Female Filmmakers Discuss Need for Confidence in Securing Financing

Kendra Kabasele/Sundance Institute
From left: 'Unrest's' Jennifer Brea and Alysa Nahmias with moderator Caroline Libresco

"It's about finding people in the world who vibrate for [your] film," said documentary filmmaker Jennifer Brea at Monday's Demystifying Film Financing: Two Case Studies panel, hosted by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film.

For women filmmakers, getting adequate project funding has always been a challenge. But the bigger issue that seems to stand in front of many is having the confidence to believe that the funding — and project itself — are worthy enough for success in a male-dominated industry.

This, among other themes, was part of the discussion at Monday night’s Demystifying Film Financing: Two Case Studies panel, hosted by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film and held at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

Like the title suggests, the panel was organized into two discussions: one pertaining to the award-winning Sundance documentary Unrest, moderated by Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Caroline Libresco; the other to the Academy Award-nominated period drama Mudbound, moderated by WIF president Cathy Schulman.

While the two 2017 films differed in content, both panels steered discussions toward how crucial it is for women filmmakers to believe in their projects and know that others will, too.

“I knew this film needed to [exist] and I never faltered in my faith in that,” explained Unrest director Jennifer Brea, whose documentary is based upon her own battle with chronic fatigue syndrome. “That conviction was a lot of what helped me keep going.”

Female filmmakers often have to advocate harder than their male counterparts for their right to work on a project. Mudbound was an exception, said producer Cassian Elwes. “[Director Dee Rees] calls me and starts pitching me on how the movie is gonna go," he said, recalling a particular moment they shared after he sent her the original script. "I said, ‘Dee, stop right there. You don’t have to pitch me on why you want to do the movie; I sent it to you. I’m gonna pitch you on why you have to do this with me.’”

Elwes said that interaction was the first time a producer had offered Rees a movie. Elwes also noted how female directors typically face a span of five to seven years between films, often leading them to fall out and pursue other careers — a data point that resulted in audible surprise from the crowd. Yet Mudbound producer Christopher Lemole and MACRO president of production Kim Roth chimed in when Elwes mentioned that a solid script will always find its way into the hands of the right person.

“All it takes is one like-minded person,” said Roth.

Having confidence in the project during the early stages, the panelists advised, was equally as important as it is during the fundraising stages. For Brea, fundraising became more than just acquiring money, and she recommended that the audience, made up primarily of female filmmakers and producers, look at it in the same way.

“It was always, to me, an exchange of love and energy and vision and shared purpose and less of cash," said Brea, who believed the stories of people battling CFS deserved to be seen and heard. "I think if it was just an exchange of cash, no one would’ve ever given because it wasn’t why donors were giving, and it certainly wasn’t why I was making the film. It was about finding those people in the world who vibrated for this film and for this story, like I did.”

Brea also stressed the importance of purpose, especially when asking for things — something she noted women filmmakers tend to have more difficulty doing.

“It’s so hard to put yourself at the center of something to say, ‘I need your money, I need your belief in me,’” Brea admitted. “Whenever I thought that was what I was doing, I failed. It’s all about finding the right fit and the right person who’s gonna say, ‘That’s what I want in the world, too. I want to get behind that.’”

Unrest producer Alysa Nahmias added that while not everyone they pitched financially invested in the doc, keeping an open mind led to other possibilities. Some parties offered to support the film in other ways, while others asked to stay informed of future projects they could be involved in.

"It's really important to keep in mind that it's not personal," said Nahmias. "The more you experience the rejections and then you get somebody who is interested, you start to see that the project doesn't depend on any one ask."

Unrest and Mudbound, which were both picked up at Sundance, eventually sold their rights to Netflix for distribution. Mudbound became the streaming giant’s first film to receive an Academy Award nomination and the first film ever to have a female nominee for the best cinematography Oscar. Meanwhile, Unrest narrowly missed an Oscar nomination, getting shortlisted for a best documentary feature nod.

While the future seems bright for women moving forward, Elwes closed the panel by expressing concern for piracy and his hopes for Google to buy in as a content streamer to patrol sites and illegal activity.

"Google directs people to a bunch of piracy sites," he explained. "It's destroying our industry."

The second half of the two-day panel will be held Tuesday.

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