Dinner with Dames Case File
Who: David Boxerbaum, agent at Paradigm, & Cinefemme board, sponsorees, and volunteers – Liz Hinlein, Michelle Kantor, Katie Letien, Paige Morrow Kimball, Jenna Payne, Brooke Sebold, and myself, Jeanne Marie Spicuzza
What: Dinner 1.6 – a casual discussion on industry issues facing women & ways to excel in their careers over dinner & drinks
When: Tuesday, February 7, 2016
Why: To propel women to bigger and better career opportunities within studios and networks
I moved to Hollywood in 1999. I had spent seven years researching and three years writing my first feature screenplay, Breath of God, based on the life of St. Hildegard von Bingen. A composer, doctor, abbess, herbalist, philosopher, artist and medieval world leader, Hildegard introduced to the world her vision of the feminine face of God. She influenced and inspired many, asserted the beauty and dignity of women and shared a love with her religious sisters and the monk Volmar that lasted throughout her lifetime.
I travelled to Germany on four separate occasions. In Scotland, I handed Ewan McGregor a copy of Breath of God over a fence while men in skirts hurled trees for Highland Games.
Breath of God was blessed by Pope John Paul II and given high honors by the Vatican Division of Arts and Culture. An audio segment may be heard at the Brooklyn Museum, on permanent exhibition as part of Judy Chicago’s feminist installation, “The Dinner Party”. I promised my mother that I would complete Breath of God. After she died, I left my Master of Arts program in philosophy. It was then that I relocated to Los Angeles with immense determination.
Breath of God was selected as a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. I had already written, co-produced and starred in two short films, and have since written, produced, co-directed and starred in another short film titled Field Day, and my premiere feature, The Scarapist.
I recently sat down for Cinefemme’s sixth Dinner with Dames with David Boxerbaum, literary agent at Paradigm. He listened openly and spoke frankly. The industry is going through major overhauls, he explained. It’s true.
When I first relocated to Los Angeles in 1999, 270 spec scripts that were optioned were produced. In 2015, it was 12. We’ve seen the shift to remakes and super hero franchises, from A Beautiful Mind and Mulholland Drive to Iron Man and X-Men. In television, there are many CSI-inspired procedural dramas, reality TV, and web-to-series fare.
David stated that indie film is dying, or, at least, the way indie film has been done in the past. I must agree. The days of Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and Steven Soderbergh making movies without box office names are nearly extinct, and letters of interest and intent are harder to find than sincere casting feedback. A new day is dawning, and it will take all of the courage and creatively we can muster.
Some professional women are seeking new platforms for their work. Liz Hinlein and Paige Morrow Kimball mentioned their participation in a few of the industry’s diversity programs. Morrow Kimball applied to the Sony Diverse Directors Program for television multiple times before being accepted. She says, “As women, we have to work even harder than our male counterparts and not give up. I believe that the programs give us a great opportunity to advance a few steps, and I’m personally grateful to have that channel.”
While these programs increase opportunities for some women, they have resulted in little impact on women-directed features within the studio system. The numbers dropped from 9% of features directed by women in 2015 to 7% in 2016. According to the Directors Guild of America, or DGA, the 2015-2016 television season had women direct 17% of episodes, up from 16%. For women seeking work in a male-dominated industry, diversity programs may aid in the discovery of up and coming female talent, and we encourage such programs to give more women a hand up. Many feel that more support is needed from networks and production companies in getting women hired after such programs.
David Boxerbaum did say that women-driven biopics are hot right now, and stories of hope and courage are selling. Since Hildegard von Bingen has been my motivation for going into movies, I’m thrilled to hear of the industry’s current proclivity for women protagonists. Michelle Kantor described her project in development, Red Star: River to Freedom, as being a story of hope and courage. The documentary and series are based on her father’s experience scuba diving to the free west from Communist Czechoslovakia.
Terry Rossio, co-screenwriter of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, once told me that a screenplay is like a used car and an agent like a corresponding salesperson. The agent knows how difficult it is to make the deal, especially when you are casting yourself in the film. Attaching yourself is like putting a boot on the car, which is why I became a producer and director, too.
It is the dream of my lifetime to bring Hildegard von Bingen to the big screen. And while Boxerbaum agreed that working with an agent to sell a screenplay while attached as an actor is “nearly impossible,” he said that writer/directors, and women especially, are enjoying increased success.
David Boxerbaum tells us that a great script, in the eyes of an agent, comes down to what sells. He also says that talent tends to rise to the top and be discovered. He finds new talent at about twenty festivals, including Palm Springs and Santa Barbara International Film Festivals. He also recommended a well-crafted short film over a feature in this market and said he has signed talent from short films.
Robert Redford pointed to women as the future of film. The men who will survive best are the ones who accept their leadership. Mentors are an important part of our development as artists and leaders, and there are women would appreciate more hands on and open mentorship from established creatives and executives in Hollywood.
As I sat at a table breaking bread with six talented women at various places in their careers and lives, I am continually struck by the ingenuity, passion and tenacity of so many in our community. We agreed, the time has come, not to think of each other in competition but cooperation.
Cinefemme is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by women filmmakers, for women filmmakers in 2002. Cinefemme provides fiscal sponsorship to women filmmakers and artists, as well as peer-to-peer networking, mentorship, and strategy for project fundraising. By advancing women’s careers in film and the arts, we empower women’s voices to create gender parity in the arts and equal representation in the media.
About Jeanne Marie Spicuzza:
Jeanne Marie Spicuzza is a writer, actress, filmmaker, painter, herbalist, and the founder and CEO of Seasons & a Muse, Inc. Nominee and winner of various awards, including the Golden Headset Award, the National Organization for Women “Woman of the Year,” and the Shepherd Express Best Performance Artist of the Year, as well as a semi-finalist in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, Jeanne Marie has toured internationally and is published in A Gathering of Tribes, Blue Fifth Review, The Nervous Breakdown and others. Her award-winning feature thriller, The Scarapist, screened at festivals, markets and theatres internationally and is currently out On Demand. She is in post-production of her next feature film Night Rain. Her web site www.seasonsandamuse.com includes additional details.