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Last year, actor-producer Katherine Waddell and writer-director Em Johnson set up First Bloom Films, an independent production company with a clear social objective: to increase the participation of women in the movie business, in front of and behind the camera.
A year on and First Bloom arrives at the 2021 American Film Market with its debut production — Balloon Animal, a coming-of-age tale set in a circus, which Johnson wrote and directed — and fresh off a deal with Emagine Content, a production and management firm that shares First Bloom’s corporate goals of producing and representing diverse stories and content of artists from different backgrounds.
As the AFM kicked off this week, Waddell and Johnson took time to jointly answer (via email) a few questions from The Hollywood Reporter about representation, empowerment and what’s next for First Bloom.
Since you launched First Bloom, there has been a lot of talk about increasing female representation in the film industry. How would you assess the progress so far? Where have there been improvements, what are the areas where you think improvement is most desperately needed?
There’s lots of talk about female representation in Hollywood, and everyone wants to be a part of changing the status quo. Unfortunately, a majority of this talk is shallow or misguided. Though networks, studios and executives constantly talk about bringing more women into the process, it’s rarely done. We are still operating at a gross disadvantage in all aspects of the film industry.
While percentages are rising each year, they only measure major leadership roles, such as writers, directors and producers. We need to improve and normalize women in all production positions. So, yes, while it’s great these conversations are starting to be had, there is still a long way to go in our opinion, and that’s exactly why we started First Bloom Films. We try our best on any project we’re a part of to push women to the forefront of its storytelling, both behind and in front of the camera, creating a more diverse film set and work environment.
How has the global explosion in production, driven by the streaming platforms, impacted the situation of female directors and female creatives in the industry?
More films, TV shows — anything really — means more opportunities for work. More than that though is that growing indie companies, like ours, can provide a safe space for female creatives in the world to get more experience. It can be difficult to find women creators who have had the opportunity to really grow their repertoire and résumé.
By having more productions, there are more opportunities for women to enter the film scene and finally become competitive. I think as mentioned above, the “talks” about creating diverse sets or being more inclusive in film can’t just be that — it has to be a concrete effort to either hire women or foster their growing talent. Eventually, we would love to implement an internship or shadowing-type aspect within our company so that we can do just that — invite women to learn from us directly, in real time, on movies we’re making.
How will your deal with Emagine impact First Bloom, your operations and your goals?
Emagine and First Bloom share similar ideologies. One of the strongest components that brought us together was the similarity in values and approach to the filmmaking process. We both want to see an inclusive future for the film industry and normalize constant representation of underrepresented groups. Emagine can help our outreach and serve as a strong backbone for our budding company. Joining with like-minded individuals is how change happens and pushes progress forward.
Tell me about Balloon Animal: how did the project come about, what kind of film is it, how was the production different under First Bloom than it would have been under a more conventional company?
Balloon Animal is First Bloom’s first full production. Since it was our debut film, we, as a company, got to set the standard for how we want all of our productions to be run in the future and really showcase how we believe First Bloom Films can change the industry, starting from the very beginning of our launch. And so during the hiring process, we emphasized diversity, inclusion and representation and feel we were successful in all of that.
Furthermore, we take considerable care and are dedicated to fostering a work environment that is based on kindness, compassion and empathy. Even months later, we still have individuals who worked on the production approaching us to express how grateful they were to be on such a diverse and positive set, and how the work culture was a more enjoyable experience than they were used to because of it. The fact that we were able to hire so diversely as a low-budget, indie film only further proves these studios and networks are more than capable of improving their hiring process if they actually wanted to.
As for Balloon Animal itself, it’s a coming-of-age drama focused on a girl in her mid-20s who’s looking for an escape from her family’s circus to lead a more independent life. It actually all came about because we loved the visual of balloon animals and decided to run with it. Over the course of 2018 and 2019, we built the script, sent it out to investors and friends in the industry, put together a pitch deck, leading to us finally being able to fund it. Granted, the pandemic put a stop to all things for months, but we were luckily able to shoot it this past March. Currently, we are waiting to hear back from film festivals, but we’ve garnered some attention from North American distribution companies already and different press outlets. We’re looking forward to its release in 2022!
What can you tell me about your other projects in development?
Well, we’ve got quite a selection in development currently! Our main focus, which we’ve yet to talk about in interviews, is Kismet. It’s a thriller about a girl who joins a multilevel marketing company and works her way to the top, but ends up losing her sanity as she does it. It’s vibrantly visual and a bit chaotic, but a great character study nonetheless.
We also have two other projects that are moving forward: Frei, a Shpiel production with First Bloom Films in association, which is a dramatic story following two Hasidic teens in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as they take a step outside their community, leading them through a crisis of faith and rebellion. And then Meninos, a First Bloom Films production, which is a dramatic, coming-of-age story focusing on the sexual identity of three young men in their conservative country of Brazil.
We are beyond excited to get these three films into production and continue to share our identity as a film company with the world at large.
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