Geena Davis Wants to Be the Robert Redford of Women and Diversity in Film

Thelma and Louise

MGM

Geena Davis wants to put you in pictures. The Academy Award-winning actress has just launched her very own film festival – a daunting enough prospect on its own – with a specific aim: to help support women and diversity in film. The first annual Bentonville Film Festival will arrive in Bentonville, Arkansas (population: 40, 167) later this year, and Davis and her myriad sponsors (from Wal-Mart to Coca-Cola, AMC to Kraft, which seems to ensure some interesting gift bags and potentially comfy theater locations) are aiming pretty damn high with their new endeavor. Fortunately, it sounds like Davis and company kind of have everything they need to back it up – which is exactly why Davis is the perfect person to do this.

Davis isn’t just a name brand, a well-respected talent, and one half of Thelma and Louise (RIP forever, gals), the actress has long been dedicated to issues of gender diversity in film, a passion that led her to start the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount St. Mary’s College back in 2007. Davis serves as both the founder and chair of the institute, which is billed as “the only research-based organization working with media and entertainment companies to engage, educate and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a diverse and inclusive range of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under.”

And, let’s be honest, it doesn’t hurt that Bentonville will open with the kind of corporate sponsorship and deep pockets that most festivals can only dream of one day achieving. Oh, and there’s also that coterie of stars who have already joined the festival’s advisory board, including Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, Randy Jackson, Eva Longoria, Julianne Moore, Paula Patton, Natalie Portman, Nina Tassler, and Shailene Woodley. And one more thing: the diversity-driven festival, which seems hellbent on doubling as the “putting our money where our mouths are” event of the year, is the first to guarantee distribution to its winners.

Bentonville is an intriguing enough prospect on its own – a well-funded festival led by a notable talent that isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to touting its aims – but the fest has already sweetened the pot with its proclamation that it guarantees theatrical, television, digital, and retail home entertainment for its winning film. Although most films that win big at larger festivals are ultimately bought up by distribution companies, Bentonville is the first to actually promise it. BFF will actually hand out three distribution deals, to the films that received awards for Audience, Jury Selection and Best Family Film categories. This is, of course, where the AMC Theatres sponsorship comes in to play: each winner “will receive a distribution agreement with a guaranteed traditional theatrical release on a minimum of 25 screens from AMC Theatres.”

A press release announcing the new festival compared Davis to Sundance Film Festival chairman Robert Redford, noting that “what Robert Redford is to Sundance – Geena plans to be the same for this cause.” That’s a pretty compelling and evocative comparison, one that makes Davis’ dedication and lofty goals clear: what Redford’s Sundance did for indie film, Davis wants to do for female-led and decidedly diverse cinema. Considering that Sundance originally started in snowy Salt Lake City way back in 1978 simply as a means to draw filmmakers to Utah, before eventually blossoming into the United States’ biggest film fest, it seems as if Davis wants to hit the accelerated track. We doubt she wants to spend the next three decades building Bentonville up into a name brand. With this kind of corporate backing and forward-thinking attitude, she – and Bentonville – won’t have to wait.

Of the fledgling festival, Davis commented, “I have been an advocate for women for most of my adult life…The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is dedicated to improving the representation in gender and diversity of talent, filmmakers, and business leaders by growing awareness through research, education and advocacy. The Bentonville Film Festival is a critical component of how we can directly impact the quantity and quality of females and minorities on screen and behind-the scenes.”

Post-BFF, Davis will launch the Bentonville Film Foundation, which promises to provide a “year-round event calendar to promote women and minority filmmakers, artists, directors, and producers at colleges and universities around the country.” Wait, did an entire new movement just sprout up before our very eyes? Let’s hope so.

The first annual Bentonville Film Festival will take place May 5 through 9 in Bentonville, Arkansas.

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