Fed up with the industry's 'insane' gender problem, these filmmakers are giving their funding to women

Zapruder Films will give an emerging female filmmaker $12,000 — 100 per cent of their Telefilm funding — in a contest running Sept. 8-18.

Zapruder Films will give an emerging female filmmaker $12,000 in a contest running Sept. 8-18

Much like the Canadian film industry, women are missing from this picture. This is a scene from Nirvanna the Band the Show, a series produced by Toronto's Zapruder Films. That company is launching a screenwriting program for emerging female talent, and they're donating every penny of their Telefilm funding to do so. (Zapruder Films)

Whenever Matthew Miller and Matt Johnson find themselves at a film festival, the same thing keeps happening, and it's getting weird. 

They could be at Sundance, where they premiered Operation Avalanche in January. Or TIFF, where they'll be screening their Vice TV series, nirvanna the band the show, this week. 

"For whatever reason, when we're meeting other filmmakers, we only meet a lot of young men," says Miller, who's been working in the movie industry for 15 years. (He and Johnson are the co-founders of Toronto's Zapruder Films.)

Every time, they find themselves wondering, 'Where in the world are the women?' — and they're definitely not the only ones asking.

The film industry has a huge gender imbalance, and it goes beyond the sausage party that is, apparently, the festival circuit.

I'm not saying every production company needs to run a contest, but maybe they need to say, 'Oh, we should be developing more films written by women.'- Matthew Miller, Zapruder Films

Looking at the 91 features to come out of Canada in 2013-'14, a study by Women in View found that 22 per cent of those movies were written by women, and just 17 per cent were made by female directors. Hollywood's even more skewed; on a list of the 250 biggest movies of 2015, 7 per cent have a female director. Those numbers have declined over the last two decades.

"The issue — to us, it's a no brainer," says Miller, and changing things, according to him, is everyone's responsibility. So this fall, Zapruder Films is doing something about it.

Taking 100 per cent of the Telefilm funding they received this year — money they could've stashed away for a future movie project — Zapruder will back a first-time female screenwriter. They'll give her $12,000 to develop a project, plus the guidance of a professional story editor, and the script she writes will be optioned by the company.

To find this screenwriter, they're launching a contest this week, and between Sept. 8-18 (so, the duration of TIFF) they'll be taking applications. By September 30, in a turnaround time unusually short for a Canadian development program, a winner will be announced.

"If we run this contest, then in a very tiny way we're shifting the odds a little bit in the direction we want to see things go," Miller tells CBC Arts.

"We feel like there isn't enough being done to address the disproportionate nature of financing based on gender," he adds, though the scales have been nudged a few times in recent memory.

A scene from Operation Avalanche, directed by Toronto's Matt Johnson. (Andy Appelle, Jared Raab)

Bell Media's funding programs for short films, BravoFACT and BravoFACTUAL, say they'll give half their money to female-led projects. In June, CBC-TV promised that 50 per cent of its directors will be women. And on International Women's Day this past March, the NFB set a three-year target for total gender parity. By 2020, half of their production budget will go to female-directed projects, while their film slate will reflect the same balance.

"That's a pretty bold statement for the National Film Board to make," says Miller. "And you know, why shouldn't that be the case? That's terrific."

We can't change how Telefilm functions, but we can change how we choose to spend our development money.- Matthew Miller, Zapruder Films

"And yet, the narrative feature film world, which is a world that we're a part of, hasn't stepped up yet. I keep hearing murmurs and discussions," he says. Telefilm and the Canada Media Fund, for example, released an official joint statement responding to the issue. As they wrote in April, gender parity is a priority for them, and they're committed "to finding viable and lasting solutions." However, a plan is still TBA.

"We don't see Telefilm as the enemy," says Miller. His production partner at Zapruder, Matt Johnson, has previously blasted the government agency's funding strategy in interviews, saying their reward-based system supports the old guard, and neglects the emerging talent still struggling to get noticed.

"It's one thing to be critical of an organization, but it's another to sort of back things up," says Miller. "We can't change how Telefilm functions, but we can change how we choose to spend our development money."

And that money, while not enough to complete a feature film, could be a game-changer for someone entering the industry. It would have been for him, he says, remembering his first project. Says Miller: "$12,000 was half of our production budget."

"If $12,000 buys you four months of being able to do nothing else but work on a script, we think that's really valuable."

If we can do this, and we're such a small company, why can't bigger production companies do this?- Matthew Miller, Zapruder Films

Beyond that, he hopes the program benefits more than just the winner. The idea is to inspire other people in the film industry to take action, too. If they see a problem with the way things are, they have the power to change things.

"If we can do this, and we're such a small company, why can't bigger production companies do this?" asks Miller. "I'm not saying every production company needs to run a contest, but maybe they need to say, 'Oh, we should be developing more films written by women.'"

Miller and Zapruder are committed to seeing the films they select through.

"We like the idea of using this money to support other people and support other projects," he says.

"What would be incredible would be two years from now, the movie we're supporting right now is screened at TIFF. That would be a success story."

For more information on the Zapruder Films Screenwriting Program, visit www.zapruderfilms.com.

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