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Cate Blanchett on Recruiting Lily Gladstone, Chloé Zhao, Greta Gerwig and More to Support Filmmaker Accelerator: ‘They Felt the Urgency’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Lily Gladstone has always been a huge fan of Cate Blanchett and now, fresh off joining her acting idol in the elite realm of best actress Academy Award nominees, the two women are teaming up.

Not on screen (yet), but for a greater cause.

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Gladstone is among the boldfaced names joining the selection committee for Proof of Concept, an accelerator program focused on supporting the perspectives of women, trans and non-binary people by financially backing their short “proof of concept” films.

The program was announced last December, with Blanchett and her Dirty Films partner Coco Francini teaming up with Dr. Stacy Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and supported by the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity to tackle the ongoing disparities facing these communities in the entertainment business.

Per the latest annual reports from Dr. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 6% of the directors of the 1,700 top-grossing movies were women between 2007 and 2023 and only 2 were transgender; moreover, less than one-third of all speaking characters in those same films were girls, women, trans or nonbinary people. In fact, 2023 marked a “historic low” for women in leading film roles, with only 30 movies featuring women and girls in lead and co-lead roles.

Joining them in the fight against these regressions and gaps are Gladstone, Chloé Zhao, Emma Corrin, Eva Longoria, Greta Gerwig, Jane Campion, Janicza Bravo and Lilly Wachowski, who will serve on the selection committee and determine the 8 filmmakers who will take part in the program. More than 1,200 filmmakers applied for the inaugural class; those chosen will each receive $50,000 to support the creation of a short film, be mentored by industry experts and have their films screened at a showcase later this fall.

“It came together very rapidly,” Blanchett tells Variety about assembling this powerhouse group of filmmakers. “We asked and everyone said ‘Yes’ immediately.”

She continues: “Obviously, we’ve all been feeling the need for a program like this. It’s essential to the vitality of the business to have initiatives like this. I mean, they’re all incredibly busy people, but they felt the urgency and the opportunity in this, which was really exciting.”

In the case of Gladstone, for example, she and Francini got talking at an event during the “Killers of the Flower Moon” star’s awards season campaign. “I said, ‘Hey, you should really check out this study that Dr. Stacy Smith and the Annenberg inclusion initiative did about Native representation in cinema,” Francini recalls. “From there, it snowballed into a bigger relationship.”

The report in question revealed that less than one-quarter of 1% of more than 62,000 speaking characters in 1,600 movies were held by Native Americans, thus underscoring the importance of Gladstone’s role in the film and the “erasure and discrimination against” Indigenous people and their stories. The phenomena is precisely what Proof of Concept aims to combat by attacking the problem from the top down — by means of giving underrepresented filmmakers the opportunity to tell a diverse array of stories.

Adds Blanchett of Gladstone: “I have profound respect for her both as an advocate as well as an actress. She’s incredibly generous and will make a wonderful mentor.”

Overall, the Proof of Concept selection committee is top-tier, with a collective 14 Academy Award nominations and 6 wins, 25 Golden Globe Award nominations and 8 wins, 26 Screen Actors Guild nominations and 7 wins, 5 Director’s Guild Award Nominations and 2 wins, and 8 Emmy Award nominations. Across their collective 197 films, they have earned more than $16 billion in global box office revenue — which, of course, includes Gerwig’s box office behemoth, last year’s “Barbie.”

Among this selection committee are two of the three women to win best director at the Oscars — Zhao and Campion (Kathryn Bigelow is the third) — as well as Gerwig, who has been nominated twice. Just eight women have been nominated for the Academy Awards’ best director prize, with Lina Wertmüller, Sofia Coppola, Emerald Fennell and this year’s nominee Justine Triet rounding out that group.

Aside from their achievements onscreen, it’s notable that the group represents a wide range of gender, racial and ethnic identities. Zhao is an Asian woman; Corrin is nonbinary; Longoria is Latina; Bravo is Afro-Panamanian and Jewish; Gladstone is Indigenous; and Wachowski is transgender.

Jane Campion, Emma Corrin, Eva Longoria and Lilly Wachowski
Jane Campion, Emma Corrin, Eva Longoria and Lilly Wachowski

“It’s really important to make sure all intersectional identities are represented. That this cross section of folks on the selection committee really represent, as much as we possibly can, a variety of different groups whose stories are necessary and are imaginative and have not been told,” Smith explains. “Since day 1, Coco has been adamant about finding ‘audaciously authored’ stories. So, the selection committee and the folks that that submitted their dossiers to this program really represent the world that we live in.”

Applications for the program closed on Feb. 16 and the pool represents a diverse group of filmmakers from a range of genders, races and ethnic groups, over indexing entertainment industry averages. Demographics of the applicants include: 85% of applicants identified as women, 2% as men, 9% as non-binary and 8.5% were transgender. Regarding race and ethnicity, 16% of the applicants were Black/African American, 13% were Hispanic/Latino, 14% were Asian, 5% were Middle Eastern/North African, 2.2% were Indigenous, and 1.2% were multiracial/multiethnic. And because the program was open to filmmakers of all levels of experience, the application pool also featured a large number of filmmakers who’ve previously directed features and television projects.

In an interview with Variety, Blanchett, Francini and Smith explain what comes next.

Will the selection committee members serve as mentors as well?

