Byline: Mandy Ellis
Shana Betz hopes one day her organization goes out of business. The co-president and founder of The Chimaera Project and award-winning filmmaker may have grown up standing in line for government cheese, but a move into entertainment sparked a fire to grow to bigger heights and change the industry for female filmmakers. Behind-the-scenes, stories that went untold moved her, along with her co-founders America Young and Cheryl Bookout, to form The Project that they hope will eventually be unnecessary due to reaching gender parity and increased diversity in Hollywood.
EMinutes, who recently donated to The Chimaera Project’s To Get Her program, talked to Betz about changes for female directors over the last few years, why finishing funds are gold to getting new stories told, how powerful entertainment and having a platform are, and the future of their forward-thinking Project.
Since 2012, The Chimaera Project has been working hard for changes for filmmakers who identify as female. What shifts have you seen in film in the last 10 years, and what changes do you want to see in the next 10?
There’s been a shift in awareness in the last about five years. But before, you had to really bang that drum in order to breakthrough in regards to the dire numbers of female filmmakers in the industry and within the studio system. We were banging a drum to deaf ears and we’ve been around for seven years. But there was a shift in awareness to the fact that the numbers were so terrible, like we’re talking two percent of studio films directed by females.
The composition of the pie has changed so much in the last few years because of television. We’ve got all the streaming services and original programming and all the directing that’s happening online through streaming services, like the first female directing a Star Wars series.
As far as the future and what I’d like to see in the next 10 years, one, as a female director in the independent film space, I’d like women to have more value in the space. For example, when a project is being put together, it’s not, “Oh, well that director isn’t worth anything in this market;” that’s part of the problem. Two, more exhibition spaces for those stories to be told, like Netflix is making a concerted effort in having an all-female filmmaker and female stories channel. And the third thing, I’d love for organizations like The Chimaera Project to be completely and absolutely unnecessary. I want to put myself out of business.
In what direct ways does The Chimaera Project empower and support filmmakers who identify as female?
We do find fiscal sponsors, but we have a program called To Get Her, and it’s a finishing funds program. People submit their films, shorts, and features, and we assess how much money would make a difference if we were to give them finishing funds. It’s one of our most successful programs and we’ve found that what women do with very little is shocking. We’re proud of the program and that we’re getting filmmakers over the finish line and into film festivals and getting picked up by different exhibitors.
Walk me through the opportunities for women in action projects. What do you have that shows the growth of women in the action sector or how much room there is for females to claim film spots there?
To give you a slice of what women are up against, we have to have the experience in order to get hired for an action film. I have to show that I’ve done action in order to get hired for an action film. It does not work the same way for men. For example, for our To Get Her finishing funds program, we often pick films that are crossing genres for those filmmakers. It’s pushing them into comedy, action, getting them into different areas so they have something to show in order to get them at the table because without a calling card, females are a bit dead in the water trying to get into the action space. So what we’re trying to do is help specific people that want to get into that space get there.
How do your core projects change hiring practices in Hollywood? How do the panels, screenings, and gender-flipped screenplay readings make a difference for the film world?
No one can take claim to changing hiring practices at this time. What we’ve done is create platforms where people can have real discussions because the conversations can be pretty ugly and no one wants to talk about hiring people of color and diversity in Hollywood. And so it takes people with tantamount respect for each other to sit at a table and have a very real conversation to make change. Where our focus has been is established filmmakers who want to jump genres or work more in the television space or switch roles from going from AD to director or going from writer to director or special effects to director or stunt coordinating into directing. They already have it together and then we’re betting on all these amazing thoroughbreds.
Why do you believe that only when people from different life experiences and points of view express themselves change is created?
Entertainment is incredibly powerful, and you can bring awareness through entertainment then change. If the only stories we’re telling are male dominated, white stories, there’s a false sense of reality depicted and it makes women and minorities and people of different sexual orientations feel like they don’t exist. And that’s dangerous.
