WIFT: full interview, News

WIFT: full interview

In 1982 a group of women, committed to improving the position and representation of women in the film and television industries, established Women in Film and Television NSW (WIFT). WIFT founded the World of Women Film Festival (WOW Film Festival) in the early 1990’s, in Sydney. Its ambitions, then and now were to recognise the diversity of independent filmmaking by women and present the unique vision of seeing the world through the eyes of women. For this article Screen NSW talked to WIFT about their thoughts on the state of the screen industry in relation to the representation of women behind and in front of the camera and the evolution of its WOW Film Festival. We catch up with WIFT to talk about the industry today and how it has changed in the last 20 years.

Recent research indicates that there remains a significant gender imbalance in our industry. How challenging is it to find and screen female content? Do you think things are better in 2015 than, say, 20 years ago?

Films with female content or made by female filmmakers are certainly available. WIFT only has to look at the growing number of World of Women Film Festival (WOW FF) entries as an example. We have seen a doubling of WOW FF entrants in recent years. This trend is echoed at festivals run by other WIFT chapters around the world. WOW itself has expanded and now has daughter festivals and tour partners all over the world, reaching as far as the Arab nations and Mongolia. 

However, most women’s festivals, such as WOW, primarily screen short films.  The future challenge will be getting more female filmmakers’ long form work made, seen and recognised. The difficulty lies in the cinema hire costs. For the same slot and same cost, festivals can either screen one feature or 10 short films.  However, one feature film festival entry fee is significantly less than 10 short film entry fees.  So there are economic realities to the festival financial model.  

Moreover, post GFC, getting cash sponsorship for festivals is tough, and along with agency funding cuts, means that there are certain economic realities for film festival programming choices. In most international festivals, star driven and/or marquee director films get priority over riskier projects, because they attract the wider public and sell festival tickets. Even the term “riskier” is very telling. It essentially means that if the film doesn’t resemble a film that was successful in the last 2-5years, it’s a “risk”. So if there is a lack of successful women’s films in that 2-5 year cycle, then there will continue to be a lack. It’s a vicious cycle.

Key festivals are regularly criticized for the gender imbalance of films presented.  Apart from Scandinavia, there has been little done to equalize the body of work in competition. If only a few women’s films are screened at key film festivals, there is less chance that a woman’s film can win a prize – so fewer female filmmakers and actors reach the status of “festival” star, and the film has less chance of getting into a buyer bidding war for commercial release to become a “commercial success”.

Moreover, much of the funding body eligibility criteria are dictated by “success” in only a handful of key festivals. It’s a Catch 22.

Film investors also nervously believe that if they aren’t making a blockbuster, then they are unlikely to see their money back. What is ironic is that VOD channels are desperate for long format female content, and at key film markets and festivals, they are stating that they are making up to 70% of their revenues, from female driven long form. Clearly this is an audience that isn’t being served at the cinema, but who are finding what they want on VOD and women are speaking with their wallets. 

However, this disconnect is hurting female filmmakers wanting to make long-form with female content.  Many female stories are made at very low budget levels, where they cannot attach stars that will bring their films out of the clutter of the low budget film noise at film markets and onto buyer radars, and reduce risk to distributors. Often, it’s only by being noticed at markets or at a festival, that these women’s films can get anyone’s attention and find a commercial release. Nonetheless, the vast majority of buyers are men and if they can’t find an easy home for a film then they will overlook it, even if they like it. Easy meaning low risk to on-sell to exhibitors or broadcasters, with little marketing effort or cost.  The GFC hurt a lot of sales agents. As many as 30% went out of business, so now they are very cautious with their acquisitions, and this has done nothing to help women’s films getting seen on commercial screens.

Thus the lack of content is not so much the problem, it is finding commercial avenues to screen it and ensuring the film has a talent package that will make the acquisition less risky. WIFT is regularly approached by filmmakers, sales agents and distributors to help get word about films with female driven stories to interested audiences, through our database.

Finances permitting, WOW does aim to screen a long format female film on opening or closing night, either as a local premiere or a high profile international film.

When possible, WIFT has also been supportive of female filmmakers getting their films seen by entering into a sort of sales agent/distribution agreement where films are screened as part of WOW or the tour, and profits are distributed to filmmakers.  This is all very reliant on our committee’s resources at the time. Since WIFT committee members are all volunteers, there is only so much we can do.New release platforms such as TUGG are very exciting. A couple of WIFT members have already used these platforms successfully to release their films.

Historically, going back 20 years, it was the mid-90s, movies were made on film, the world was still riding the 80s boom. Investment dollars were plentiful but on a basic level filmmakers were still working with film and production costs were higher, so there were fewer films to compete with and get noticed, and distributors needed content to fill their slots. Comparing that with now, where everything is digital and every high school kid can make a movie on their home computer, buyers are left to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Many international women’s film festivals have a tendency to only focus on female directors. Over 15 years ago, WIFT decided that women in both creative and technical roles needed to have their work seen and recognised for outstanding achievement. So the eligibility criterion for WOW was expanded. WOW now has one of the most comprehensive female filmmaker role eligibility criteria in the world, and offers a very wide range of award categories to female filmmakers.

