Sophie Mathisen: Why I won't be changing my name to Lena



6th August 2016

Words by Sophie Mathisen
Header image by Jo Duck

Like most first-time filmmakers raised in the long shadows of Rodriguez, Soderbergh and Tarantino, I had bought the independent dream – hook, line and sinker. Make a film. Take it to a festival. Sell said film. Make more films supported by an industry that recognises a unique voice, an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to apply oneself with dedication and diligence.

What is not divulged to the budding Kubrick is that the road from edit suite to audience has never been more circuitous. In a completely over-saturated market in which supply outweighs demand, distributors are spoiled for choice, making prospects slim for an outsider with no credits. This is further complicated if you happen to be a female filmmaker and your name does not end in Dunham.

I spent a lot of last year travelling with my film (A Film Called Drama) to various festivals in the hope that I would find a receptive buyer and fortunately did manage to secure a few meetings. Most resulted in a discussion about HBO TV series Girls, how similar my film was to Girls, or how I should have written it to more closely resemble Girls. I would point out that my film is not set in New York, has a lead cast of only one woman with two men, and is mainly in French.

Irrelevant, I was told. The market for my film is the Girls audience.

It was only as I continued down the path of distribution that I realized that such aversion to female filmmakers and their wares maybe more a result of fiscal mindedness over small mindedness.

When attempting to understand the film industry and its preference for male-created content over female-created content, it is important to frame filmmaking as a facet of economic – rather than artistic – expression. Fundamentally, when assessing the mechanics of studio or distributor choices, a discussion of dollars and cents, Daniel Kahneman’s Prospect Theory offers crucial insights. The theorem posits a psychological preference for surety in gambling, known as the certainty effect, where subjects exhibit various risk aversion/seeking behaviours in examples of potential wins and losses. Essentially, in a gamble where I have a 50/50 shot of either winning $1000 or winning nothing versus an option where I have $450 with certainty, I’m going to take the $450. Almost all of us will. Reverse this potential win to potential loss, however, and the resultant behaviour is very different. Given a gamble in which we have a 50/50 chance of losing $1000 or losing nothing versus a certain loss of $450, we become more courageous and willing to roll the dice.

So, in analysis of the preferences of distributors in acquiring and exhibiting content, it is clear that the underlying psychology of the film industry is the belief, or hope, that a film results in profit and not loss. Women directors, grossly outnumbered by men at the time of inception of our current Hollywood system, therefore contend with an economic rationalism that is both highly gendered and extremely pervasive. We are, due to our scarcity, considered the ‘riskier horse to back’ despite the fact that at least anecdotally there are strong examples to the contrary (The Dressmaker the most recent domestic example). Perhaps though, the answer to achieving gender parity at distribution level lies not with proving the worth of women but a more radical realisation that film, as an economic exercise, is about as fruitful as an afternoon playing the pokies.

When reviewing the inconsistent and disheartening statistics of the Australian box office (2014 being a particularly bleak year), it seems inconceivable that distributors are not taking more risks as they post losses (or meagre profits) with a frequency that one imagines would spell certain doom. Although unlikely that traditional cinematic distributors would reframe their business model to incorporate and expect a high probability of loss, online platforms such as Netflix and Vimeo on Demand have this eventuality at their very core. Online streaming services expect no one film will ‘breakout’ in the monetary sense that the big studios seem to be clinging to, which is why they offer quantity – and plenty of it. The time for Blair Witches, Reservoir Dogs and Sex, Lies and Videotapes is over. The likelihood of coaxing you or me out of our house (and pyjamas) on a chilly winter’s night to pay exorbitant prices for popcorn and post-mix is nigh on nil. But there is a strong chance you would be willing to pay ten dollars a month to see as much content as you can possibly binge-watch, and if Netflix can bank on that in the majority of cases, then there is a pretty big kitty they have to play with.

“Perhaps though, the answer to achieving gender parity at distribution level lies not with proving the worth of women but a more radical realisation that film, as an economic exercise, is about as fruitful as an afternoon playing the pokies.”

And by not seeking to make their money back on any one ‘white whale’ of a film, the likes of Netflix will be more willing to take a punt on content deemed to appeal to forty thousand, or perhaps four thousand people. And that is usually content made by women. The greatest example would have to be Making a Murderer, created and directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. Ten years in the making and funded through private means, the series was infamously rejected by larger distributors PBS and HBO, something the show’s creators did not take lightly. “There were definite low points where we were not sure whether we would ultimately need to compromise on something in order just to get the story out there. We thought that maybe we’d just put it up online ourselves”, Laura Ricciardi said in 2015. It was not until seven years in to shooting, that Netflix came on board, both backing the project and expanding its scope from eight to ten episodes. Potentially, this was as an act of supreme prophetic insight into the modern true crime sensibility, however, it is more likely that Netflix, a business dependent on its huge appetite for acquisition, is insulated against loss through its expectation of it, knowing that we will watch something over nothing. By taking the gamble and actively courting risk, they are conversely in a prime position to take the pay dirt if and when it rolls around. In the case of Making a Murderer, it certainly came (and came big) but most importantly, it came for two women previously edged out by the sexist economics of the big boys.

Similarly, Vimeo on Demand recently announced its Share the Screen initiative, dedicating itself to at least five new original works by female makers, and this is from a platform that has to date created just eight original series and shorts, three of those already produced and directed by women. Online democratisation of content means one click is equal to any other and therefore it makes little sense to be bound by rules that were laid out by development and distribution executives at a time when women were more likely to be found in the home than on set.

Today, content creation is more an automated response to digital accessibility rather than modern miracle. Alternative models of distribution that serve to sidestep distributor-as-tastemaker offer women the greatest point of entry into the roulette of distribution and I, for one, could not be more excited. As I prepare for the online release of my first feature, I fully expect to not make any money at all. In fact, I am going to be footing most of the bill myself so I know I will lose money. But this mindset has already resulted in a wave of risk-seeking strategies that might (but more than likely will not) result in a possible spike of success. Collaborate with a sock designer to make film-themed socks? Sure. Make earrings too? Ok. Try a day-and-date release even though there is no precedent for it here in Oz? Of course!

As we confront a landscape of high risk and low returns, perhaps it is time we finally admit that Spielberg-size dividends, as he even claimed himself, are actually a thing of the past. Banding content in digital tranches acquired by new distributors who fully expect film to be the economic equivalent of snake eyes, is the greatest outcome for a generation of filmmakers who have consistently tried to reverse a psychological imprint made many moons ago, to no avail.

Female filmmakers are gamblers with little left to lose by gross deviation from the rulebook. Especially if the rulebook is weighted against the very risks we are willing to take in our initial act of creation. In such a high stakes game, a name change to Lena might even seem sensible in the hope such an act might make our numbers come up. But realistically, our odds are best when we realise we had bad luck from the beginning. In the brave new world of Internet releases, each new browser is fresh promise, not perhaps of money, but of an audience, and our best shot at glimpsing Lady Luck herself.

Sophie Mathisen is a Sydney-based filmmaker, director, writer and loud advocate for gender parity in the arts.

Laura La Rosa