaker who criticises a particular white, male film critic in the doc. When the film was set to premiere at Sundance, the very critic who is called out in the movie, is assigned to review it by his publication. The man isn’t mentioned by name (all the interview subjects in the film are remarkably civil and magnanimously do not name any names), but would clearly know who the story was about. When the next issue of his publication came out? No review.
That’s an unfortunate story of personal issues affecting professional conduct, but couldn’t honestly be put down specifically to sexism – the criticism was over a perceived, unfair review, not a matter of inappropriate behaviour, and a reviewer could just as easily have taken exception if a male director had publicly questioned his judgement on screen.
Nonetheless, I wonder if any of the directors Adrion approached to appear in the film declined through fear of backlash. “Well, they wouldn’t tell me, would they?” Adrion reasonably asserts. “I did approach people who I wish would have been in the film that weren’t in the end. In fact, everyone in the film, I had some personal connection to, even if just as a friend of a friend of a friend.”
Adrion adds that she is immensely grateful to all the women who did speak out in her film, and says, with women at the very top of their game now speaking out, things are finally changing. She has particular respect for one A-lister’s recent actions, although this star wasn’t in her movie.
“Look at Natalie Portman at the Golden Globes when she said ‘And here are the all-male nominees,’” she says. “I loved that. When people see that they think, ‘If she can say that in a room full of people who hire her for movies, I can speak up, too.’ That’s really exciting to see, this movement of women gaining encouragement and power and confidence from one another."
Updated: March 6, 2019 04:59 PM