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Sundance and Toronto film festivals commit to increasing numbers of minority critics

New USC study finds white men dominate the ranks of film criticism

10:56 AMTwo of the world’s most influential film festivals are stepping up their efforts to ensure that more women and minority critics are covering them.

Representatives for the Sundance Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) said they will be reserving at least 20 percent of their top-tier press credentials for women and minority writers.

“In the past we’ve grown our international press, so a third of our media comes from outside Canada and the U.S. We’re looking to increase our media in the next few years, with a focus on underrepresented journalists,” said Andréa Grau, TIFF’s vice president of corporate affairs and public relations. In addition to monitoring traditional applications for credentials, this year the festival plans to “track a list of fresh voices that we see coming out from all over” and then invite those writers to cover the festival. An average of 1,300 journalists cover TIFF each year. This 20 percent bump will add additional slots. “We were due for an increase to begin with, and we think this is the best way to do that,” Grau said.

Sundance found that while it had largely achieved gender parity in its press credentialing, critics of color, critics with disabilities and LGBTQ critics were underrepresented.

“This initiative is in the Festival’s interest because it’s in our artists’ interests,” Spencer Alcorn, assistant director of media relations for Sundance, said in an email. “Enabling their work to be seen, reviewed and discussed by an inclusive, intersectional group of voices is our priority. Many of those voices may be new to covering the Festival, so we’re especially keen to deepen the qualitative user experience: the pass alone isn’t a complete solution. We’re retrenching how we communicate with new applicants to ensure that they can best navigate accreditation, attendance and on-the-mountain reporting.”

The news first came from Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson during her acceptance speech at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards on Wednesday night, but the plans had been in the works for months, Grau and Alcorn said.

“[Audiences] are not allowed enough chances to read public discourse on these films by the people that the films were made for,” said Larson, according to IndieWire. “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about [A] Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him. I want to know what it meant to women of color, to biracial women, to teen women of color, to teens that are biracial.”

Along with Cannes and Telluride, these festivals are big moments on the cultural calendar, and the journalists who cover them hold huge sway over what works get discussed. Sundance, which takes place every January in Park City, Utah, sets the tone for independent film, and the festival’s institute can offer a significant boost to minority and female directors. Filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Stanley Nelson, Dee Rees, Rick Famuyiwa and Jordan Peele all debuted well-received films at Sundance. This year, one of the most anticipated films to come out of the festival is Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You, which opens next month.

Meanwhile, Toronto and Telluride function as early barometers for award contenders. Both festivals have heavily publicized their efforts to include women and minority filmmakers in their lineups. Cannes, which was the site of a major protest for more female directors this year, has enormous influence, which is why it was such a big deal when it would not allow Netflix films to enter the festival’s competition. That’s a decision that disproportionately hurts minority filmmakers like Rees.

The announcement that Toronto and Sundance are championing efforts to diversify who covers festivals comes during the same week that the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, led by professor Stacy Smith, released a study scrutinizing the lack of diversity among critics. Annenberg drew its data from the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. It examined reviews of the 100 top-grossing films of 2017 and found that male critics outnumber female ones by a factor of 3.5. White critics authored 82 percent of reviews, while only 18 percent of reviews came from people of color. Reviews from women of color were just 4.1 percent of total reviews.

“The problem is, when the overwhelming number of critiques are coming from a specific demographic, we’re not getting a diverse enough point of view,” said ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, a freelance film and television critic.

While the film festivals are pushing for more diversity among critics, they have little control over who gets assigned to cover them. That responsibility lies with news organizations who either send staffers or hire freelancers to cover festivals. But it’s still significant; the festivals are using their bully pulpits to bring more scrutiny to a long-ignored problem.

“I do think that journalism organizations and outlets should enrich the diversity of critics globally, but I think that festivals can take initiative,” Alcorn said. “Based on our mission alone, our press corps shouldn’t reflect the landscape that Professor Smith’s study documented. As an organization that champions independent voices, it’s incumbent on us to envision and create a critical ecosystem where our artists’ work is discussed widely, thoughtfully, and with nuance, by a range of critics who can engage with the cultural experiences inherent in the work.”

Theodore-Vachon said there’s an issue of bias against nonwhite and non-male critics.

“I think there’s this fear that we’re automatically going to be biased in favor of black movies and give them positive reviews,” Theodore-Vachon said. “Everything that has black people, we’re just going to love on it. And clearly — Tyler Perry is a perfect example — that’s not true. I think black critics are some of the toughest critics.”

Reaching out to newer and lesser-known writers is a start, but covering festivals that can last two or more weeks, which require money for travel, lodging and food, can be cost-prohibitive, especially for freelancers. Theodore-Vachon said she had to crowdfund her way to SXSW this year. To address that issue, TIFF is planning to use funds from its Share Her Journey campaign to bring writers and critics to the festival who otherwise would be unable to attend. The fund has raised approximately $971,000 so far. The festival aims to raise $3 million by 2022, money it plans to extend to women and minority critics and also use to provide mentorship, skills development and media literacy for women on both sides of the camera.

By focusing her acceptance speech on the overwhelming white maleness of film criticism, Larson became part of a broader group of actors and directors who have called for more diversity among those who judge their art. Meryl Streep lodged a similar complaint about the lack of female film critics while she was promoting Suffragette in 2015. At a news conference at the BFI London Film Festival, Streep lamented that she found only 168 women whose reviews count toward the site’s famed Tomatometer, compared with 760 men.

In 2016, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler also called attention to the lack of critics of color during an acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Film Critics awards. “I wanna tell you guys how important it is, the work that you guys do,” Coogler said. “It connects the world to the work that we do. We’re twin siblings in that you love filmmaking as much as filmmakers.”