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A brief history of film spaces run by women

By Tim Concannon

In the previous posts I made the case that the cultural shift occurring in film spaces means that cinemas and festivals wholly-run by women are now inevitable. It’s a matter of time but nothing else.

A sufficient number of people feel empowered to speak out, so that the likely costs of law-suits or spells in prison exceed the likely cost of NDAs and out-of-court settlements. While LA’s Cinefamily has closed – most likely because the owners couldn’t or wouldn’t bear both the reputational cost and the actual financial cost of future litigation linked to the past Cinefamily branding and entity – even before the closure was announced, owner Dan Harkham had filed to form a new entity to run the cinema, with many of the same Cinefamily personnel involved. It remains to be seen whether a change in branding rather than management will encourage Cinefamily’s loyal audience to return to the renamed movie theatre. The film industry and culture more widely doesn’t seem to be in a very forgiving mood.

Since my last post… it transpires that Tarantino nearly decapitated Uma Thurman in a stunt that went wrong… Salma Hayek has written about the death threats she received from Harvey Weinstein…. allegations about Dustin Hoffman are mounting… and so on, and still no arrests yet. (It’s almost as though some of these famous, wealthy and powerful men have some kind of leverage keeping law-enforcement at bay. Whatever could that be, I wonder?)

The daily triage of headlines about celebrities overshadows the first stone that was kicked over, way back in September, and the continued importance of what was revealed: the sprawling mess of misogyny on the factory floor of exhibition and film fandom.

Before the Whedon and Weinstein revelations, the attempted rehabilitation of film-blogger and programmer Devin Faraci by Tim League, founder of Fantastic Festand of the Alamo Drafthouse, led to an outcry from its supporters and staff resignations.

The Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain presides over ‘independent’ film exhibitors in the USA, much as Mooky Greidinger’s Cineworld which owns the Picturehouse chain does in the UK (Cineworld refuses to pay its workers the living wage, which is why you should boycott them). Faraci’s rehiring was preceded by allegations that ‘Ain’t It Cool’ founder Harry Knowles assaulted Jasmine Baker on two occasions at Alamo Drafthouse events in Austin, Texas. When Baker informed Drafthouse owners, they also took no action. Knowles denies the allegations.

It’s worth revisiting the Facebook post by Fantastic Fest’s international programmer, Todd Brown, when he resigned in wake of Faraci’s re-employment by League:

“Anyone who has ever suggested that Fantastic Fest and the Drafthouse is just the geek friendly equivalent of the classic Old Boys Club, you have just been proven correct. We have just seen that Club in action. There it is, the Club utterly ignoring the victim while it creates a protective ring around the perpetrator. Telling every woman who has ever been harassed or assaulted that the predatory males around them will be protected if they are a part of the Club. Telling every woman that the Sad Man whose life is a shambles because of his own actions deserves help and support in putting himself back together while she deserves… nothing.”

There will continue to be women-only screenings of films, and mendacious legal actions using equality and civil rights legislation to oppose them in principle.

However, as Brown’s resignation statement indicates, challenging the culture of the Old Boy’s Club at the level of film appreciation and fandom requires a small revolution. The complacent attitudes of lawyers, film industry executives, agents, publicists and PAs who cover for the likes of Weinstein and Spacey will only be challenged by initiatives within the industry. The forward-facing part of cinema culture is where it overlaps with the rest of culture: in civic spaces. To challenge misogyny in these spaces requires not only a change in the film industry, in prevailing societal attitudes but a change in the management of a sufficient number of these spaces to end the boy’s club monoculture.

The trend in female-run film exhibition and festivals is the same as the trend in cinema exhibition in general; towards what in the UK is usually called “pop ups”, which is descriptive of itinerant events organisation. While nomadic film exhibition can respond to audience’s rapidly changing tastes, mores and values, the failures to exercise a duty of care which have undermined Alamo Drafthouse’s reputation recently are mainly failures on the part of the people running the bricks and mortar side of the business, not on the part of occasional programmers. Hiring or sporadically curating a film programme has significantly less impact on film culture and on society generally than running or owning a movie theatre does.

The history of women-curated film festivals and spaces isn’t documented nearly as thoroughly as it should be. The histories that do exist tend to focus on the English-speaking world and on the intersection of radical feminism and experimental film-making, both of which have been instrumental to fostering female talent and the unique voices of women artists in cinema. Yet along with those voices, there are also certain biases – contextually understandable, and I would also argue in many respects forgivable – but biases nonetheless.

In histories of women’s film spaces, to concentrate on the experimental film-makers in Europe, Australasia and North America automatically excludes the complex history of film screenings for female audiences in Asia, for example. Much as film pioneer Esther Eng – a Chinese-American director making films for both US and Chinese markets, who wore men’s attire and was open about her lesbian relationships – was overlooked in mainstream, white feminist histories of cinema till the mid-Nineties.

It also has to be noted – as Charlotte Brunsden does in her book ‘Films for Women‘ – that in many cases radical feminist film exhibitors have chosen to not participate in festivals and at venues which they viewed as embodying patriarchal values. While this approach may be politically coherent, it isn’t making a commercial argument for women-run cinemas.

What’s interested me in putting together these two short histories of women-run film spaces in London and Los Angeles is that there is next to no evidence of there ever having been a commercially-run venue or exhibition space, only run by women.

The argument, now, for this to happen is a business argument as much as it’s a political one. How do you run an independent or art house film space in 2018 – in a tough economic environment for repertory cinema – where you don’t risk the reputational meltdown and commercial penalties which the owners of Alamo Drafthouse, and the Silent Movie theatre which hosted Cinefamily have experienced?

The obvious answer is to eliminate the Old Boy’s Club in the most effective way possible, which is to have venues run entirely by women.

Next… Women-run art spaces in Los Angeles & London