Q&A: Cinefemme’s Michelle Kantor on Disrupting Male-Dominated Spaces

Michelle Kantor is no stranger to the challenges of a male-dominated movie business. A filmmaker herself, Kantor noticed the inequity in Hollywood early on, later co-founding the organization Cinefemme, a non-profit that provides programming and fiscal sponsorship to female professionals in the film industry. Her own experience as an independent filmmaker — she’s currently making two projects, a documentary Red Star and a narrative feature called The Rebel — has largely guided Cinefemme’s development into an inclusive network for women in the film industry. The organization recently launched a new membership, an opportunity to create a better community for women filmmakers.

Kantor sat down with Ms. to discuss the importance of supporting female filmmakers, networking, and representation in Hollywood.

First, can you tell me a bit about how you got into filmmaking?

I went to the University of Colorado Boulder and it was very much rooted in cinema as art. We had an experimental legend named Stan Brakhage, and he was one of my teachers and mentors. It was a wonderful experience and very immersive in film history. And so I grew a great love for cinema, cinema’s history, and cinema as art. Then, in grad school, I went to San Francisco State University. I really started researching statistics and trade numbers that women faced as directors in the film industry. It was at that point that I realized how dismal the probability of getting a job as a female director was. In 2002, two of my classmates and I decided we would approach the problem from a different standpoint. We didn’t want to feel disempowered, we wanted to finance ourselves to direct. So we created Cinefemme, incorporating a (501)(c)(3) so that we could have the fiscal sponsorship program. That enabled us to solicit donations and grants through the government.

When you founded the organization, were you surprised by how difficult it was to come by job opportunities for female filmmakers? 

I don’t know. I’ve always been someone who—I’ve never really had things come easily to me. We were in San Francisco and a bit isolated from Los Angeles and the actual Hollywood industry. To me, it just felt like that was the reality, but that we were going to create the best possible situation for ourselves. So it wasn’t all that surprising. We were never taught to honor women in our schools. In undergrad, we had one women’s film history class, but it’s just not in the lexicon, and that was disappointing. But personally, I’m very much a disruptor. If I don’t like how something is and I think it could be better for everyone, I like to be the change, a positive force.

Was there a specific event that you and your co-founders encountered that catalyzed the disruptor within you? 

We just made general observations and did the research. I don’t recall a specific event. I was producing my thesis film about a girl living with epilepsy at the time. I’ve had epilepsy since I was thirteen and though it’s under control, it’s been another part of my filmmaking because it informs how I view the world. I like to make films that really haven’t been seen before; I like to explore perspectives that people aren’t aware of, normalizing and removing stigmas.

Would you say that normalizing and removing stigmas is a quality you look for in the film projects that Cinefemme sponsors?  

We just end up attracting high-quality, high-caliber women who present a unique viewpoint to the world. We haven’t turned down any projects for reasons other than being non-commercial or because we were already at capacity. But I would say that the projects that really interest us are ones that are cutting edge, revolutionary, or for lack of a better word: badass. We have one woman, Sade Oyinade, and she’s an executive producer on a television show — that should tell you the landscape for how hard it is. I mean, she’s an accomplished industry professional and she still has to go through a non-profit like ours to get her legs in as a director. We like to sponsor women who see themselves as artists or filmmakers because they bring a unique perspective into their filmmaking. That can eventually become very commercial, as we see with Moonlight, and that’s very revolutionary. Those films become mainstream because they appeal to people whose perspectives and whose voices and whose representation haven’t been seen on a mainstream level. So it’s important to support the women with these perspectives so that they’re represented, so that they can serve as role models.

Besides fiscal sponsorship, Cinefemme hosts a number of other programs. Can you talk a bit about the official membership launch? 

Absolutely. So at the beginning of 2017, we launched an official membership because I was having a hard time involving people who wanted to be official ‘Cinefemmes,’ but that we didn’t have the bandwidth to sponsor or they didn’t have a project they needed a sponsor for. So I wanted a way to be inclusive, including women who were actively seeking a community. We created a membership where eligible women can become Cinefemmes and what’s unique about our membership is that it is open to women professionals both above and below-the-line. Many grassroots organizations in the past only focused on women above-the-line, which created divisions. When that happens, women don’t end up hiring each other because they aren’t building any relationships. So by really opening it up to both groups, Cinefemme is able to be more inclusive, a stronger agent of change for women in the film industry. If we just focused on directors, there are plenty of groups that already do that. That’s not going to change anything.

Why are professionals above-the-line prioritized?

I’ve created a way where we can really focus on our directors, giving them the direct benefit of getting their projects made through fiscal sponsorship. In addition to that, I also work really hard to create relationships with studios, festivals, with various conferences and vendors, to really benefit each individual director. But then, aside from directors, by opening up the membership to production designers, composers, editors, and of those trades, we can create other collectives under Cinefemme. We’ll work with them to do that. We’re adaptable and we want to fill whatever need there is. You’ll see more women getting hired, and you’ll foster more of a community.

