Bentonville Film Festival

Festival co-founder and Academy Award winner Geena Davis.

By Caleb Talley | Photos courtesy of the Bentonville Film Festival

Every spring, countless actors, directors, producers and more come together to promote equality and inclusion in one of the most culturally significant industries in the world: the entertainment industry.

These major media influencers aren’t converging on California. Nor are they headed to New York. They’re traveling from Hollywood to Arkansas to take part in one of the most prominent film festivals in the country.

This May, the beautiful Ozark Mountains will play host to the Bentonville Film Festival for the fourth consecutive year.

The Bentonville Film Festival was founded in 2015 by Inclusion Companies CEO Trevor Drinkwater and Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis – star of such films as A League of Their Own, Thelma & Louise and Beetlejuice. Their goal was to create, with the help of Walmart, a film festival that championed inclusion in all aspects of entertainment media.

According to their mission, the Bentonville Film Festival Foundation seeks to immediately increase diversity in the entertainment media being produced and distributed, raising the voices of those who are often underrepresented.

And since BFF’s founding, that mission has consistently caught the attention of those within the Hollywood media ecosystem with similar goals.

“We heard about the festival through word of mouth,” says Jen Prince, producer of the film Quality Problems, which screened at the festival in 2017. “It really seemed to fit our mission with the type of projects we create.

“It also seemed like a festival that would not only be a good opportunity for our film, but also for us to meet with likeminded people and network with filmmakers who are in similar projects, experiencing similar obstacles in their careers,” she adds. “It seemed like it was really trying to be a festival for people who are often sidelined.”

If they can see it, they can be it. According to Prince, representation matters.

Musical artist Jewel performs at last year’s festival.

“What you see on the screen is reflected in the culture,” she says. “Everybody deserves to have their story told. And having your story told creates a feedback loop. The more we can see other people’s perspectives, the more empathy and understanding comes through.

“It also empowers people to believe that they can be more than a stereotype, that they can achieve things they never thought possible because they saw people do it on the screen,” Prince adds. “That’s a powerful tool for the filmmaker and the audience.”

Writer and director Dorie Barton was there for the first Bentonville Film Festival back in 2015. She continues to see the festival as a vehicle for the accurate reflection of gender balance and diversity in society. Her film, Girl Flu, a coming-of-age story about a girl’s journey to womanhood, was a competition film in last year’s festival. It was a perfect fit.

“I’m a woman, a female filmmaker,” Barton says. “My film, Girl Flu, is very much a story about becoming a woman. Half of our population – actually more – is female. It’s thrilling to see more and more women’s voices being heard and lifted up. Half of us are women. Half of the films we’re seeing should be about, or for, women. The same is true for people of color. And it goes on and on. I think it’s amazing.”

A lot has changed in the entertainment industry, even in the months since the 2017 Bentonville Film Festival. Last year’s festival was opened by a film produced by the Weinstein Company, with Harvey Weinstein in attendance.

Weinstein was expelled from the Hollywood media ecosystem last fall after numerous credible claims of sexual assault and harassment were levied against him. For years, he acted as a gatekeeper to women in the entertainment industry, using his power to take advantage of those underrepresented.

Thanks to a number of courageous women, Weinstein and those like him are being shown the door, slowly making the industry a better place for women and minorities. But there’s work left to be done, and the Bentonville Film Festival is helping bridge that gap.

“We do need a little extra support right now,” Barton says of women and other underrepresented factions of society. “We’re trying to change the culture. And any time there’s a change, that requires a burst of energy. That’s what the Bentonville Film Festival is all about, creating a yearly event that serves as a burst of energy, giving all these new voices a platform.”

Davis signs autographs for fans.

To achieve their goals, the Bentonville Film Festival Foundation partners with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The two organizations work together to support research which proves it is commercially beneficial to support a systematic change in the way diversity and gender are portrayed in entertainment media.

The Bentonville Film Festival doesn’t just serve to lift up voices of the underrepresented in media. It also showcases Arkansas to the rest of the world.

Most of the film producers, creators and distributors coming from Los Angeles to Bentonville have no idea what to expect when their planes touch down at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Many of the BFF first-timers have never set foot in the Natural State, at all.

“I really didn’t have any idea what to expect,” says Barton, who has family in Northwest Arkansas but had yet to visit. “Every film festival is kind of like that, if you’ve never been to the town before. There are always nice surprises.

“I think what was so interesting to me about Bentonville is that I didn’t know to expect the town itself to be so diverse,” she adds. “There were downhome places, really elegant places… Whatever experience we felt like having, it was there. The town was so culturally alive.”

Filmmakers were also excited to find the Arkansas audiences so receptive to such progressive films and conversations. And, of course, there’s nothing like a little Southern hospitality.

“From the moment we got off the plane we were embraced with such warmth, and not just by the festival,” says Prince. “I had never been to Arkansas before, and it was amazing. The people, the audiences, they were so responsive. It was an environment for talking about things that were topical, encouraging each other. We built relationships that, now a year later, have only grown.”

And for some, the Bentonville Film Festival introduced filmmakers to an incredible filming destination.

Johnny Remo, a producer from SkipStone Pictures, was immediately enamored by the Northwest Arkansas community during his first visit to the Bentonville Film Festival. Remo entered the festival with a Christian film, acknowledging that faith-based films are often sidelined by Hollywood’s mainstream media elite.

A local screening committee poses for a photo at last year’s festival.

When he arrived, Remo was instantly sold on Arkansas.

“I get off the plane, and all I see is rolling hills,” he says. “Once I get into town, I thought I was on the set of Back to the Future. I knew instantly that I had to shoot there. I have to, regardless of how the festival went.”

And he did. Remo’s family film, F.R.E.D.I., was shot exclusively in Bentonville, with support of Northwest Arkansas local Kerri Elder, who just last month opened Rockhill Studios to help other filmmakers in the region. He also received help from Arvest Bank, McLarty Daniel, Phat Tire, the University of Arkansas and many more.

The community, Remo says, rallied around him and his crew. “Everyone in that town was so great,” he says.

Remo’s film will debut at this year’s festival, with the possibility of a guest appearance by one of the film’s high-profile stars. The filmmaker is excited to return to Arkansas, and is even planning a sequel to his film, which he hopes will also debut at the festival in the future.

“I’ve been to a lot of film festivals,” Remo says, “and this was probably the best I’ve ever been to.”

The 2018 Bentonville Film Festival will kick off on May 1, with an opening night film and performances by Carly Pearce and Jillian Jacqueline.

The festival’s schedule, from May 2 to May 6, is loaded with movies, both competition and non-competition, as well as musical performances, discussion events and appearances by such stars as Meg Ryan and Busy Phillips. Musical performances by American Idol star Lauren Alaina, Vintage Trouble, Alex Aiono and Song Suffragettes are also slated for the event.

This year, the festival will also feature every film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, free of charge to the public.

For more information about this year’s Bentonville Film Festival, to purchase tickets or to see the entire schedule of events, visit bentonvillefilmfestival.com.

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