COCO FRANCINI: We want to create the program in a bespoke way. So, depending on who the participants are they might have different needs in terms of mentorship. Often in these programs, you get paired with a mentor and it may be a meeting you have once and that’s great, but we want to build a structure of meaningful mentorship and support. So some people might have two mentors, some people might have four. All these people certainly want to engage in the program in various different ways, but there’s more to come.

CATE BLANCHETT: The program addresses the obvious barriers that a lot of these filmmakers will have to entering the industry: that’s funding and that’s exposure and that’s mentorship. But the other thing that’s beneficial, which I’m already experiencing, is that active community-building.

By having a selection committee you’re activating a community from the get go, which is super important because, just speaking from personal experience, the wonderful thing about the data that Stacy has collected is that it makes you feel like you’re not going crazy. That the things that you feel out there are being felt by other people. And have been felt not just in this moment in time — because obviously there’s some very experienced filmmakers who are part of the selection committee and will hopefully be mentors — but that have been felt across time.

What was the reasoning that someone of this group gave for wanting to be involved?

FRANCINI: Several people that are involved in the selection committee, have been doing this kind of advocacy, in their own lives already. Lilly Wachowski has Anarchists United. Jane Campion has A Wave in the Ocean. We want to join hands with other people who are doing this work and try to amplify everyone’s efforts and create an ecosystem change.

What will the selection process look like? Are you planning on getting together in a war room or a war Zoom?

FRANCINI: We’d like to do that as much as we can, but we have to be a little flexible considering the time zones and schedules. But it’s a pretty detailed process of reviewing these applications. We received a landslide of applications, so we’re narrowing that down to finalists and we’re sharing materials with the selection committee for those finalists, and then we’re going to talk it out.

What are some of the things that stood out about these 1,200 filmmakers who applied?

DR. STACY SMITH: If you take a look at these demographic characteristics, we’ve never seen data like this. We’re over indexing against top-grossing films, in terms of the lineup of folks that responded to this call for projects. It really underscores that there is a very robust pipeline and this isn’t about talent; this is about access and opportunity.

Hispanic/Latinos are often at what we call scientifically “a floor,” meaning that their percentages are so low, but to see that 13% of the folks submitting identified as Hispanic/Latino is extraordinary. These numbers are very encouraging and fly in the face of what we typically see with hiring practices. So, from this and how many folks who are visiting and interacting with our site, this [program] galvanized a group of people, letting them know they’re seen and heard, and their stories are desired.

FRANCINI: The most moving thing is how we when we reached out to gender-marginalized communities, they came back to us in droves and that’s really powerful. It’s both fortunate and unfortunate, because these people aren’t getting jobs yet, but we received a lot of very, very experienced applicants. The applicant pool has proved the need for a program like this to help people move into larger-scale filmmaking because there’s plenty of eligible people out there, plenty of people with the right experience. It’s just about giving them the opportunity.

What reaction did you hear from the industry at large to the announcement of this initiative? What has surprised you?

FRANCINI: Several of the people on our selection committee reached out saying, “How can I get involved? How can I help?” So, that acknowledges that there’s a real problem to be solved here and people are excited to dig in and figure out how to solve it.

SMITH: It’s also the way forward. We know that to create change, and for healthy organizations, you need to have individuals that don’t overlap, that have cognitive differences and bring varying viewpoints. This is a model for the way you create change and ensure that talent rises, because there are multiple ways in which folks from different backgrounds will be heard.

My hope is that this is a structure that other entities – the legacy studios, the streamers, folks working on television — they look to the assembling of this leadership committee, and the recipients and the mentors, that this is the way that you make decisions. You bring in folks from a variety of different backgrounds, weighing in, giving their input and moving forward. This is just a blueprint effort of how you create change in the industry. I couldn’t be more enthusiastic and thrilled to see that what we’re doing is what theory and research suggests is the best practice.

Olivia Colman made headlines over the weekend talking about pay disparities for women in Hollywood – how does a program like Proof of Concept address that trickle down aspect of how who is behind the camera also affects that conversation?

SMITH: Our research is really clear: when you have a woman director behind the camera, a few things happen. You have more likely to have a female lead or a female cast; more likely to have women over 40; more likely to have women above the line and also crucially to have women working below the line.

But when you look at data and you break it down, why is it that certain films, certain directors, certain storylines, why are there these huge gaps that still remain? Being able to talk to filmmakers and hearing their impediments, they’re being told there’s ceilings on the stories that they want to tell. All this then translates into a price of how people are compensated for their work.

This [program] shows us there’s a desire. There is an audience. Often you must show and tell this industry how to create change. That is what we’re trying to do.

BLANCHETT: Change and inclusivity are scary concepts to a lot of people who are in positions of power. What I love about this program is that it addresses the fear and it addresses the failure of the imagination. Which is ironic that we’re talking about a failure of being able to imagine a more inclusive, diverse and therefore less homogenous and more exciting industry when we are an industry whose main tool is meant to be the imagination.

I’m very excited to begin. Because whenever one becomes a mentor to someone else or engages in a program like this from an advocacy perspective, you grow yourself as an artist because you’re exposed to ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about. So now the really exciting stuff begins. The stats are behind us. They’re shocking, but exciting in the way that the more we circulate them, the more we talk about them, the more we think this is not okay. And it’s also not leading us to a very exciting creative future for the industry.

[Pictured above: Lily Gladstone and Cate Blanchett; Greta Gerwig; and Chloe Zhao and Janicza Bravo.]

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