And why do you think that it’s important to create a collective or a network?

It’s important because the industry is built on relationships. People often hire their friends and the people they go out and spend time with. It’s really so much more about relationships than it is about a piece of paper or a resume. The more women come together, the higher we’ll lift each other up.

In addition, Cinefemme is embarking on a number of new endeavors — like a podcast and a partnership with Bluestockings Festival — what excites you about those?

The podcast is called ‘The Test’ and Michal Sinnott and Jessica Rotundi run it. It’s based on the Bechdel Test [a method for assessing whether film scripts meet the minimum standards to avoid the gender gap.] So it’s two women, and a guest, talking about subjects that aren’t specifically a man. It’s great because it’s a chance to focus on creative women in the industry and to find out more about their work. Too often, women aren’t given an individual focus as artists and creators, probably because that’s where the power is. That’s why we’re shut out from these creative powerful traditions. It’s threatening. So the podcast is a way to put focus where it belongs, honoring these individual women.

What about your recent partnership with Bluestockings Festival?

I’m very proud that we’ve been able to bring in Bluestockings, a Bechdel-approved film festival based out of Portland, Maine. They weren’t able to get the financial support they needed from their community, and they were one of our fiscal sponsorees, so rather than see them go under, I offered them a home at Cinefemme. So we forged a partnership with them and this year, they’re going to do a pop-up festival at the Egyptian in Los Angeles, fundraising for a more permanent residency out in Maine.

How does a partnership like that work? What exactly is Cinefemme’s role?

We’ll help connect with the venue, and we have a press list. Here’s how a lot of our programs operate: when women have a great idea, they have a plan of execution, and they have motivation—at a festival, they just need an organization to see it come to fruition. That is where Cinefemme can work as a great partner. I can support them; I can help them if they need it. That way, our partners have the freedom and autonomy to see their vision come to life through Cinefemme. We want the freedom to create the type of industry that we want to see and a specific kind of environment for women filmmakers. And that is jobs and money because that’s where you have ultimate freedom and autonomy. But if we’re able to accomplish as much as we can with as few resources as we have, imagine what we can do with ‘male’ resources. We’d be unstoppable.

Why don’t you think female creatives and artists are a priority in Hollywood? 

That’s a complicated question. I do know a lot of it has been due to a lack of legislation, which the EEOC is now working to resolve. I also just think that — for instance with #OscarsSoWhite — there was a widespread national awareness. There was a real awakening to this injustice. A white male Hollywood is the ultimate propaganda machine and you’re not seeing an accurate reflection of what America’s culture is actually like. It comes in steps, and the next step is going to be for women. There has to be an overhaul on how we as a society perceive women and ourselves. There has not been enough follow up and not enough actionable change. The industry is filled with people who want to help and want to do the right thing, but they need to be guided. We’re trying to serve as that guiding force, using a multifaceted approach to change the system. It’s a huge paradigm shift. It’s not enough to have some token women come in to fill spots. Even with the diversity program, they’re just hiring the same women for all the same diversity. It doesn’t actually solve the problem.

What changes in the film industry are you still waiting to see or that you want to see in the future?

I don’t want a few token women. The biggest thing that I see now is that they’ll take an elite group of women, and then funnel that small group through to use them as tokens. That’s not good enough. It’s a perpetuation of the elitism that as feminists, we ultimately have to work on. Elitism does not equate to feminism. Feminism is about equality. Now, that’s not to say that the most talented, highest caliber people shouldn’t be getting jobs. They should be. But I still know a lot of people that deserve work and they can’t get any. So my wish is to see more women pitching to networks and studios, being the creative forces behind feature films, television shows, and getting the money. I’d like to see more women getting hired at all levels, and I’d like to see more women at the top hiring more women. I’m on the organizing committee of the Women’s Media Summit in Massachusetts, which takes place at the end of March. It’s the coming together of the greatest brains in the industry to resolve inequality in the media. I’m very excited to be a part of creating lasting change.

Do you have any long-term goals for Cinefemme specifically?

Yes, I’d love to see our fantastic films reach a wider audience and for a Cinefemme fiscal sponsoree to go on to get an Oscar. I think they absolutely could because the talent is here. The women producing films through Cinefemme are powerhouse producers. I mean these women know how to raise money, they know how to get projects done, and they know how to tell stories in a powerful way. These are talented women so I want to see them achieve their fullest potential in their careers. And I want to see the same for myself.


Alexa Strabuk is an editorial intern at Ms. and has worked as a writer, editor, graphic illustrator and editorial intern for magazines including ELLE, YES!, The Student Life and Mochi. She was recognized by the Asian American Journalists Association for her work as an up-and-coming reporter. Alexa is pursuing a B.A. in Media Studies at Pitzer College with a minor in Asian American Studies.