MIA Market: Producer Elizabeth Karlsen Discusses the Damage of Majority Male Festival Lineups

Elizabeth Karlsen at The Hollywood Reporter and Kering Women in Motion conversation -H2015
Arthur Mola/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images

The Rome market hosted a panel on how the U.K. is working to improve diversity in entertainment.

Rome’s MIA Market this year held multiple panels on how to improve inclusion in film and television.

One session featured a panel of U.K. experts who shared ways they are working to increase representation in their country, which they said had historically failed to represent its diverse population through its film and TV content.

Producer Elizabeth Karlsen (Youth, Carol, Boys Don't Cry) argued that film festival curators have an incredibly powerful role in deciding whose stories ultimately get seen. She advocated examining film festival structures and the way films are chosen, just the same way as film commissioners must now reevaluate their choices.

Karlsen praised the London Film Festival, which under Tricia Tuttle’s leadership this year welcomes a lineup of 50 percent female directors in its main competition.

The producer contrasted this with Venice, which for the second year in a row had only one female director in the main competition lineup of 21 films. She argued that this sent a message even to the critics at the film festival, as many of the lower-quality male-directed films were given a free pass.

“In Venice, one thing I noticed was Jennifer Kent [director of The Nightingale] was made to bear the whole burden of women directors. And that’s not really fair,” she said.

“The way that her film was treated by the critical press, was very distinct from the reception of the other movies. Because they probably were unconsciously thinking, ‘well Jennifer Kent was the one that was chosen, so let’s really look at her film and see if the film stands up.’”

Karlsen added: “And other films that had a lot of expectation around them, because the director had reached star heights with their previous film, or they had an outstanding track record, they would just be presented in the press. But when it got to Jennifer Kent, I felt that her work was really interrogated in a way that was not really fair.”

The producer also brought up the issue of Cannes banning Netflix films, arguing that because Netflix films don’t have to spend fortunes on P&A, they offer many more opportunities for diverse content.

“Hopefully someone like [festival head] Thierry Fremaux will realize that there are more benefits and not just block the platform,” she said.

Nish Panchal, an agent at Curtis Brown, said the TV industry in the U.K. had made huge strides in inclusion.

“The broadcasters now have got quotas in place to ensure that onscreen and off-screen there is representation, ethnically, gender-wise and socially-economically,” he said.

“Immediately you can see that there are actors onscreen that wouldn’t normally be getting a role, or there’s a writer in a writer’s room who is getting some experience working on a TV series. I think there are some really brilliant writers that have come through that are able to tell the stories that they want to tell because of the fact that there is this quota system.”

Jennifer Smith, head of inclusion at the British Film Institute, spoke of the BFI’s “Diversity Standards” program to hit targets for an inclusive work force, which is now being adopted by the broader U.K. industry. She stressed the importance of unconscious bias training, which everyone at the BFI has undergone. This year the British Independent Film Awards has also launched unconscious bias for all of its voting members before they can cast their ballots.

“You have to be on it though. You can’t just do the unconscious bias training course and think, ‘OK, I know everything.’ You have to constantly be really awake to your bias and the limitations of your perspective. That’s why inclusive leadership teams are so important,” said Smith.

“Inclusion is an active term. You have to do something and you are a part of this. Something said to me the difference between diversity and inclusion is diversity is about counting the numbers, inclusion is about making the numbers count.”