When you begin to change the media and start to change what people are seeing, they begin identifying and can understand a little bit about how they can change the world. For example, I grew up on welfare, my mother was a drug runner, and both my parents went to prison. I grew up standing in a food line getting logs of cheese. Then through college, my mind broke open with the idea that I could be a part of what I’m seeing on television.
When I got inside that machine, I realized it still didn’t look like me and the stories still weren’t being told. Where are all the poor people? Where’s the female director that came from a hard life? Why is that? Stories aren’t being told because the scripts have to be written. If you’re not telling those stories, people think they don’t exist. And that’s how I felt through a lot of entertainment.
Everybody talks about how the American dream is a white picket fence. Where’s the white picket fence? I don’t know. I didn’t grow up with a white picket fence. And I’d like my story told. So I’m changing what we’re seeing. I have a female crew, a mostly female cast, and we’re talking about socioeconomic issues that are not being discussed in a fictional manner. But it’s like, where are my people? And that’s the importance of what we’re doing.
Why is it important to support programs like The Chimaera Project?
Our organization is at a stage where no one gets paid and people do it because they believe in the issue and the focus it takes to make change. We’re a nonprofit and we’re underfunded and it’s all about the change. It’s not like, “Oh, you need more money to make change,” it’s more like, “You need people.” We need people. For the last seven years, we have put in a tremendous amount of sweat equity, but it takes real equity in order to invest in filmmakers. We’re investing in people and that takes money.
And we need money to give to filmmakers, and our third partner, Cheryl Bookout, is an extraordinary grant writer so we’re able to get grants to fund our programs. But we want to amp up our programming budget so we’re actually giving filmmakers what they need. You can give somebody a dollar or a hundred dollars. I’d much rather give somebody a hundred dollars because I know what they can do with it. We’re already picking the right people that know what to do with a dollar so with more money what they can do is exponential.
How does the EMinutes sponsorship impact The Chimaera Project? Any upcoming plans for the sponsorship?
America Young : It’s going to our most prized program, To Get Her, because it’s where we’ve seen the most concrete, powerful change. The films we’ve supported have gone on to be on PBS and one filmmaker got a docuseries while another won the LA Film Festival and was hired for another feature. And yet another filmmaker used their film to get into a directing program for TV.
We’ve been collecting those stories so we could help support filmmakers and also brag about how we’ve been able to help them; we’re so proud of it. That’s what the partnership is going toward is To Get Her so that there’s a concrete way of seeing the improvement that this money can actually make.
When you’re not directing films in the indie space, growing opportunities for female filmmakers, or changing the Hollywood landscape, who are you and what are you doing?
Outside of being a mom, I’m a writer, and a creator of ideas, programs, film, and television. But I’m always doing The Project, like America. That’s part of an identity that I’m ok wearing all the time. And from my beginnings as a young person, I always felt like a warrior, and that’s part of you. You don’t stop being a warrior when you take your armor off; it’s in every fiber of your being. And I want on my deathbed to be able to look at my daughter and say, “I did everything I possibly could to make your life better than mine.”
What should we be looking in the future from The Chimaera Project with all your amazing filmmakers, workshops, and programs?
Forward looking, it’s the Sci-Fi incubator program that we’re launching this year that I’m excited about, and giving and pairing filmmakers up with IP that’s written by women and crossing into that genre and giving people an opportunity. That’s where corporate sponsorships come in and it’s really important to get more funding this year, outside of grants, to invest in order to give women an opportunity to make something that competes in the market.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who identify as female?
I wrote a line in a series and it’s an old man talking to a young girl and she’s lamenting that she doesn’t know the business and is afraid to fail and she’s going to Wharton Business School. And he says to her, “Don’t let what you don’t know get in the way of what you do.” Don’t let us stop us.
BIO: Shana Betz is the co-president and founder of The Chimaera Project, which works to empower filmmakers who identify as female to create and lead, and inspires change with an inclusive model, in Los Angeles, CA. She’s an award-winning filmmaker who belongs to Glass Elevator.