A few months ago, I had the opportunity and honor to participate as a judge in the first Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas. The event is aimed to create a positive and proactive influence in filmmaking to ensure films represent the national audience and the growing diversity of the population of the U.S. Women, after all, make up half of moviegoers and half of the U.S. population as a whole. It’s time their on-screen presence mirrored reality.
Through participating in the evaluation of five of the festival’s films, I learned a great deal about diversity, objectivity, and the creative process — not only as it applies to filmmaking, but also as it applies to marketing strategy and beyond.
The Mission of the Bentonville Film Festival
Spearheaded by actress Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the event (which was attended by Rosie O’Donnell and many other notable celebrities) focused on women and diversity. As a woman, I felt personally invested in this initiative.
Generally, films tend to portray minorities in a weaker light. Women in film often depend on men, which has negative connotations and stifles the growth of our society as a whole. The overarching mission of the Bentonville Film Festival was to change this by showing and discussing films that featured strong female and minority characters to paint a more accurate picture of the national audience and growing diversity in the U.S.
There were a total of 46 film entries in the festival. The winners would later go on to enjoy an AMC Theatres release, a Lifetime Movie Network release, Walmart DVD sales, and a digital release on the popular VUDU platform.
As a jury member, I was responsible for watching five of the entries. From there, we were to fill out a detailed evaluation form with specific criteria for each film, covering everything from tone and pacing to interest level and diversity. Our jury award deliberations were separate from our individual critique evaluations. This is where we shared our thoughts and collaboratively decided on a top film.
A New Understanding of the Creative Process
This is where things got interesting.
During these deliberations, one of the first things I realized was that all people viewed diversity differently. For each film, we had to ask ourselves questions like “Is the main character a female or a person of color?” Of course, this question is fairly straightforward. But more subjective questions like “Is the female or person of color depicted in a positive light?” and “Is there an empowering female or diverse message?” elicited different responses from different judges.
Then, we had to critique the film based on the criteria. Due to the collaborative nature of the process, it became clear very quickly that agreeing upon one film that best represented diversity wasn’t going to be easy.
While diversity is certainly a critical aspect, it wasn’t the only criterion. We also had to look at tone, pacing, characters, and the entertainment factor. Of course, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I like that film,” but if you’re truly objective, you’ll check all of the boxes and score the film appropriately. For me, it was about standing my ground and doing so in a way that used the criteria as the reason for my opinion.
If you can stick to that, you’ll take the subjectivity out of it.
After all, there’s no one definition of “creative.” Ideas aren’t something that just pop into our heads; they’re the result of different ideas shared by diverse people — all coming from different backgrounds and with varying degrees of experience.
As explained by author Isaac Asimov, creative minds must have not only the information and intelligence to figure out how things work, but also the ability to be open to new ideas and see how these ideas can work together. That’s what we, as judges, were doing through the deliberation process, and I’m willing to argue that’s what the filmmakers were doing as they told their stories.
I may not be a film producer, but I deal with storytelling and creativity every single day. At Mitchell Communications Group, we tell brands’ stories, and just as today’s moviegoers expect a story that leaves them on the edge of their seats, the same applies to any successful brand.
When I was asked to be a judge at the Bentonville Film Festival, I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did. But when I left, I felt like I had a whole new grasp on what creativity, diversity, and objectivity truly mean.
Sarah Clark is the president of Mitchell Communications Group, an award-winning public relations firm that creates real conversations between people, businesses, and brands through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. The agency is headquartered in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with offices in Chicago and New York City. Mitchell is a part of the Dentsu Aegis Network and has more than 300 offices in 110 countries. Clark is one of the top strategic communications professionals in the country, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and an exceptional track record in protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.