Did you like Mad Max: Fury Road last year? Did Brooklyn sweep you away? How about the tortured love story of Carol? All three of these films have one thing in common — female protagonists. And though that seems like an logical centerpiece for a film, considering the XX chromosome makes up over 50 percent of the population, creating female-centric stories in films remains a rarity. According to a recent study published by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State, central female characters made up only 22 percent of the protagonists in the top 100 films last year — and that was an increase from the previous year.
So with that in mind, the programmers at the Athena Film Festival, which in its sixth year is dedicated to highlighting female leadership in real life and fiction through films, have established their own gender-specific Black List — a grouping of the best unproduced screenplays that feature women at the center. The scripts go through a rigorous selection process, and all must have been work-shopped at either a lab, a film festival, or a screenwriting program to be eligible.
In the three years of the lost, the festival is still waiting for its one big Athena breakthough. Only one film, Little Pink House from writer/director Courtney Balaker and starring Catherine Keener, has been produced — and it has yet to secure distribution. Yet there still is progress. Margaret Nagle, the screenwriter behind last year’s The Good Lie, generated some renewed momentum for her script Dickey Chapelle, about the female Vietnam War photographer, which landed on the Athena List last year. Nagle’s script was lying dormant at Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, the company behind The Big Short and Selma, but the Athena boost revived interest and the script is in the process of securing independent financing.
For Nagle, the list is imperative in an era where the opportunities and interest for female-driven films are at a nadir. “The film industry is less interested than ever in women writing, directing or starring in films,” she says. “Women actors have few parts and fewer lines in films than men. Women over 40 work less in all the guilds. I’m on the diversity committee at the WGA and it’s bad.”
The Athena Festival is trying to do its part to change this situation. According to the festival’s co-founder Melissa Silverstein, this year’s submissions for the Athena List were incredibly robust, featuring mobsters, motorcycle riders, and Marie Curie.
Whittling the finalists down to four winners was grueling.
“The Athena List is our intervention. It’s us saying, ‘Hey, here are some scripts that are great that you can make tomorrow,’” says Silverstein. “Women screenwriters are 10 percent of the writers and we need more stories. We’ve got to have someone pushing the scripts out there.”
Take a look at this year’s winners. Hopefully, they will be hitting a theater near you soon.
Virginia by Bess Wohl
The irresistible rise of Virginia Hill, moll to multiple gangsters like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and the business mastermind behind the mob’s move into marijuana and drug smuggling.
Ride the Wind: The Bessie Stringfield Story by Denise Meyers
Based on the remarkable true story about the first African-American woman inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Bessie Stringfield was a Jamaican orphan adopted by a rich Irish widow, who encouraged her daughter’s wanderlust and the “penny tours” that eventually landed Bessie a place in history as the only female military dispatch rider in World War II.
A Noble Affair by Anil Baral & Kathryn Maughan
As Marie Curie is nominated for a Nobel Prize, her affair with a married man creates a scandal that ruins her reputation and becomes the obstacle to the prize that will prove her a scientist in her own right. Talent agency UTA is packaging the film, according to the Athena List.
In the Land of Fire and Ice by David MacGregor
When a high-powered Kuwaiti CEO finds herself betrayed at the investment bank she founded, she makes a tactical retreat to Iceland to assess her position and to strategize some way to salvage her career. At a small hotel on a remote Icelandic peninsula, she meets a Scottish innkeeper who helps reconnect her not only to passion for her job, but for things beyond. Having once pioneered investment strategies for women in the Middle East, she conceives of a new banking model, which will combine the best aspects of Sharia-based investing in the Arab world and socially responsible investing in the Western world. Having closed herself off from any meaningful human contact for years, her reignited desire to make the world a better place also opens her up to the possibility of a better life. Shohreh Aghdasloo (The House of Sand and Fog, 24) is attached to star. Robert Shapiro (Empire of the Sun) is attached to produce.
In addition to the Athena List, this year marked the inaugural partnership between Franklin Leonard’s Black List and the Athena Film Festival, whereby the two pro-screenwriting organizations came together to create the Athena Black List mini-lab. Four screenwriters will participate in a two-day lab consisting of intensive peer reviews and one-on-one mentorship sessions during this weekend’s upcoming Athena Film Festival.
“We’re working with the Athena List on a screenwriting lab because it’s 2016 and the reality facing screenwriters who are women is a moral and economic outrage,” says Leonard. “It is our sincere hope and expectation that by providing an apparatus where writers can find support, a crucible where they can improve their work, and a platform where it can be celebrated, we’ll be able to shift the numbers toward a more representative industry that will inevitably result in better and more profitable films.”
This year’s candidates include:
Kristina Zacharias, a Brooklyn-based writer whose screenplay, Restavek, was on the Nicholl Fellowship’s “Next 100” list and was a Second Rounder in the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. She is the 2016 Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellow.
Dee Chilton, a British screenwriter and a Commissioned Officer in the Royal Navy who is a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship semifinalist, an Austin Film Festival second rounder and Stage 32 New Blood competition Winner.
Jennifer Noonan, a screenwriter, author and scientist whose script Assimilation was written in response to the increasing pervasiveness of technology and its potential effects on humanity.
Britta Lundin is an award-winning writer and director based in Los Angeles. Her script Ship It won The Bitch List for the best Bechdel Test-passing screenplays, and was a quarterfinalist for the Nicholl Fellowship.
The Athena Film Festival runs Feb. 18-21 at Barnard College in New York.