Gabrielle A. Lodl shares valuable advice from the panelists at Austin Film Festival on actionable steps you can take to help change the film industry for the better.
Austin Film Festival (AFF) was awesome. It always is. But this year, AFF got real.
This was the sixth year I’ve attended AFF, initially because I was a second rounder, and then because I got hooked. Spending a weekend with people like me? Paradise. Add panels full of amazing writers, great films, and fabulous drinks in the Driskill bar, and it’s hard to resist. Clearly, I’ve been unable to do so.
This year was a different kind of amazing, however. Consider that AFF was held less than three weeks after the first allegations about Harvey Weinstein came out, and the conference was at its busiest the weekend that the accusations against Kevin Spacey emerged into the light. Though panelists were careful not to name names, the discussion about the state of the industry was inevitable. And it was everywhere.
Rather than focusing on bemoaning the problems facing women, and complaining about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, panelists focused on what we could DO about the problem. It was a refreshingly hopeful approach to what seems an insurmountable fight.
People on numerous panels spoke honestly about their experiences, and gave practical advice on how to stand up and speak back to an industry that is actively hostile to women, people of color, and stories that don’t fit in the box. In a move I’ve never seen, several panels began with the removal of recording equipment. As one writer said, “I can’t unpack this if I have to worry about who’s going to hear me.”
I get that, and I endorse it, and I applaud the courage of the people that spoke up and got real. I believe that having conversations like the ones we had at AFF is critical to fostering change in the entertainment industry.
I want to share what I heard in Austin, because the four days I spent at AFF this year were full of solutions. We need solutions right now. That’s why I’m writing this article—to spread the word, carefully and respectfully, and share wisdom and hope with everyone looking for ways to be an ally.
Here are a few suggestions about creating change:
How to build a realistic character that doesn’t fit the mold:
Authenticity. It comes from personal connection and love for character. Avoid judging this authenticity. Allow your characters to be ordinary.
Specificity. Approach the differences between characters with specificity. Choose to examine “who” they are rather than “what” they are.
Agency. Give women an agenda and agency in their world. Make female characters active and at the center of the story, not the periphery. Don’t limit their identity by making them an appendage to someone else.
Dimensionality. Characters need to be three dimensional, to live in a rich and varied landscape with different kinds of connections and resources. Explore the background to make your character feel real.
Universality. Good character flaws are relatable and universal. So are character strengths, values, and experiences. Strike at the heart of what we share.
Your responsibility as a writer:
Inclusivity. You have the power to portray and shape how the world is seen. Emphasize what we have in common over what is different. Look for inclusive and universal experiences. Hollywood is in the business of exclusion—don’t pay in. Don’t ask others to buy in when they watch your movie.
Integrity. Start with integrity and move with respect for real life. Value intention rather than impact, inclusion over diversity. Tell a story you love with authenticity.
Empathy. Come from a place of empathy—for your character, for your audience, and for yourself. Milk your own experiences and bleed them onto the page.
Bias. We all have it, like it or not. Identify your own bias, then step outside it and look for different voices. Go outside your comfort zone to have real conversations with people.
Intersectionality. Don’t rely on a single “representative” point of view. There are many ways to be part of group. No one is just one thing—they have a gender, sexual preference, race, age, religion, body type, family, career, etc. Value the intersections that create a realistic point of view.
What women can do for each other:
Support. Support each other—be on each other’s side. Tell each other who to look out for. Boost each other up. Advocate for each other. Tell each other’s stories.
Don’t Justify. Take the onus off of victims to come forward. Don’t justify by saying, “but he was really nice to me” or “but he’s a really good writer/director/actor.” Behavior may vary but self does not.
Alliances. Have back-up—and be back-up. Look for allies in all situations. There is no such thing as too many allies. Don’t let people divide you from other women. Give credit generously, and don’t apologize for taking it when it’s yours.
Network. Do it horizontally, laterally, organically. Collaborate. Connections don’t have to be formal to be valid. Social media is a great way to start conversations, which lead to relationships. These are the key to growth.
Community. Have a tribe where excellence and support are equal goals. Community fights isolation and powerlessness and increases safety.
What women can do to for and with others:
Teach. Explain anecdotally, and be patient when you do—growth is a process, as is change. Teach people how to see us. Capitalize on opportunities, encourage people to share their experiences.
Verbalize. Give other people the words they need to call out issues around you: What do you want them to say if they think there might be a problem? If you’re in a high-risk situation, agree on a signal.
Be positive. Turn ignorance into a compliment, like “I can see that you understand how important it is to be inclusive.” Act as if they are already an ally. Your positive response is more helpful and impactful than your anger. Sometimes your warrior face is a smile.
Joke. Use comedy to make your point—it helps people feel less shame, which is vital because shame doesn’t motivate long-term change. Bring them in on the joke. Consider them a crappy improv partner.
Be brave. Set limits and enforce them confidently and fiercely. Risk being an asshole. Show them your passion.
What everyone can do to create change:
Speak Up. Never ever let it go—call it out every single time. If you don’t start down the slippery slope, the descent won’t be an issue. Ask directly: Are you okay?
Take Initiative. Take an active role in fostering diversity. Start changing yourself rather than waiting for others to change. Help people see characters as other than young and white by spelling out their race and age in your script. Specify that characters in a crowd scene vary by race and gender. And vote with your dollars.
Talk. Have conversations. Ask hard questions of yourself, your friends, your colleagues. Talk about your experiences rather than lecturing people. Talk even more when women aren’t there. Cultural change is internally driven. Be responsible for helping others be better.
Avoid. There really are over-used tropes that indicate a problem. Avoid describing a woman as “pretty but doesn’t know it,” calling someone a “bad-ass woman,” using sexual trauma as backstory, opening a script with a female dead body and assuming a woman’s goal is solely a relationship.
Believe. Change is possible; never stop working for it. It happens one person at a time, and each change matters. Be hopeful. And when the pendulum swings back, be ready get in the way.
Many thanks and kudos to the Austin Film Festival, and to the panelists who shared their experiences and suggestions. Without their help, many of these tips would never have been shared.
The most important take-away, for me, was that change requires action. It’s more than agreeing, or apologizing—it’s doing better next time. It’s making decisions, and then standing by them. It’s speaking up when the situation is uncomfortable, giving a voice to those who don’t have one. It’s heading off problems before they start by talking about your experiences. And it’s about having the courage to be and do better.
Today, right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to change the way this industry works, to make it better than it was in the past. We owe it to ourselves and each other to take advantage of the opportunity and to make our world better.