Many nights a year, after Diana Means finishes up her work in production and creative services at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, she stays in the office until midnight to work on her passion project: the Los Angeles Women's International Film Festival, which kicked off its 13th edition last night.
Means says her impetus for the fest, which runs through Sunday at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, was an accumulation of continuously noticing disproportionate representation for women in media. "In film school, all the films we watched were made by men, and I was very sensitive to being forced to watch films where women were either overly sexually portrayed or raped," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. Later, as a volunteer screener for various film festivals, she noticed an absence of selections by female filmmakers. When she pointed that out to one festival panel 15 years ago, somebody responded, "What do women direct besides tampon commercials?"
"It was a slap in the face," recalls Means, who had screened dozens of quality submissions from women that year, none of which ended up on the program. She walked away determined to do something about the slight: "I don't know what the path is to become a director, but if part of that journey involves film festivals, that's one door I want to open."
Means launched Alliance of Women Filmmakers as the nonprofit behind her festival, taking classes in nonprofit governance and grant writing to learn how to set up 501(c)(3) status and secure funding. She has received grants from the city of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs as well as the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, although she also took a loan out against her 401(k) to get the festival started. Means says she hasn't even come close to breaking even: "You're definitely not in it for the money."
In order to keep costs low, the festival is entirely volunteer-based, and Means spends about 300 hours working on it each year. But she says it's not entirely a one-woman show, crediting affinity groups like her own company's Women of Warner for support and assistance over the years, as well as venues and vendors that have offered discounted rates.
"I don't have a name, but what do I have to offer?" Means says of her approach to making it all work. "You don't always come from a place of need. You always have something you can offer. Figure out what that is, and then [approach partners] like, 'What can I do for you?'"
This year, in addition to Bette Gordon's opening-night thriller The Drowning and Isabel Coixet's closing-night drama Endless Night, Means is excited about two documentaries with particularly timely relevance: Maisie Crow's Jackson, which centers around the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, and Kiley Lane Parker's Raising Ms. President, which examines the obstacles preventing women from entering politics.
Means is concerned about what President Donald Trump's budget proposal, with its cuts to arts funding, means for the ability of grants-dependent organizations like hers to stay afloat. "Even it doesn't pass, it shows the agenda of the new president, and that's going to have an impact on how much money [arts organizations] have to give out," she says, adding that the search for sponsors remains her biggest struggle. "That's one of the things I admit I haven't mastered. You've got to get to the right person, and then once you do, you have to continue to follow up. With a full-time job, it's the follow-up part that falls through for me."
If she had the money, Means says, she would use it to help fly in the international filmmakers whose works she screens - over the festival's 13-year history, she has shown more than a thousand films from a total of 35-plus countries. "It's such an experience to see the film and then be able to have a conversation with the filmmakers. That cultural dialogue and exchange is very important," she says. "Sometimes they can come out, but when they can't, it's always because of finances. I'd like to be able to provide some sort of travel benefit."
One important person who is attending is Means' daughter, who graduated from college in January. Now working in commercial production with PA experience on sets like Empire and Chicago Justice, she'll moderate panels at this year's festival. "I started this when she was in third grade," says Means, a single mom. "She's been gone in college for four years, so to bring her back and now be in L.A. Live, it's like, 'This is what I've been doing while you were gone. I've been growing this.'"