AFM (Finally) Gets Woke With Offering of Diverse, Female-Led Films

Julianne Moore in After the Wedding - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Cornerstone Films

As the American Film Market kicks off Wednesday — about a year after the #MeToo movement shook up the indie patriarchy (and led to the collapse of The Weinstein Co.) — projects featuring female and nonwhite leads are among the hottest titles on offer.

Since its launch in 1981, the American Film Market has been dominated by the kind of movies that defined the era: action films with bulging pecs and crashing cars; buddy comedies featuring mismatched cops or wacky animals; horror movies with tubs of gratuitous gore — movies made for, and almost entirely made by, men.

And a certain macho, hetero, white Western version of men at that.

But shifts in the indie film business, and the culture at large, have pushed AFM in a more female, and decidedly diverse, direction.

As AFM kicks off Wednesday — about a year after the #MeToo movement shook up the indie patriarchy (and led to the collapse of The Weinstein Co.) — projects featuring female and nonwhite leads are among the hottest titles on offer.

Endeavor Content and FilmNation are debuting the Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias: A Life on the Road, with Julie Taymor (Frida) directing Julianne Moore as the crusading American feminist and fellow Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in negotiations to play a younger version of the activist icon. Endeavor Content and Cornerstone Films have Moore and Michelle Williams in After the Wedding, an English-language remake of Susanne Bier's Danish drama that gender flips the two lead characters, played in the original by Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgard. Voltage Pictures has Jessica Chastain as a black-ops mercenary in the action thriller Eve. And Pathe has put Keira Knightley and Guga Mbatha-Raw in the Philippa Lowthorpe-directed Misbehaviour, a drama focused on the targeting of the 1970s Miss World competition by the then-nascent Women’s Liberation Movement.

“You're seeing, in packaging of films and in presales, a lot more female-focused or female-led projects,” says one Endeavor Content exec. “We are seeing a string of female action films, female revenge stories. Even foreign buyers, which tend to be more conservative or risk-adverse, are seeing success with movies like [Toni Collette-starrer] Hereditary with strong female stories.”

Brian O'Shea of The Exchange says the industry has become “woke” to the financial benefit of diversity when it comes to marketing, especially for theatrical releases. In the new indie reality, in which home entertainment revenue can be slim to nonexistent, reaching an audience beyond white men is essential.

“There's still value in the old-style action movies, but you can't capture the 19- to 25-year-olds with the new Jean-Claude Van Damme film,” says O'Shea. “You need talent that is relevant to the younger generation and that, increasingly, is more diverse and more female. It's become commercially important because distributors want diversity.”

While a more progressive attitude among buyers could account for some of this, AFM veteran Stuart Ford of AGC Studios points instead to the gap between increasing demand for content and the difficulty in securing talent from the traditional A-list, many of whom are locked into major studio franchises or busy shooting high-end TV series.

“This opens up opportunities for more diverse casts and talent,” Ford says. “The foreign markets are behind the curve a bit, but they are catching up.”

Perhaps no single project at AFM better exemplifies this shift than Red Sonja, Bryan Singer's comic book adaptation about a fierce female warrior from Millennium, a company whose testosterone-driven action films — Olympus Has Fallen, The Expendables, et al. — have come to epitomize AFM's macho swagger.

“To be able to bring a female-driven action film in today's market is great, because you get to bring in your male-driven action audience and at the same time get to open it up a bit,” says Millennium president Jeffrey Greenstein, who adds that the new Red Sonja won't be a retread of Brigitte Nielsen's busty male-fantasy figure in the original 1985 film.

“We need Red Sonja to become a feminist icon that is classy, that is seeking justice in the world,” Greenstein adds, “where fathers can be proud of having their daughters dress up as Red Sonja for Halloween.” 

A version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Oct. 31 daily issue at the American Film Market.