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Geena Davis: What I Learned From Launching a Film Festival

Actress and Bentonville Film Festival co-founder tells TheWrap her takeaways from the past two years

It’s clear that Geena Davis has a few tricks up her sleeve.

The actress has been a symbol of female empowerment for decades thanks to her iconic role in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” — as well the rule-breaking 2005 series “Commander in Chief,” which imagined Davis as a female president years before Hillary Clinton would announce her first real-life candidacy.

Most recently, Davis has taken this message of empowerment to a place where statistics say it’s sorely needed — behind the camera, helping discover emerging talent and secure distribution for their work.

Davis co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival in 2015 with executive Trevor Drinkwater and founding sponsor Walmart. While aimed at diversity, Bentonville also offers a rare prize: a guarantee of distribution on various platforms for Best Narrative, Best Family Film and Audience Award winners.

TheWrap spoke with Davis at the close her second year, where she reflected on the following lessons that she’s learned:

1. Be Grateful
“I was at Sundance earlier this year at a lunch seated next to Robert Redford,” Davis said of the annual Utah festival and indie haven. 

“He was congratulating me and wishing me good luck and I said, ‘The first one we had about 37,000 people come,’ and I was asking him how to grow. He looked at me and said, ‘The first Sundance maybe had 100 people.'”

2. Industry Impact
“This entire event was conceived by one of the Walmart executives, and it was designed to support women and minority owned businesses,” Davis explained.

Remaining committed to full distribution is paramount to shaping the diversity in Hollywood, she said, which is especially lacking in feature films. 

“We distribute in AMC Theaters, on Lifetime and Starz, or on DVD on the shelves of Walmart,” Davis said. “This is such a positive way to be significant. We have to guarantee this.”

On top of the prizes, an A-list advisory board consisting of Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Emilio Estevez and Natalie Portman also helped 87 percent of films screened in competition obtain some form of distribution.

3. Go Big
If Redford was impressed at BFF’s massive inaugural audience, imagine what he’d say about the programming. In addition to its competitive slate, Davis landed big screenings like a pre-release look at Disney and Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” and Meg Ryan‘s directorial debut “Ithaca.”

4. Change Place of Birth
Davis has had to answer one question on loop: “Why Bentonville, Arkansas?”

“I’ve started telling people that I’m from Bentonville because I get the question so much,” she said.

Davis is actually from Massachusetts. Walmart, however, has its headquarters in the small Arkansas hamlet, and Davis swears every first-timer falls in love.

5. Don’t Shy From The Action
For its maiden voyage, BFF staged its campus away from the city center, but Davis has since stopped running from the town’s natural charm.

“Last year we erred on the side of a festival experience but we moved everything around Town Square. It’s a really interesting place. People have even accused Walmart of building the entire place like a set, as if the birds sing on cute,” Davis said.

She and Drinkwater also improved ticketing procedures to pack individual panels, and held a satellite promotional event in Los Angeles at the YouTube space as a supplemental experience.

Davis will next be seen in Fox’s fall TV adaptation of horror classic ‘The Exorcist.”

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