On the Basis of Sex writer Daniel Stiepleman didn’t know about the Athena List, a Black List-inspired slate of three to five unproduced screenplays about women leaders, until his Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic was selected to be on it.
Stiepleman’s script about the Supreme Court Justice landed on the first edition of the Athena List, unveiled in early 2014 in conjunction with the Athena Film Festival, which celebrates women’s leadership and was co-founded by the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College and Women and Hollywood.
The selection, Stiepleman says, served as a vote of confidence in his work and indicated that other people thought On the Basis of Sex, which hit theaters in December and has grossed almost $29 million worldwide amid good reviews, should be made.
“From a career standpoint, it was the first time someone had pointed at my work and said ‘This is good’ publicly, which is really hard to get someone to do, to put themselves out on a limb,” Stiepleman tells The Hollywood Reporter.
He adds, “On the Basis of Sex is at its core a period drama with a female lead about tax law — not exactly an obvious slam dunk for any studio executive or aspiring executive to say, ‘Oh yes, this is good. This is the project I want to stake my reputation on.’ So in a lot of ways, the hardest part is to get people to say, ‘I like this and this is something that should be made.’ That is the benefit of the Athena List — and also of the Black List — is that it’s a way for people to not only say, ‘I like this; I’m staking my reputation on this,’ but, ‘Look, there are other people who have said that they like this as well.’ I think it gives people in power the backing to stand up for a project that isn’t an obvious slam dunk, that isn’t something that Hollywood wants to make, especially when you’re talking about films with a female lead. They’re few and far between, maybe too few and far between. It’s far too easy to say no, and I think it makes people feel safe and confident when they’re saying yes.”
And while Stipleman already had a star and producer attached to On the Basis of Sex, he believes being on the first Athena List increased the visibility of his script, which later wound up on the 2014 Black List.
“I think Athena List led to the Black List led to a career,” Stiepleman says.
And he was so pleased with the experience and so believes in the importance of the idea behind the list that he submitted another script that was selected for the 2019 list, which The Hollywood Reporter is revealing exclusively below.
Inspired by the Black List, the Athena List was designed to highlight scripts for films about female leaders and the writers behind such projects.
“The genesis of the idea was to figure out a way to give more visibility and prominence to scripts that are further down the line that have female protagonists in leadership positions that we could potentially interest development executives and producers in because the whole goal is to get more films that have female protagonists in leadership positions,” Athena Film Festival co-founder Melissa Silverstein tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When you curate lists, the imprimatur is, ‘OK, they’ve been read, other people like them.’ So it’s not as much of a crapshoot. … So this was us curating a list of films that have been vetted through our process as well as [our] judges to say that these are films that we want other people to take a look at that have potential to be made into films.”
Beyond helping the films on the list move from development to production, Silverstein says the Athena List has created opportunities for the writers whose work is selected.
“People have also gotten jobs off of their Athena List scripts because people have read them as judges or in the process,” Silverstein says, adding that Emmy-nominated Boardwalk Empire writer Margaret Nagle’s unproduced screenplay on the 2015 list led to her being hired to write a script about Clementine Churchill. “The goal is to have these writers get more visibility so that they can go on to create more of these kinds of scripts that we’ve all wanted to see.” Nagle has another script on the 2019 Athena List.
Recent Athena List winner Chinonye Chukwu has, within the past month, seen her Alfre Woodard starrer Clemency, about a death-row prison warden preparing for the execution of a potentially innocent black man, win Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic grand jury prize and be acquired by Neon for distribution.
Chukwu says it was the Athena List’s female-centric approach that intrigued her as she was looking for ways to help get her film made earlier in its process. And she cites the personal significance of making the list as being key to the film’s development.
“Being selected to be on the Athena List was so affirming and helped give me a significant boost of confidence and reassurance during the challenging journey of getting my film made,” she says via email.
Check out the 2019 Athena List winners and finalists below.
2019 Athena List Winners
Hedy by Giovanni Porta
Famed actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr storms Hollywood while at the same time struggling to convince the U.S. Military that her secret invention will help them win World War II.
Out of My Mind by Daniel Stiepleman
An inquisitive, intelligent 11-year-old with Cerebral Palsy joins a “mainstream” fifth-grade classroom. Although she cannot speak, Melody must find her voice to demand the respect she deserves.
Roe v. Wade by Jennifer Majka
The extraordinary journey of Sarah Weddington, a 26-year-old, small-town Texas lawyer who, in her first solo court case, argued and won the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
The Defining Moment by Margaret Nagle
Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the New Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt confronts who she is and who she wants to be in relation to her husband, the president of the United States.
2019 Athena List Finalists
The Fastest Girl in the World by Katherine Hayes
Moonlight on the Water by J.M.R. Serrato
Collision of Duty by Jermaine Jones
Cleo by Marilyn Fu
2019 Athena List Judges
Gillian Armstrong – Writer and Director, Little Women, My Brilliant Career
Eliza Lee – Athena List Winner, A Beautiful Lie
Ben Philippe – Barnard Adjunct Professor, Author of Field Guide to the North American Teenager
Janice Park – Development Director, Made Up Stories
Monique Keller – Marketing & Distribution Manager, Amazon Studios