In this issue of Criterion Connections, Christina Madden of the Criterion Institute speaks with Adrienne Becker, CEO and Co-founder of Level Forward, about her approach to investing for social change, what investors can do to combat harmful gender and social norms, and the impact social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have had on investments in the entertainment industry.
Level Forward describes itself as socially responsible and impact oriented. How did your recent film, Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” fit into your vision for the kinds of productions you support?
It is disconcerting that any company in 2020 must describe itself as socially responsible. Where does that leave everyone else? We absolutely operate in ways that advance both profit and purpose with equal weight, and we communicate this commitment through our work in the hope that we can not only inspire others but illustrate and share how to do it. We will know we are successful when impact investing is all investing.
Until then, our process and our products must align with this mission in noticeably clear and transparent ways and the new film, “The Assistant,” is a perfect example of that. In 2017, a series of silence breakers shared sexual assault allegations across the entertainment industry, unearthing a watershed moment and sending powerful predators running for cover. As the courage of outspoken accusers inspired survivors in all industries to step forward and say “me too,” filmmaker Kitty Green knew she had found the subject for her first narrative film: not the misdeeds of one person, but the entrenched system that supports the many.
“The Assistant” captures the universal experience of being at the bottom of a hierarchy. The film is a searing indictment of a system that perpetuates America’s endemic culture of workplace harassment and enables the predators within it. The very personal lens on this universal story, tied to the larger conditions perpetuated by systems that exploit power relationships, make it a great fit for Level Forward. The film is not taking the easy road into this story, nor re-tracing tracks already laid. It’s taking the more challenging and unexpected road, the one perceived to be less interesting, less commercial. I’m happy to say that film has been holding the #2 on iTunes for longer than anyone expected it to even be available.
Tell me more about the mission of Level Forward. What are some of the requirements for productions seeking your backing?
Equity, opportunity, impact, and economic transformation are at the heart of our mission.
Firstly, we always consider how our work expands access and extends impact. We ask: what stories are not being told, who isn’t telling them, why is that happening, where are stories not being shared, and why the steps we take from the earliest days of development are as important as what we do in the final days of distribution.
All of our projects are designed to expand the potential audience, to take a story and characters who are ordinarily less visible, or who traditionally have taken up less space, and make them real so that audiences can see they exist. It’s then up to the team and our partners to take these stories several steps further and consider how the work can be used to dismantle structures that oppress groups of people who are different from some very narrow norms of white, male, able-bodied, and cisgendered, and shine a light on what the world actually looks like.
Next, we look around and say who isn’t in this conversation? Who is missing? Why can black women break into television writing rooms but cannot get feature films funded? Why are Latinx women rarely portrayed as professionals? Why are all the summer interns related to someone at the Company? This process is intended to be challenging, but it is essential to the work.
We also consider, what are the areas of social change the work should influence? In “What The Constitution Means To Me,” we recognized an opportunity to engage younger people in our democracy and so we partnered with Generation Citizen to expand their Beyond The Ballot program. In our film “American Woman,” revolving around an Asian-American character named Jenny, we saw an opportunity to raise the visibility and share of voice for Asian-Americans, particularly at this time when they are being targeted.
Finally, we think a lot of the potential for economic transformation by breaking down the flow of financial capital. Where is it coming from and where is it blocked? How can we share profits, creating reinvestment back into the system of change and broaden the field of financial resources? How can the billions that go into content creation fund aligned movement work as part of production, rather than as an afterthought?
We do not require any specific answers to these questions, but all Level Forward work and partners make a commitment to ask them and keep asking them. That examination is a requirement for all our work. After the first 20 Broadway shows, films and technology properties, our investors, co-producers, co-financiers, and distribution allies can collectively see their impact in re-shaping the ecosystem.
Why is it so important for the entertainment industry to take on these issues? What impact does media and entertainment have on our social, cultural, and gender norms?
Anyone involved in storytelling has choices about the cultural currency they create. You can choose to make a film, release it to an audience, and wash your hands of it when people ask questions by saying your story reflects the world you see, however violent, misogynist, or racist you make it. That is not doing any good in the world and it’s a waste of valuable cultural currency. Next-level storytellers recognize they are creating something that will start a conversation or disrupt a norm. They may not know what to do with that, but that awareness is a step in the right direction because if you leave an audience with big questions, you really need to consider what tools you are giving them to answer those questions. When we produced “Slave Play” on Broadway, it was very important to us and to everyone involved that we created a safe space for weekly discussion to help sort out the very powerful questions the play asks about race and gender and power. That accountability is a third level position, and we believe where you create not only the most social value, but also the greatest financial value.
This feels incredibly relevant now, as COVID-19 has upended our sense of the world as we know it and what the future will look like. Something we have been working on at Criterion is how, in this moment of uncertainty, we can shift whose voices and expertise are shaping the narrative of what our society could look like post-COVID-19. For instance, as investors are rethinking their portfolios, will we allow the big banks and consulting firms to again decide what is considered a good or risky investment, or will we listen to the gender experts and social justice organizations that have been warning us for years about the risks of growing inequalities that are now being exposed? My question for you is, how can entertainment and the arts in general help reclaim and shape who has power over that narrative of our future?
