Festival programmer, film critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg about the turning tide for women working in genre

Rowan-Legg passportMy love of genre cinema began early, between my mother’s love of Mad Max and my father’s of Star Trek. My interest in genre cinema led me to take an MA in film studies at University of Toronto. At the same time, I became the Operations Director at Toronto After Dark Film Festival. As I worked as a theatre rep at other films festivals, I found that I was often suggesting films for consideration to the TAD director. Eventually, I asked him if I could also be an official programmer. It took some convincing, but after I showed my merit through several of my selections winning audience awards, I began to travel to other festivals to scout for films. Meanwhile, I continued in my academic studies. I moved to the UK to study Spanish fantastic film. Currently, I’m working on a book based on my research, and am the shorts programmer for Film4 FrightFest in London. 

It hasn’t always been easy. It’s hard for women in any industry. In film, women are not well represented in the creative areas. Of the three top jobs in film – producing, writing and directing – only in producing have women made good headway, making up about 25 per cent of producers. Perhaps because this is seen as more administrative, though to the contrary, it is an extremely important part of the creative process. It has been especially difficult for women to break through in genre cinema. Probably because, at least when it comes to horror, women are seen as being too ‘fragile’, that we will shy away from the violence that marks much of horror and genre cinema. I’ve had to fight to be recognized as a programmer, often dismissed by distributors or others who want their film in a festival; they assume because I’m a woman, I don’t understand their film when I tell them it’s bad, and they want a man’s opinion. As an academic, I’m constantly asked to look at genre film through feminist film theory, and while I have, it’s not the only approach I want to take, but often my opinion has not been considered valid unless I include some feminist perspective. But after working for several years as a programmer, my skills are now sought out, and as an academic, my work is published.

Luckily, the tide seems to be turning. Producers, festivals, distributors are now crying out for more genre film written for and directed by women. Pioneers such as Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Jennifer Lynch (Chained) have helped a new generation of women filmmakers such as Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska (American Mary), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), and Kristina Buožote (Vanishing Waves). Genre audiences are extremely cine-literate, and more open to new stories told from different perspectives, and these audiences will seek out your film. The place to start is the story: several colleagues have noted that for every 100 scripts they receive, maybe 2 or 3 are written by women. And they want more. So if you have a story, find the genre angle.

Dr. Shelagh Rowan-Legg is the Shorts Programmer for Film4 FrightFest in London, former programmer for Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and a film critic for Twitch. She recently completed her PhD on contemporary Spanish fantastic film.

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