It's not surprising that, amid a national debate over gender equity, a star and activist like Geena Davis would launch a film festival celebrating female and minority filmmakers. What might be surprising, however, is that it would be held in Bentonville, Arkansas, and proudly sponsored by hometown megabrand Walmart.
As it turns out, setting The Bentonville Film Festival in Bentonville—where fellow sponsors Coca-Cola and Kraft also have offices—wasn't Walmart's idea, according to Trevor Drinkwater, festival co-founder and ARC Entertainment CEO.
"It was our idea to have it there and [Walmart] supports it, obviously, because they want to show off their town," said Drinkwater. "It's a great representation of small-town America, and it's not dissimilar to a town like [Utah-based Sundance Film Festival's] Park City."
Walmart is the festival's founding sponsor, joined by major brands Coca-Cola and Kraft. The festival will be held the week of May 5, and submissions will start rolling in on Jan. 15.
So what drew Walmart to a festival focused on marginalized voices? The retailer has a vested interest in ensuring movies are as diverse as their audiences, said Molly Blakeman, a spokeswoman for the retailer.
"As the largest seller of physical movies, we are always looking for great content," she said. "The Bentonville Film Festival gives us an avenue to identify compelling films from women and minority filmmakers. In addition, we believe empowering women is the right thing to do and will make us a more successful retailer."
Brands are now more willing to embrace causes that support women and minorities, Drinkwater added.
"All these brands are interested in putting their ad dollars and support on programming that is more reflective of what America looks like, as far as women and diversity goes," he said. "[Sponsoring the festival is] a way for them to advance their initiatives around supporting women and minority owned businesses."
Part of the festival's mission is to find family-friendly entertainment because films with wide appeal can spur cultural change, explained Drinkwater. "We also believe that the brands that we're dealing with, their advertising dollars are more effective if placed on family co-viewing content."
The festival is informed by research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which is "dedicated to improving the representation in gender and diversity of talent, filmmakers and business leaders by growing awareness through research, education and advocacy," Davis said in a statement.
"I'm honored to collaborate with ARC Entertainment, Walmart, AMC and Coca-Cola to launch this important initiative," Davis said. "I have been so impressed with the commitment Walmart has made to support Women through their Global Women's Economic Empowerment Initiative which has as one of its goals to source $20 billion from women-owned businesses in the U.S."