A few weeks ago I attended a female-centric film festival in New York. This was my second time at the film festival. I was really excited to go back because I had a really good time the first time around. I was hoping to learn more about the barriers that hold women back in the industry and learn the innovative ways women were coming up with to break those barriers down or at least circumnavigate them. I was particularly excited to attend a panel of female short film directors speaking about barriers, and a panel on unconscious bias. With all the talk about diversity and gender discrimination in the industry, I thought this festival would be full of vibrant solutions and ideas for the future.
Unfortunately, this really wasn’t my experience. (I write about it more in this post for TYCI.) Most of the solutions proposed rather seemed to support the status quo, and panels were often fraught with disagreement as panelists argued over what the right solutions were, or even what the problems were. Most disappointingly, digital media was almost never mentioned, which had been something I had expected to hear a lot about. I suppose that this teaches me one thing: it’s silly to treat ‘women in film’ as a monolith, full of women who all have the same experiences and share the same opinions and perspectives. There is power in having a diversity of approaches to making change; when one solution doesn’t work, perhaps another might be more effective. One size does not fit all.
However in thinking back over what I saw and heard at the festival, and trying to figure out what helpful lessons I could glean— even if they weren’t the ones I was expecting to find— one issue floats to the surface: marketing.
Several times throughout the festival, filmmakers mentioned clashing with marketing teams and described how marketing ended up becoming an oppressive and/or anti-feminist force under which they or their projects suffered.
When asked about why her film Jennifer’s Body, while very amusing and written by a popular, Oscar-winning writer, had flopped so badly, director Karen Kusama described how much of the film’s problem was the way it was marketed. (You can watch here.) While she had envisioned the film as a horror/girl comedy made mostly for women in which Amanda Seyfried played the main character, the marketing team’s main approach revolved around “We’ve got Megan Fox. She’s hot.” The film ended up being marketed as a sexy horror film, directed towards young men, and starring Megan Fox. I found this really interesting, because I remember when Jennifer’s Body was being marketed and distinctly remember deciding not to see it because it looked like a stupid sexy-Megan-Fox vehicle— it didn’t look like something was made for me, included me, or respected me.
Kusama says the film confused the marketing team by being both a comedy and horror, and being a story that mostly centered around girls and girls’ experiences. The “default setting” Kusama says for marketing then becomes “just market it to boys.” Kusama recalls being flummoxed by trailers that never showed the main character of the movie (Amanda Seyfried’s character) because it focused on teasing whether or not Fox’s body would be exposed. Kusama also mentions begging the marketing team not to ask Megan Fox do press with porn sites because it would have just been too demoralizing to the actress. “We’re selling a lie,” Kusama commented on the marketing strategy, and emphasized how impactful how the movie is framed in the press and to critics can be.
I found Kusama’s story about Jennifer’s Body really thought provoking, because it got into the details of an issue I had heard hinted at many times in other places. It pointed out a harsh reality that even once you’ve made your female-centric, female-lead film . . . if the marketing team is not on the same page as you and doesn’t share your goals, they can still kill you film, bury your message, and make your project inaccessible. Often times we are so focused on just getting the film made, and making a good film, everything that comes after is a bit of an afterthought. However, the way the film gets marketed can be a big fight that can make or break whether your story gets heard and reaches those you are seeking to reach.
So perhaps this is one thing women can do to improve the representation of women in film/television on and off screen: get more marketing savvy, become feminist marketers, select marketing teams carefully, and stay in control of the marketing of your projects!