Chicken & Egg Co-Founders Reflect on 10 Years Funding Award-Winning, Female-Directed Docs

Courtesy of Lloyd Bishop
Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger

Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger look back on memorable films, including ones that contributed to legislative reform, and reveal why they want the phrase "woman filmmaker" to disappear.

Over the past 10 years, female-focused film fund Chicken & Egg Pictures has backed award-winning documentaries that explored controversial issues like late-term abortions and rape in the military and also contributed to legislative reform.

The organization, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in New York on Thursday night, supports women documentary directors and helped release the following: Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated The Square; rape-in-the-military doc The Invisible War; After Tiller, about the four U.S. doctors who perform third-trimester abortions; Freeheld, the Oscar-winning documentary that inspired the narrative film of the same name starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page; and Semper Fi: Always Faithful, whose filmmakers and subject participated in an Oval Office ceremony in which a bill addressing the issue explored in the film was signed into law.

Co-founders Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger, who started Chicken & Egg with Judith Helfand in 2005, concede it's hard to pick favorites among their many films. But Ettinger admitted they were particularly proud of docs "that are able to go to Capitol Hill and effect change after we've worked creatively with the filmmakers over a period of years," like Semper Fi and Lioness.

Semper Fi tells the story of water contamination at Camp Lejeune and the work of Marine Corps drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, whose nine-year-old daughter died of leukemia. A year after a Capitol Hill screening, Ensminger and directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon attended the Oval Office ceremony in which President Obama signed the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, providing health care to Marines and their families exposed to the contaminated drinking water.

Lioness, about five female Army soldiers who were part of the first program in U.S. history to send women into direct ground combat, was instrumental in launching discussions about policies for women soldiers.

Indeed, while Benello acknowledges that supporting a film that goes on to inspire legislative reform that the filmmakers can witness up-close is "the holy grail," Chicken & Egg places a special emphasis on supporting films that inspire social change.

"I think when we look to support a film and a filmmaker, we're looking for compelling storytelling, strong characters and some sort of social message embedded in the film, through the storytelling," Benello tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We ask [the filmmakers] questions about their impact campaign: What do they propose to do with the film beyond festival distribution and broadcast? Do they have a robust idea of what their outreach campaign will be? And we can sort of ferret out films that we feel have a good chance at contributing to social change."

With After Tiller, Chicken & Egg provided dedicated early support for a movie about a particularly controversial topic. "I don't think we could have had the success that we did with that film. I don't think it would've reached the audience that it did without their support," co-director Martha Shane says. Shane explains that Chicken & Egg got involved when the film was still in production and mentored her and fellow first-time director Lana Wilson, teaching them how to pitch the film.

"We worked really closely with them before we went to Independent Film Week. Judith in particular helped us figure out how to craft a pitch that would engage people with the film on a human level as opposed to a political level. … Just in terms of how to present that to people in a way that was visually compelling, she helped us with every line of that pitch," Shane says. "When we went to Independent Film Week with that film, we got a ton of meetings... and I think it felt like that propelled us toward Sundance. And then when we heard that we got into Sundance, there was just so much to do in terms of figuring out how to use this as an opportunity to launch an engagement campaign and build buzz around the film and Chicken & Egg … were so generous in sharing their resources. … It really literally felt like we could call them at 4 in the morning and find someone to talk to through whatever challenge we were having."

Shane calls the support from Chicken & Egg, which was the earliest institutional funder to board the film, a "seal of approval."

"Judith and Wendy and Julie are so well-respected in the industry. And I think when they also take what some might view as a risk in supporting first-time directors, that other people take note, and then when we applied for other grants, people were looking at the projects more seriously and people reached out to us and wanted to learn more about the film," Shane says. "So it just felt like a great entree into the documentary film community. It was just a boost and a belief in the project from the industry that we needed at that time."

As it moves into the next decade, Chicken & Egg's co-founders say the organization has become more targeted and strategic, offering grants through three new, distinct programs: an Accelerator Lab, that provides $35,000 grants and 12 months of mentorship and workshops for 10 first- and second-time filmmakers; a breakthrough award of $50,000 grants (and year-long mentorship) to five diverse mid-career filmmakers and an Impact & Innovation Initiative, which Benello says includes a partnership with the New York Times to do four shorts with current Chicken & Egg filmmakers, acknowledging the increasing popularity of shorter content and online distribution.

On Wednesday Chicken & Egg announced the 10 projects that would participate in its inaugural Accelerator Lab. "These filmmakers and projects represent a microcosm of the over 200 filmmakers whom Chicken & Egg Pictures has supported over the last ten years. Our goal is to nurture their talent by providing them with a yearlong creative lab program, a grant of up to $35,000, and a community of women filmmakers who can support and learn from one another,” Chicken & Egg executive director Jenni Wolfson said in a statement.  “We selected these women filmmakers because we believe not only that they are going to make artful and compelling films, but because we believe that these stories must be told and will contribute to changing how we see and respond to the world around us."

Beyond these new programs, Benello and Ettinger were vague about their hopes for Chicken & Egg's future, laughing about needing to consult a crystal ball.

"I would say just continuing to evolve and really matching the needs of the field and staying a strong organization and staying a leader," Ettinger says.

But they do have one specific hope as they acknowledge that there are more opportunities for women filmmakers than there were 10 years ago: They'd like to see the phrase "woman filmmaker" disappear.

"In the past, people would say, 'She was a woman doctor' or 'woman lawyer' or what have you, and that's more or less been dropped," Benello says. "She's a 'doctor' or she's a 'lawyer' and there's still very much a distinction, 'Oh she's a woman filmmaker.' We feel like we've reached a certain amount of parity when they say she's just a kick-ass filmmaker. The 'woman' wouldn't necessarily be the qualifier."

Looking back on the past 10 years, Ettinger was struck by what's still "true" even as women now have a "stronger support system."

"We've always thought that film had the power to catalyze change and we've always believed in the importance of diversity of different kinds of voices and community building and collaboration. That's what we've started with 10 years ago. That's what's still going strong and that's what, I think, is thrilling 10 years later," she says.

Benello adds: "I don't think we've achieved parity yet in the industry, [but] I think there's far more awareness and Chicken & Egg has contributed to that in the course of the last decade. It feels like a milestone. We came up with this idea, the three of us, and thought if we could match money with mentorship for women filmmakers and provide that community and that peer-to-peer learning we could make great strides and helped further that documentary pipeline, and I think we've really done that."