Athena Film Festival Honorees Reveal Women Who Inspired Them

Rosie O'Donnell and Sheila Nevins at the Athena Film Festival - H 2015
Courtesy of Frank PR

'Beyond the Lights' director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Mandalay Pictures president Cathy Schulman also talked about the danger of not giving more attention to stories told from a female point of view.

Rosie O'Donnell, HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, Beyond the Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Mandalay Pictures president Cathy Schulman were among the powerful women in the entertainment industry who gathered at New York's Barnard College on Saturday night for the Athena Film Festival's annual awards.

The awards, which honor female members of the film industry for their leadership and creative accomplishments, were presented this year to Nevins, Prince-Bythewood, Schulman and Jodie Foster (who accepted her award on Thursday night and wasn't on hand on Saturday night because she was attending the Directors Guild Awards in L.A., where she was nominated for two awards).

The festival asked this year's winners to speak about a woman other than their mother who influenced them. O'Donnell wasn't one of the 2015 honorees but she received a swarm of media attention on the red carpet in the wake of Friday's news that she was leaving The View and had separated from her wife Michelle Rounds. Onstage, O'Donnell, who presented the President's Visionary Award to Nevins, expounded on her admiration for the woman whose name was attached to every documentary she loved.

"Who is this witch? I thought," O'Donnell said, adding that when she met Nevins in 1996, "it was love at first sight."

"She's the woman I look up to most in showbiz and even if she wasn't in showbiz, I would love her most of all because her heart is the biggest of anyone and she's got a geiger counter for truth that has never failed," she added. "There's no one I admire more creatively and just woman to woman."

Accepting her award, Nevins recalled the "bizarre" incident and unnamed woman who inspired her. She explained that her mother had part of her arm amputated below her elbow, due to a disease she had, and one day, when Nevins was a student at Barnard, her mother was with her on campus and was complaining about being hot. Nevins told her to undo the knot on her amputation and roll up her sleeve. Her mother did and a woman across the way asked Nevins to tell her mom to pull her sleeve down because she was eating.

"It was a turning point because I realized I wanted to tell stories about women who pulled up their sleeve, no matter what was underneath," Nevins said.

Earlier, fellow longtime female executive Cathy Schulman, who currently serves as the president of Mandalay Pictures, talked about the female studio heads who inspired her. Onstage and speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet prior to the awards ceremony, she praised former Orion Pictures executive Barbara Boyle, whom Schulman worked with at Sovereign Pictures. Boyle taught her to "never touch a piece of paper twice," Schulman said onstage.

"You can't take that thing that's the biggest problem and put it over here; you deal with it first," Schulman explained. "And that was the beginning of my journey to learning that I was about to devote my life to problem-solving." Boyle, Schulman said, also taught her to hire "people that make you look good."

"Hire the best, most important women that you possibly can and it will only be better for you. Never be intimidated or think that someone's going to take your job," she recalled, adding that Boyle also taught her to write congratulatory letters to people who've done amazing things you wish you could do yourself, something she says she does to this day.

"She also said that success is only when you fix something that is broken or make something that is bad good. So it set the standards high for me," Schulman added. Earlier, Schulman told THR that she also sees Sherry Lansing as both a friend and a mentor.

"Sherry has always had this amazing ability to make me feel good when things are really bad, and she really taught me that following every peak is a valley and every bad day is followed by a good one and to see things in terms of continuing," Schulman said.

In light of her discussion of female studio executives, THR asked Schulman for her thoughts on Amy Pascal's Sony exit.

"All I can say is I'm really disappointed that what happened is what happened and that she stepped down," she said. "I don't think I know enough about the internal politics there to understand what happened but whatever happened in my mind had to do with internal politics because I feel like that's such a close, important, long-lasting family there that there must've been a way to support her through that. I don't know who wanted what or how it happened, but she's a great studio head and I'm really sad to see her step down. But she'll do great things as a producer."

Onstage, Schulman said that she also learned from the man who could potentially succeed Pascal, Tom Rothman, who taught her to never burn bridges.

The president of Women in Film and Oscar-winning producer of films like Crash, The Illusionist and Bernie also talked about the importance of creating media not only by and for women but also by women and for girls.

"I believe that the media that we create is what we learn from," she said. "Media is the number one way that we learn today and if we don't include half of our population, we are going to be making choices about choosing our governments and our wars and our education systems and everything else in a lopsided way."

Fellow honoree Gina Prince-Bythewood talked about how she thought it was "dangerous" that no women were nominated in the directing or writing categories at the Oscars and that none of this year's best picture nominees had a female protagonist.

At the beginning of her speech, Schulman said she was only going to talk a little bit about women that inspired her, because, "I ultimately feel that if there had been more women to do that, maybe this wouldn't have been so hard." And in closing she said that sometimes you have to be a leader for yourself.

"What I learned is there are only so many people you can look up to say show me the way, but sometimes you have to pave the way and that's what I'm trying to do," she said.

Prince-Bythewood is also trying to pave the way for other women, telling THR that she feels it's the responsibility of her and other female writer-directors who've broken through "to reach back and find that new talent," explaining that she reads scripts and goes to screenings at film schools and festivals to find that young talent and then tries to help them push their work to the next level by introducing them to the right people.

The director of Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights said that sort of mentoring is what actress-writer-director Kasi Lemmons did for her.

Onstage, Prince-Bythewood talked in great detail about another mentor, A Different World writer-producer Susan Fales-Hill who presented her with her award and whom Prince-Bythewood said she "wanted to be."

"To go in everyday and see Susan running it, it became normal to me that a black woman could run something like that," the writer-director said.

After recalling how, as a 22-year-old writer's apprentice on A Different World, she would often respond to a joke or story that she didn't like with, "no that doesn't work," Prince-Bythewood said Fales-Hill taught her how to better communicate with people.

"She pulled me into her office very early on and schooled me [about] diplomacy and how not to talk to writers and if you're going to criticize someone's joke then you better have a better one to pitch. Instead of firing me, she did that," she said. "It was everything to me to be able to learn from you as a writer and as a woman and I've never forgotten what you taught me or the example that you set, and I hope that I carry it on my sets in terms of respecting everyone. That a good idea can come from anyone, even the 22-year-old who's just spewing whatever comes into her head."

At this year's ceremony, Athena Film Festival co-founder Melissa Silverstein also announced the winners of this year's Athena List, called the "gender conscious cousin" of The Black List, which highlights three to five completed screenplays with strong leading female characters that have yet to be made into films.

This year's winners were Jenny Halper's What the World Will Look Like When All of the Water Leaves Us, based on a short story by Laura van den Berg about a female scientist and her obsessive quest to save endangered lemurs in Madagascar; Eliza Lee's Highsmith, the story of famed crime novelist Patricia Highsmith and her spiral into alcoholism during the McCarthy era when she could not put her name to the iconic lesbian novel, The Price of Salt; and Margaret Nagle's Dickey Chappelle, about a war photographer who captured images from the front lines of Iwo Jima to Vietnam.