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Gender Matters takes centre stage in Toronto

Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative took centre stage at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival at the industry panel Women at the Helm: Because its 2016

Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative took centre stage at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival at the industry panel “Women at the Helm: Because it’s 2016” (10 Sept 2016). It featured a global panel of speakers including Screen Australia’s Head of Production Sally Caplan along with other distinguished panelists including: CEO Swedish Film Institute Anna Serner; Telefilm Canada Executive Director Carolle Brabant; and actress, producer, activist and We Do It Together advisory board member, Freida Pinto.

The panel was introduced by TIFF Director of Industry Kathleen Drumm, who said women’s access to the industry is one of the major debates of today. Screen Australia’s Gender Matters ambitious $5 million three year five-point plan was loudly applauded as Caplan listed the initiatives’ successes including a record-breaking 452 applications across Brilliant Stories and Brilliant Careers, which led to 45 new projects being developed across features, TV and online, and 13 projects green-lit to address gender balance across the industry.

“Under our previous criteria we were not getting the results with under 20% of our applications being female directors or creative teams,” said Caplan. “We realised we needed to do something really dramatic and really spend money to change it.”

The success of Gender Matters was also celebrated at Screen Australia’s evening event at TIFF which brings filmmakers and industry leaders together to socialize and network. Producer Angie Fielder, fresh off the success of Lion’s runner-up audience award at TIFF, said she applauded the boldness of Gender Matters. “It’s a definite example of Screen Australia committing in a real way to achieving gender parity,” she said. “There were such a variety of projects that were submitted it really shows the range of talent available in Australia.”

Fielder is a recipient of a Brilliant Stories development grant with the erotic drama Flower, created by Archibald prize-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton. “It’s our first feature with her and it was great you could come in with an idea and if it was strong enough they would support it,” Fielder said.

“Australia is one of the first countries to do this – to actually create a policy around this issue,” said Greer Simpkin, one of the producers of Ivan Sen’s Goldstone, which was presented at the Platform section of TIFF. Simpkin will be helming a Brilliant Careers project for Gender Matters that will mentor young women writers. “I’m really excited to be pairing new writers with senior people in the industry and also writers that may be working in other areas like theatre. I also plan to bring some overseas showrunners to Australia to create some masterclasses, as well as creating some story rooms. Something very magical can happen when you get very diverse voices together. So (there are) not only mentoring opportunities but also some great projects coming out of it.”

Tania Chambers, producer at Feisty Dame Productions, attended TIFF this year as part of the Producers Lab and is also a recipient of Gender Matters Brilliant Stories. “There is no doubt in my mind the Gender Matters has made a massive impact and kick-started a great deal,” said Chambers. “I went into it with a first time writer/director Renee Webster who is dynamic and has a really good touch which I think is both edgy, female skewed and commercial. We received funding for the first draft of her first feature Her Predilection.

“It meant a lot to her to get this national recognition and to have Screen Australia say ‘we believe in you and your talent and potential and sometimes that can matter more than money’,” said Chambers.

But it’s not just about getting women working – it’s also about box office success.

Chambers agreed. “The reality is whether we like it or not – outside a studio blockbuster, the audience is women 55 plus and it’s a really strong audience and a loyal audience who go to the cinema almost weekly and that means there is a lot of story women want to tell and women to see, so it’s now making sure we get the sales agents and the distributors to see there is a market for these films.”

Approximately 30% of the films presented at TIFF were directed by women. While it’s an impressive statistic it still leaves much room for growth. Among them was legendary Indian American film maker Mira Nair, who premiered her latest film The Queen of Katwe at TIFF.

“The light has been shone on this inequity in the industry between men and women both in front and behind the camera,” she said. “It’s wonderful we have finally organised to demand recognition for the impact we have always brought to the industry. Australia has always had a much better track record than Hollywood has in this.”

When asked about Gender Matters on the red carpet of Lion, actress Nicole Kidman voiced her avid support of women behind the camera. “I am about to work with Sofia Coppola and I just worked with Jane Campion in Australia on Top of the Lake. I am all about supporting female directors and new directors.” She ended by adding her rally cry to women out there in the industry: “Let’s go!”

Watch the TIFF Women at the Helm conference in full.

More information about the panelists.

Special thanks to guest reporter Katherine Tulich.