WOW has also expanded the formats in competition, and in recent years has included a variety of trans-media formats, as resources permit.

It seems women writers and producers and craft technicians are doing well, but there is a dearth of women directors and DOPs. Why do you think that is?

The shortage of female cinematographers may have made some sense during film years, as camera were heavy and necessitated more muscle to move and carry them. However perceived need for muscle is still prevalent in recruitment, despite the lighter digital cameras. Working in TV offers a more reliable and stable environment for all female filmmakers. The feature film world is risky and tough for women in all disciplines. Feature film writers and producers need to survive long lead times, unpaid, during development with every chance that a project becomes ineligible for future funding if it’s twice rejected during the development period. This becomes unsustainable for women with family or carer commitments. Accessing funding is predicated by having previously won awards or having achieved a certain box office, very chicken or the egg, or attaching a producer who has. The latter keeps the eligible filmmakers eligible, but doesn’t let in new blood. While there are a similar number of men and women being trained as directors, fewer women break into paid work. There is a perception that all women are high risk, irrespective of whether they have children, they are often treated as if they do. Nonetheless if women do have children, it is more difficult for a female filmmaker to accept an unpaid internship/placement opportunity or an offshore/interstate job.

Childcare services in Australia are expensive, have inflexible hours and long waiting lists. Childcare costs are rarely provided for in placement grants or production budgets. Those lost opportunities and career breaks, hinder career advancement for women.  This propagates the male dominated production environment.  It is noteworthy that most of our successful women got their breaks during child-free years. Scandinavia is forcing a level playing field by forcing fathers to take paternity leave or else the family forfeits government family assistance, and by introducing quotas. Female filmmakers are often not promoted in the same way as their peers. Rather than being invited to be part of professional peer panels, they are often invited to panels which focus on only female peers, so the perception is that the topic of the panel will be women’s issues rather than their professional expertise. Nor do women promote themselves in the same way as men. They are less inclined to brag, and tend to undersell their skills. Being less available after or between jobs, due to family commitments, means women have fewer networking opportunities, where the seeds for a future job may get sown.

How has thinking around gender issues informed the work of the WOW festival– in programming, promotion etc?

Women’s films are underrepresented in film festival programming both in Australia and internationally.  WOW is primarily a short film festival with Australian and international entries.  Some feature films are also programmed. Films are selected by a programming committee of diverse screen industry professionals and the festival director.  WOW FF is associated with contemporary, up-and-coming women filmmakers. The WOW Film Festival recognizes the diversity of independent filmmaking by women and presents the unique vision of seeing the world through the eyes of women.

The WOW FF has always promoted not only women's stories but also LGBTQ stories and shorts as well as indigenous and culturally diverse stories from around the world. WOW shows stories and faces that you don't see in mainstream media, yet for women, these stories are mainstream, not some quirky niche.

Women filmmakers are still underrepresented in many areas in the screen industry. The WOW Film Festival promotes and awards women and highlights this underrepresentation, thus, WOW is a prestigious internationally recognized festival, which has an exciting, diverse showcase of contemporary short films with key creative input by women.

Who have been the festival’s female role models?  Has the festival had female mentors or mentored younger women coming through?

Women in Film and Television NSW was formed by Sydney based women filmmakers in the 1980’s to give support and promote women in the screen industry at a time when they were sorely underrepresented and needed a support base.

Many leading women and men in the Australian screen industry and the respective Guilds have supported the WOW FF and have effectively been role models and mentors.  WIFT’s Media Mentorship for Women program has worked with the WOW FF to provide mentorship opportunities.

In 2001, Cate Blanchett became a lifetime benefactor of WIFT NSW, and a WOW FF Patron. She is a courageous and wonderful advocate, promoting all women in the screen industries. The WOW FF Patrons over the years, are really a who’s who of the Australian film and media industries, and include: Andrew Horne, Anita Jacoby, Ann Slater, Anne Deveson, Annette Blonski, Annie Parnell, Anthony Buckley, Aviva Zeigler, Barabara Leane, Bridgit Ikin, Carolyn Vaughn, Cate Blanchett , Claire McCarthy, Jane Corden, Cristina Pozzan, Curtis Levy, Cynthia Mann, Danny Cooper, Dasha Ross, Deborah Szapiro, Elissa Down, Elizabeth Ann MacGregor, Gretel Killeen, Heather Ogilvie, Hilary Linstead, Jan Champman, Jan Kenny, Jane Rybarz, Julia Overton, Katherine Thomson, Lady Mary Fairfax, Laura Sivis, Liz Watts, Maree Delofski, Margaret Pomeranz, Margot Nash, Marion Macgowan, Megan McMurchy, Meredith Burgmann, Pat Fiske, Paul Warren, Penny McDonald, Rachel Griffiths, Rebel Penfold-Russell, Robin Anderson, Robin de Crespigny, Robin Hughes, Ron Saunders, Rosemary Blight, Sharyn Prentice, Sue McCreadie, Sue Milliken, Susan Lambert, Suzy Cue, Tom Jeffrey, Victoria Spring, and many.

