TIFF ’20: Inclusion in film slowed by market gatekeepers

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A panel of filmmakers and financiers discussed how inclusion in film is a good business model, if only global investors could see past their own bias.

The film industry is becoming more inclusive, but gatekeepers in the international market continue to slow down progress, according to a recent panel at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I think bias has trumped data for a long time,” said Buffaloed director Tanya Wexler, on the struggle to secure international distribution or financing for diverse indie features. “We’ve had more films with a female central character making more money on the dollar for years… we’ve been dealing with bias overwashing some basic statistics.”

Wexler was joined by panelists Gerren Crochet, a film sales agent at Endeavor Content; Latinx writer/director/producer Henry Alberto; Amy Baer, president of L.A.-based content incubator Gidden Media and Women In Film; and TV scribe Dayna Lynne North, founder of Loud Sis Productions, in a discussion moderated by Marc Malkin, senior events and lifestyle editor at Variety.

The panel titled Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: How Change at the Finance Level Can Transform the Film Industry is part of the 10-day festival blending live and virtual events.

Racism in the international market has superseded basic capitalism, according to Crochet, who said financiers in Europe or Asia will still hesitate to invest in films based on the race of its lead actors. It’s bringing in a new generation of buyers at the earliest stages of financing that will make an impact on the industry.

“I see complete overlapping circles between good commerce and new voices and storytellers,” said Crochet, giving an example of cases where a Black-led thriller can win a box office weekend between major studio releases and profit. “They probably made the movie for $7 million and it will probably go on to make $30 million [at the box office] as well as ancillaries after that… that’s a good business to be in. I can tell you on good authority that no one is doing that model.”

Baer gave the example of the Aldis Hodge-led film Brian Banks, which she produced under her Gidden Media banner, as an example of the difficulties in finding international distribution. “It was seen as a marginalized person of colour, social justice story that doesn’t resonate with a larger audience, which was so inaccurate,” she said. “When we tested the film it was the highest testing film I’d ever worked on.”

North also brought up how the language used by the media can impact the perception of inclusion as a risk, where box office smashes such as Get Out and Black Panther are labeled as surprise hits compared to the box office wins of white-centred films. Baer added that inclusion among critics is needed as well, sharing experiences in the past where films with female or racially diverse leads were not as well received by white, male critics, making marketing a challenge – despite rave reviews from diverse critics.

The panel acknowledged that the film industry has made strides for improved inclusion over the last few years, but a lot of that has been driven by streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. “Streamers have become business-to-consumer pipelines,” said Baer. “You’re going to see legacy companies [such as WarnerMedia or Disney] make a diverse slate because they have to. Whether they distribute them on their streaming platforms or theatrically remains to be seen.”

That shift has also allowed fresh perspectives to enter the industry, and a move away from the “trauma porn” films that have been largely produced from the white, male lens. “It’s about making room for creatives like me to allow us to bring our perspective,” said Alberto, who is part of the Latinx and LGBTQ communities. “My work and my talent was always the same. Now I’ve been given permission to walk into the room.”

“For me, it’s about more tables. Not more seats at the same tables,” said North. “I’m excited about funds that are about giving money to producers of colour… We’re not going to get to parity or equity by encouraging the same people at the same tables to open their horizon a little more.”

Image: Unsplash