Skip to main content

Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, Winter 2016

By Marjan Safinia

Dear IDA Community,

This past year, it's been hard to miss stories about our world facing up to diversity and equality problems. Thanks to a number of ambitious studies that are hard to refute–and technology tools that make them easy to share–we now see the make-up of our unconscious bias in stark numbers. I believe most of us are deeply struck by the imbalances. They reflect neither the world we live in, nor the world we want to live in.

I recently faced my own unconscious bias when programming documentaries for a screening series I host in Los Angeles at ArcLight Cinemas. In late 2014, I assembled a slate of four films I really loved, and started promoting them to my networks. Shortly after I sent out emails, I got a note back from the legendary B. Ruby Rich. Politely but firmly, she pointed out to me that I had programmed four films directed by men. It was something I hadn't even thought about. "Hope you can make a difference next time," she suggested.

I'm writing this because I think it's time we all owned our unconscious bias, and thanks to Ruby's help, I started to own mine. Every one of us is in a position to "make a difference next time," and we shouldn't wait for someone further up the food chain to fix it. Each time we hire, program, fund, pick panelists, crew up, offer advice or make any other kind of choice, we have a chance to make a difference. As filmmaker Anayansi Prado recently reminded me, it may take an extra couple of weeks to find the right person, but the time spent looking a little harder is well worth the investment: You actively effect the change you want to see.

In order to be able to recognize your unconscious bias, you have to take a look at your own data. In documentary, we have an impression that a lower barrier to entry creates a more level playing field, and while that may be true in some ways, it's certainly not a universal truth. I recently took a few minutes to look at the gender distribution of projects that were submitted for the 2015 IDA Awards. To do this quick back-of-the-napkin analysis, I decided the easiest value to measure was the number of projects where women were directors (or co-directors) for films, and executive producers (or co-executive producers) for series. I also looked over our 2015 Pare Lorentz Grantees. Here's how things looked for us this year.

2015 IDA Awards

Feature Films
38.5% women directors (or co-directors) at submission level
32% women directors (or co-directors) at shortlist level
16.7% women directors at nomination level (1 of 6)

Short Films
40.3% women directors (or co-directors) at submission level
60% women directors (or co-directors) at nomination level (3 of 5)

Student Films
71% women directors (or co-directors) at submission level (!!)
40% women directors (or co-directors) at nomination level (2 of 5)

Series (across all categories)
83% women executive producers or co-executive producers at submission level
40% women executive producers or co-executive producers at nomination level (8 of 20)

Pare Lorentz Grant 2015
50% women directors (or co-directors) at submission level
60% women directors (or co-directors) on successfully funded projects (6 of 10)

Granted, these are small samples that only look at limited metrics but they highlight successful trends as well as work left to do. Of our Pare Lorentz grantees this year, only 30% had at least one director of color. I hope that IDA will be able to continue tracking our data sets and publishing what we find. In so doing, we'll not only be able to bring about better internal opportunities for all people, but also shine a light on the state of the documentary end of the film industry.

Of course addressing unconscious bias must go far beyond gender. The issue of minority voices in documentary is arguably much more pressing, and diversity also means paying attention to whose stories we are telling as well as pushing our ideas of access to opportunity. We need to challenge ourselves to make sure that it's not the same small pool of "successful" filmmakers who are afforded opportunity over and over again, but that we consciously widen the access pipeline with every decision.

IDA is making a commitment to diversity. But I challenge you to make a commitment, too. See if you can spare an hour to look at your own data and metrics—even if that's just counting up the number of women or people of color you hired on your last three projects. Then see if you can "make a difference next time." If you have ideas about how we can collectively work towards a more equitable world, tweet us @idaorg using the hashtag #ownyournumbers. The tides are shifting, and we all can be proud to do our part.


Until next time,

Marjan Safinia
IDA Board President