Filmmakers who have become role models through WOW include: Cate Shortland, Jocelyn Moorehouse, Jan Chapman, Gillian Armstrong, Martha Ansara, Erika Addis, Melanie Annan, Gillian Leahy, Cherie Nolan and so many more women in all areas of filmmaking.

Elissa Down, director of The Black Balloon and WOW Patron 2010 declared that the WOW Film Festival screening of her short HMA Unicorn early in her career promoted her filmmaking. Jade Rose who produced The Caretaker and Director Alanna Rose, who has just won the 2015 United Nations Media Peace Prize for producing her documentary film Crocodile Island made in 2014

Many other female filmmakers have been promoted by having their films screened and/or awarded in the WOW FF, amongst these are: Rachel Argall, Melissa Anastasi, Melissa Beauford, Hannah Hilliard, Maia Horniak, Lucy Gaffy, Meryl Tankard, Mairi Cameron, Matilda Brown, Qing Xie, Sophie Miller, Cherie Nowlan, Karen Pearlman, Laura Sivis, Genevieve Clay-Smith, Bonnie Elliott, Dennie Pentecost, Laura Dudgeon, Kristy Best, Ruth Hessey, and so many others.

Some of the amazing festival directors have included: Nyin Cameron, Tamara Popper, Michelle Bliecher, Jacqui North, Beth Phelan, Elena Guest, Bronwyn Kidd, Georgia Wallace-Crabbe, amongst others.

The festival is now 21 years old – Can you tell us how it started out and what were its early ambitions?

The WOW FF is actually a lot older than 21 years old. This is the 21st WOW FF, but there have been years when it was not possible to run the festival, due to other WIFT commitments, or simply the lack of resources.

The World of Women Film Festival was conceived in the early 1990’s, in Sydney. The World of Women Film Festival was initially a collaboration between WIFT NSW and Metro Screen, then called Metro TV), a not-for -profit community screen organisation. It was conceived by Lois Randall who was a cultural co-ordinator at Metro TV. She worked with the WIFT NSW Committee 1991 to produce the first WOW festival, which screened at the AFI Cinema, now The Chauvel. Its ambitions, then and now were to recognise the diversity of independent filmmaking by women and present the unique vision of seeing the world through the eyes of women. Its aim is to promote women in the screen industry and to give an opportunity for public exhibition of films with key creative input by women. Industry events promoting women, Q&A’s, seminars, workshops were a component of the festival and a national WOW Film Festival Tour with some international destinations were held through the year. Women’s films were and still are underrepresented in film festival programming both in Australia and internationally. It was primarily a short film festival with Australian and international entries. Some feature films were also programmed. Films were selected by a programming committee of diverse screen industry professionals and the festival director.

What have been the highlights for the festival over the past years and why?

The real highlight of the festival is to support and promote women filmmakers whose voices are not heard or seen.  For this there has been so much support from all areas of the screen industry and government. 

The Minister for Women of several governments has opened the WOW FF, including Hon Jodie McKay MP, Hon Pru Goward MP, Minister for Arts Virginia Judge.

Some of WOW’s early international highlights included: the Australian Premiere of McLibel, Girl Fight, Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson; while some our locally grown highlights included: Cherie Nolan’s Thank God he Met Lizzie, and Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon, and Gretel Killeen’s edgy humour has graced the festival’s opening night on several occasions.

In 2011 WIFT celebrated 100 years of International Women’s Day as part of WOW.  That year the program began including a Parliament House screening to high school students, showing women’s stories that students don’t usually see on mainstream media.

The festival has also grown and evolved, and been innovative as the first festival in Australia to have an online festival component. WOW FF supported digital media creativity by having its multimedia platform competition and digi-vodule competition. The WOW FF Tour provides diverse screen programming promoting women’s films to capital cities and regional destinations throughout Australia.

What is WIFT working on for its next festival?

WOW 2016 will include a series of screenings, showcasing the shorts competition with amazing films from Australia and all around the world.  WOW will also have a special screening to inspire female high school students on International Women’s Day. There will be a couple of pop-up events and guest panels, as well as the usual opening night festivities and the closing night awards and party. We are also planning a little surprise for our 21st Birthday Festival.

After the festival the programs will be sent to be screened by our tour partners, locally and internationally.

Visit WIFTs website for more:


Want more? Read these interviews with strong women in the screen industry:

Interview with Liz Watts

Interview with Julie Kalceff

Interview with Kristen Dunphy

Interview with Courtney Botfield

Interview with Kylie du Fresne

Interview with Dollhouse Pictures

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