Chicken & Egg Turns Ten
By Katie Murphy
In 2005, Judith Helfand, Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger co-founded Chicken & Egg Pictures to support women documentary filmmakers, and what began with one "I Believe in You Grant" has expanded over the past decade to include new programs like the Accelerator Lab, which provides grants and mentorship to a diverse group of first- and second-time filmmakers, and the Breakthrough Award, intended to recognize and provide mentorship and funding to mid-career filmmakers. As Helfand explains to Documentary, the goal is to support the creation of bodies of work from diverse voices, "not just moving from one movie to the next, but really exploring, following your passion, your access, the community that you can speak to in that unique and individual way.
"I think that if we can continue to help raise the bar on what it means to build a body of work and to build sustainability around that body of work," Helfand continues, "we will be helping women catapult themselves out there, build businesses and build brands, and they will be able to continue to experiment and be bold, but also build something that's sustainable that they can count on and that they can become a go-to expert in. I think that that's critical, and I hope that the same way that we are thinking about how to do that now, we are as cutting-edge and bold and nimble in the future."
We spoke with Helfand as well as filmmakers Dawn Porter and Stephanie Wang-Breal, both of whom have received support and mentorship from Chicken & Egg, about the first ten years of Chicken & Egg and the next decade to come.
On the name "Chicken & Egg"
Judith Helfand: We called it Chicken & Egg because of the chicken-and-egg conundrum that so many filmmakers we saw were facing early on: If you're not independently wealthy, or if you don't have people in your life who can support you while you try to develop a new idea and a project, how do you get development money? How do you start shooting and put a competitive reel together that really explores your idea unless you seek funding? You could have an idea but you don't have the resources to put it together early enough that other people can see what you see; or you have a great trailer, but now you need the resources to take a big dive and really explore this further. So how do you enter the space? How do you become competitive enough to do that, and with the goods that people can see? How do you get to that next level that they're asking for, if you can't afford to get to that next level and you're not really sure where to go to get that support?
The barriers of entry to making movies were getting lower and lower. Cameras were smaller and cheaper, you could do some of this on your own, even edit it on your own on some level, so there were a lot more people heading into the field, but that doesn't mean that they don't have lots of questions and don't have lots of needs. We looked at each other and said, Wow. We have an opportunity to support filmmakers who might not be able to get that kind of support and who are at very critical, what we call "Chicken & Egg" moments, and we're going to understand that moment in a way that perhaps other people might not because we understand this from the filmmaking perspective. So we hatched this idea that we would start very small, one film at a time. We didn't start with an open call, or with making it possible for hundreds of people to apply for ten grants or ten positions in an Accelerator Lab, which is what we're doing now. We just started out thinking, Let's experiment."
On what makes Chicken & Egg unique:
Dawn Porter: They’re not an organization that gives money and wishes you well; they make sure filmmakers get together, they organize retreats, they organize events at film festivals—it’s a very intensive relationship that goes far beyond funding, and I think that's really needed at a time like this. It’s confusing to navigate the funder/festival/conference circuit, and one of the things they do so well is demystify the process. It makes you feel like you have a friend, and documentary filmmaking can be lonely. You’re out in the field, you’re worried about your story, but there are so many other things that you need in order to get your film out into the world. You can’t go into your closet to make your movie and come out and have the world be waiting for you. You need to cultivate relationships along the way, and that’s what Chicken & Egg does.
Stephanie Wang-Breal: They don’t just tell you, "No, you’re not going to get the money"; they give you feedback. And then if you do get the money, they’re involved. They’ll help you find new ways of figuring out how to work out a problem, they'll help you think about all these other possibilities you can do to make the story flow better or to make sure that the story gets out there. They get involved and stay involved, which is, I think, unique. A lot of funders give you the money and want updates, but it’s more of a one-way communication. I think with Chicken & Egg, they’re very hands-on: They have workshops and other mentoring programs during the production process so that they can stay involved and know what we're working on. Some filmmakers don't want that kind of involvement, but it makes you realize that it’s really beneficial to get feedback from your peers in a space that feels safe. That’s another great thing about Chicken & Egg: I’ve met so many other wonderful women filmmakers through these types of events and mentoring workshops. Most of us did not go to film school or did not do the traditional route for filmmaking. We’re all putting our best foot forward and trying to realize our vision without having necessarily all the training that other filmmakers might have, so being able to talk about it and critique each other’s work in a very open and safe space is tremendous."
On Chicken & Egg ten years from now:
Helfand: I would like to see that the filmmakers we're supporting in the Accelerator Lab this year, ten years from now, are all working; that they've evolved their voice and stretched and pushed themselves; that they are recognized, supported, funded, important voices in the field; that they went from making their first film to their second; and that our Accelerator Lab works; and that there are more women of color telling extraordinary stories who are getting the support that they deserve and are turning around and producing and directing and supporting other women. This industry needs to look like the world in which we live, and it doesn't right now, and I think the more that we create opportunities, access and major support for new diverse voices and older diverse voices, the more that this industry's going to change.
Part of our focus right now is on matching artistry with sustainability: supporting vision and the reality of trying to make a living and what that means, and recognizing the need for great storytelling. It's an amazing opportunity right now, but this can't just be an opportunity for the few who are able to afford to take risks or who have been lucky enough to get the kind of access and breaks they need to build a unique, sustainable career. So ten years from now, I hope that we have a different program; the Accelerator Lab worked so well that perhaps we feel like the field is in a different place, and we can support things differently. I hope the mentors we have in the future are the filmmakers that we're funding now. And I hope that Chicken & Egg can continue to listen hard and listen loud and listen to what is needed. I don't want us to ever lose what has made us, I think, unique, which is being able to listen to our gut hunches and run with them.
Katie Bieze earned her bachelor’s degree in literature with certificates in documentary studies and film/video/digital from Duke University. She earned her master’s degree in film and video from American University and was a Graduate Fellow at the University’s Center for Media and Social Impact. She currently resides in Los Angeles, where she works for the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA.