What's not to love about the Bentonville Film Festival? Walmart. | Rock Candy

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What's not to love about the Bentonville Film Festival? Walmart.

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2015 at 3:21 PM

click to enlarge Geena Davis
  • Geena Davis

The Bentonville Film Festival, launched this year by actress Geena Davis and held earlier this month from May 5-9, earned a number of largely positive notices from major outlets like the Huffington Post ("At the Bentonville Film Festival, Women Are Playing in the Major Leagues"), the L.A. Times ("Bentonville Film Festival pushes diversity message from year one") and the New York Times ("Bentonville, Ark., Hosts a Film Festival Without a Movie Theater"), most of them centering on its vital agenda — promoting diversity and gender equality in filmmaking — and its celebrity cachet (e.g. an acting workshop taught by Robert De Niro, a softball game led by Rosie O'Donnell, etc.). 

There were also other, not-so-positive reactions, however, most interestingly a dispatch by Erika Milvy published this afternoon by the site Indiewire, and titled "Geena Davis' Film Festival is Great, But How Does Wal-Mart Fit In?" The answer is, awkwardly. Milvy describes the festival's offerings as an occasionally uncomfortable mixed-bag: 
A film slate comprised of G and PG ratings (and no gay characters); Wal-Mart executives on the programming committees, panels, and the jury; and reps from presenting sponsor Coca-Cola, one of whom closed an opening-night speech with the cheery message, "Drink a Coke and enjoy the movie!"

The sheer degree of corporate sponsors (AMC Theatres, Coca-Cola and, especially, Walmart) and their presence, Milvy writes, led to an odd sense of cognitive dissonance in the proceedings: 

Though corporate support certainly helps bring attention to these projects, sponsorship sometimes undermined the message. The Geena Davis Institute mission includes addressing issues of gender inequalities and stereotyping in entertainment targeting children 11 and under, but the festival's crowded VIB (Very Important Beauty) Lounge included girls as young as 5 getting manicures and beauty tips while posing in front of placards that urge girls to embrace their inner beauty.

"The messaging was so confusing," said Emily Best, founder and CEO of the filmmaker crowd-funding platform Seed&Spark. "Don't talk to me about women's empowerment the same time as you insist I get a manicure." Since Best didn't have a film in competition, she was free to tweet, "I have to drink more to swallow the hypocrisy."

Walmart's presence at the Bentonville event certainly wasn't incidental — Geena Davis' co-founder was Trevor Drinkwater, who is described by the New York Times as a "former Warner Bros. vendor to Walmart," and all winnings films were, Milvy writes, "guaranteed distribution on Wal-Mart shelves and online through (Wal-Mart-owned) Vudu." At least one filmmaker, though, reports feeling slightly marginalized by the corporate presence: 

A male filmmaker, who also asked to remain anonymous, added, "It feels as though pleasing and embracing the filmmakers and films is a secondary mission to feting Wal-Mart and sponsor VIPs." Some took umbrage that at the festival's big events and the awards ceremony, the first 5-10 rows were reserved for sponsors, not filmmakers.

UPDATE
: A reader just pointed me to this Huffington Post article from several months ago that makes plain some of the ideological messiness here: "In a recent interview with Adweek, Davis said 'I'm honored to collaborate' with Wal-Mart — which Davis must know is one of the most controversial gender discriminators in American retailing today," etc.

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