by: Lindsay Gibb, Reelscreen
This past week the women behind Chicken and Egg Pictures, a New York-based hybrid film fund and mentoring production company for female filmmakers, were given the Loreen Arbus Award at the New York Women in Film and Television’s (NY-WIFT) Muse Awards. Realscreen spoke with Judith Helfand, Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger (pictured, left to right) about the meaning of Chicken and Egg, what they’re looking for in the projects they support and what plans they’re hatching for the future.
Last year the Loreen Arbus Award for Those Who Take Action and Effect Change was given to Kodak for its support of female cinematographers. This year Wendy Ettinger, co-founder of Chicken and Egg Pictures, says she’s thrilled the NY-WIFT acknowledged her organization because it meant the awards show, which usually focuses on women in fictional films and television, was giving a nod to women who work on documentaries.
To Judith Helfand, who also co-founded the company along with Ettinger and Julie Parker Benello, the honor made her reflect on the road she traveled to get to where she is today. When Helfand was 27 and working on her first film, A Healthy Baby Girl (which went on to win a Peabody), she went to Terry Lawler, now the executive director of the NY-WIFT but then part of the staff for Women Make Movies, for help with financing. “I had this meeting with her and she essentially said, ‘You can do this. This is great. I really believe in this. I believe in you,'” remembers Helfand. Now, 18 years later, Helfand is on the other side of the table telling new female filmmakers she believes in them. “The only other thing that’s better than having someone say, ‘I believe in you’ is being able to say that to someone else and really feel like you have the ability to help them.”
The core grant given by Chicken and Egg to women working on film projects is aptly entitled I Believe in You, and each year the organization gives out grants and mentoring hours to women filmmakers who are looking for assistance. In the almost five years the organization has been together, it has awarded over one million dollars in grants and has provided more than 2,300 hours of mentoring to 52 films. Ettinger, Helfand and Parker Benello hope to replicate these numbers within the next three years.
The “egg” of Chicken and Egg Pictures was laid when Ettinger and Parker Benello were board members at Helfand’s Working Films (which she co-founded with Robert West), an organization which helps filmmakers to develop outreach programs for their projects. At one of the board meetings the three of them put their heads together and hatched the idea to raise some money and start giving grants to women filmmakers. “Judith had the [idea] that it’s not just about the money. It’s about the mentorship and being in a community and not [making films] in isolation,” says Parker Benello. “We launched a month or two later, and that first year [we] gave about $50,000 in grants.”
Another way they give back to the community is through awards such as the Emergent Women Narrative Directing Award they gave for the first time this year at SXSW, and their third annual Chicken and Egg event at Sundance where they bring together a mix of filmmakers and documentary industry members to showcase a few of the filmmakers they’ve supported and honor a woman in the field. Currently, Monica and David, a doc by Ali Codina which follows an adult couple with Down’s Syndrome during their first year of marriage, is making the festival rounds and is currently awaiting word on its television debut, while William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is currently in theaters and will be on ‘POV’ in the new year. Deep Down, a project by Sally Rubina and Jen Gilomen examines how the practice of mountain top removal in search of coal in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky is affecting a local community, and will be screening in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Change Conference and later on PBS.
The funds for the grants given out by Chicken and Egg come mainly from women filmmakers of means and some smaller foundations that the team has brought on board, the largest of which they call “Nesters” who commit for $50,000 a year for three years. As far as what they are looking for from letters of inquiry, Ettinger says that not only is storytelling a huge factor in their decision, but also, a clear vision, passion and a willingness to be with the film over a long term are vital. Helfand adds that the inspiration behind the story is also important. “We look inside what’s being offered to us and look at what this person is sharing with us, and at their background and what their interests are,” she says. “It’s a whole package. It’s never just the reel they send us.”