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Geena Davis on Bentonville Film Festival, Representation in Hollywood

Geena Davis on Bentonville Film Festival, Representation in Hollywood

Twenty years after launching her Institute on Gender in Media — which created a blueprint for gathering data about inclusion and diversity on- and offscreen — Geena Davis is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Arkansas’ Bentonville Film Festival, which she runs alongside fest director Wendy Guerrero. Here, the Oscar-winning actor shares her proudest moments from BFF (the June 10-16 event is expected to attract 65,000 attendees this year), the meaningfulness of a DEI-centered fest in a tumultuous election year and what most informs her “inherently not controversial” belief that storytelling should be for everyone.

How does it feel to see BFF reach this milestone?

We truly can’t believe 10 years have already gone by. When we launched, Bentonville didn’t even have a movie theater. (Laughs.) And now the town is booming — art, culture, restaurants and museums. It’s been amazing to see.

What’s been the toughest part of this process that you didn’t anticipate?

Getting funding. Walmart and Coca-Cola are our founding and presenting sponsors, respectively. But it’s a massive undertaking because we do so much to make the experience meaningful for our filmmakers.

A key tenet of BFF is its DEI-centered requirement that films showcase underrepresented groups. Where have you seen the most and least progress?

We’re making tremendous progress with gender, race and ethnicity-based inclusion. Unfortunately, representation for people with disabilities is still in the low-single-digits, despite one in four Americans identifying as being disabled.

It’s interesting to think that, since BFF launched, Coda, Parasite, Moonlight, Everything Everywhere All at Once and Nomadland — films that would also pass muster as BFF entries — have won best picture Oscars. To what degree does that reflect the kind of progress the fest strives to represent?

Those wins are very, very meaningful for us and, to me, show a lot of progress. It’s funny, [Coda actor and Oscar winner] Troy Kotsur came to our very first festival with a film called Wild Prairie Rose! It’s been thrilling to see his career evolve.

Ten years ago, the average person had never heard of DEI. Today, diversity and inclusion principles are weaponized politically across America. What is meaningful to you about BFF marking its big anniversary in this climate, especially in a red state like Arkansas?

I don’t want to get into politics, but I will say that BFF is staying the course, and our mission has never changed. Our corporate partners and studio partners haven’t backed down. The idea that you should be able to watch a movie and see yourself and your experiences reflected back at you is inherently not controversial.

How do you gauge success for filmmakers who debut their work at BFF?

To help people show their first film in public is very meaningful, with the hope they can make a second film. This is why we partner with NBCUniversal on the “See It, Be It, Make It” grant. Success is all about the filmmakers making connections.

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What’s your favorite BFF memory from the past 10 years?

We hosted a League of Their Own reunion softball game [in 2016] and showed the movie on a big screen on the field. Rosie O’Donnell and a few other original Rockford Peaches [players from the 1992 movie] came. That was super fun.

Festivals worldwide are still recouping from the pandemic and struggling to stay relevant and solvent. What advice would you give programmers during these challenging times?

I’m an incorruptible optimist when it comes to having high hopes for festivals. One thing that’s helped us is having a fierce devotion to our original mission, which is very much focused on underrepresented voices. You need to know that you’re serving a specific function and stay very passionate about that goal. Also, having enthusiasm from the community is crucial. Bentonville locals love the festival. I feel it each year the minute I get on the plane. People say, “Hey, I know where you’re going!”

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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