This is a tremendous question because the challenges feel so daunting in this moment, and at the same time, the opportunities are in site. Every week we have been holding discussion with industry partners about this topic, our “Work It Out Wednesday” series. Sometimes we focus on re-entry with artistic directors like Diane Paulus (“Jagged Little Pill”) or our theatrical partners who run independent cinemas, while other times we need a break so we talk about finding joy with writer Wanuri Kahiu (“Rafiki”) or how you start your quarantine day with writer Veronica Chambers (“The Go Between”). We have engaged health experts like Kristen Valdes (BWell) and regulatory experts like Deven McGraw (Ciitizen). As these conversations evolved, we formed a working group of women across the industry to think about some kind of doctrine of principles or bill of rights centered on not going back to normal. The two steps forward, one step back habit is hurting a lot of still marginalized people and, if we have any power, we must use that power, share it, and dispense it to drive equality at every turn. I know these are words, but what I have learned is this is a daily practice, like yoga, or running, or meditation, where repetition and resilience are key. Entertainment shapes world views, by showing us what is possible. We cannot aspire if we are not inspired. This makes the stakes of our work, now, exponentially more urgent.
The #MeToo movement made waves in terms of calling attention to instances of sexual harassment and harmful power dynamics within the entertainment industry, with repercussions for other sectors as well – including significant drops in stock prices associated with allegations. It seems that shifting cultural norms also play a role in shaping what kinds of films will do well at the box office, and what may end up flopping or, in some cases, getting banned in certain markets. Given the trajectory of social movements, what do you see as the future of the film industry?
You are referencing market liability and that is a giant concern for investors. Viacom is, I suspect, a perfect example. As is Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, and so many more. We have all seen the data: when women are in charge liability and risk decrease, the likelihood for profitability increases. So, shifting norms of women, of people of color, of directors who direct from a wheelchair or wearing their hijab… new norm setting not only sends messages, it delivers! Profit margins on films are higher when women are in charge. It is a fact. “Wonder Woman,” “Hidden Fortunes,” “Frozen,” dating back to “Shrek,” “The Matrix,” and “Twilight” –all record-setting box office grosses. Broadway shows with women at the helm have also been dominant: “Dear Evan Hanson,” “Fun Home,” “Oklahoma!” “Jagged Little Pittle,” “What the Constitution Means to Me.” We must keep going back to the data – it’ doesn’t lie and isn’t biased – to make these points and continue re-shaping the storytelling industries.
If #MeToo was about raising awareness of these issues, #TimesUp was about moving to action. Are you seeing more activism in Hollywood in terms of the types of roles actors are willing to portray, the types of films they’re willing to participate in, or in how they are investing their assets?
I think both #MeToo and #TimesUp are about action. #MeToo was the original disruptor and #TimesUp has reinvigorated the movement. I love how they work hand in hand. Their work, however, is unfinished because we are still grappling with the same hiring, pay equity, funding, and distribution bottlenecks. While there does appear to be greater willingness, in the pandemic world, with mounting expenses (health checks, sanitation, quarantines), and shrinking theatrical revenue (fewer seats), we are going to need the risk-takers, innovators and outsiders to step up and share new paths to profitability and change. Actors can be a lever in this process. We need them as allies, and we value their contributions on a grander scale.
We’ve spoken previously about some of the initiatives Level Forward organizes around the themes of your productions. Can you tell us about what you’re asking partners to do around the release of “The Assistant”?
Thanks for asking this question. We are structured a little bit differently than most media companies. While we have our core creative work, we recognized that we could drive more revenue and change if we also started building emerging businesses that support the work and system-wide initiatives to accelerate change in the environment around us.
On the emerging front, we have built a network of independent movie theaters where we work in partnership with local communities to do more around storytelling. Through this network that includes the Roxie in San Francisco, Denver Film, Tucson’s The Loft, Montclair, New Jersey, and up to Boston, we’re also able to change the economics of film revenue by delivering greater value to the community and sharing those proceeds locally. Most recently, our new online platform, Level Forward Labz, will be advancing our online distribution footprint to create more robust online viewing experiences with ancillary programming around streamed films and shows. This platform also gives creatives more online collaboration tools than most of what is out there now. Two other emerging businesses include a curation service that will share information about what goes on behind the movie poster and trailer, so you can really know what you’re watching. It’s a spin out of core Rotten Apples service that currently tells you if any key people tied to a movie or a show have been accused of sexual assault. We also have a robust community of women working in entertainment via our Glass Elevator service who are co-creating and sharing expertise with one another.
Our initiatives remain focused on equity and we practice this with standard deal language in everything we paper, from investor agreements to talent attachments. We have changed the backend formulas for all our work, and we have adjusted budgets to account for things like gun offsets or non-profit partners. This may all seem more expensive, but when you see these in practice, you understand how broadening the base of stakeholders around a film and de-compartmentalizing impact are better business.
What are tangible actions individuals can take to support these kinds of impact goals?
We need investors to consider how social value drives financial value. We need more companies thinking this way and building these re-shaped ecosystems. We invite people to join us in various campaigns: record a 15-second video on your phone explaining how you would amend the Constitution and send it to us; support our non-profit partner ELMCOR in Corona Queens as their food bank lines grow in the hardest hit Covid-19 zip code; download the Advocates For Youth toolkit tied to “American Woman” for your kids and engage them in movement building; demand that the next superhero film go Gun Neutral; buy a copy of “Slave Play” and ask yourself hard questions about white privilege; watch “The Assistant” and share the discussion questions in your office. How much more space do I have?