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From ice cream to Zoom screenings: How female filmmakers are getting their work seen in the pandemic

November 6, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

We all need an escape—now more than ever. Luckily, content creators are still developing, producing, and distributing series and films, finding creative ways to get projects out the door during the pandemic. 

At a Fortune Most Powerful Women virtual event that took place last week, three prolific, female filmmakers spoke about the challenges and opportunities of working in the current environment. The audience heard from dream hampton, executive producer of the Peabody Award–winning documentary Surviving R. Kelly; Jyoti Sarda, producer of the PBS miniseries And She Could be Next—all about the women of color who are transforming politics; and Sarah Megan Thomas, writer and producer of A Call to Spy, a new film about female heroes from World War II. 

So what has it been like to create art in the middle of a pandemic—and even launch a movie while many theaters are still shut down or seeing just a trickle of moviegoers? “It’s been really different from the business side, being an indie, because I made this film for the big screen,” said Thomas, whose movie is now streaming on demand. “It’s a World War II piece that’s beautifully shot.”

Getting the word out about new projects, especially without a big marketing budget, has been particularly challenging given the inability to hold in-person events. “Word of mouth is crucial to an independent—you don’t have television commercials and posters everywhere,” said Thomas.

The filmmaker, who also created and starred in the female-driven Wall Street flick Equity, has found creative ways to market her recently launched movie: “I partnered with an ice cream company in San Francisco called Smitten Ice Cream, led by a female CEO. We have special edition ice creams tied to characters in the movie.” (An example: Vera Atkins, a British intelligence officer and one of the characters in the film, is now a Smitten flavor featuring Earl Grey with milk chocolate chips.)

hampton, meanwhile, has had her hand in several projects even as restrictions have made it difficult to travel to and shoot in different locations. (She spoke to the Fortune audience while on a shoot in Harlem, where she was interviewing an octogenarian about voting rights.) In August, hampton directed and executive produced the Black National Convention. The virtual event was organized by the Movement for Black Lives, with the aim of pushing for slavery reparations and a reimagined criminal justice system, among other reforms. 

“It was an incredibly ambitious, three-hour broadcast,” said hampton. “The challenge there was to make it something more than a bunch of Zoom panels, which everyone is fatigued from.” 

The filmmaker says she always tries to connect with and employ local crews. But shooting the convention during the pandemic forced her to rely on on-the-ground talent even more. “I was able to connect with small film crews in places like Jackson, Mississippi, or Tennessee or Oakland, California,” said hampton. “Stories came in and were produced entirely by local producers and directors because that’s what we had to do.”

If not for the pandemic, hampton said she would have ultimately come to places like Oakland with her team to shoot. “I got to learn the amazing work of local filmmakers in all of these places,” said the filmmaker. “I’m from Detroit, so I know what it’s like for people to think there’s no one with talent in [your] town. I learned so much.”

As for Sarda, her timely series had finished filming by the time COVID hit and was never intended to be released in theaters. Still, getting the documentary finalized with pandemic-induced restrictions was a challenge. “The edit team had to complete all of our postproduction [work] remotely,” said Sarda. “But at least we didn’t have to shoot during the pandemic.”

Not getting to observe others observing her work has also been limiting. In the past, screenings in front of live audiences would have been a given. Not so today. “I have yet to see our documentary screened in front of a live audience to know the nuances of how they’re reacting to the characters,” said Sarda. “We do a lot of digital screenings and Q&As—like a lot of documentaries do. But it’s not the same thing as being with an audience. I’ve really missed that.”

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