Chicago women melting cold shoulders of male-dominated film industry.

Christine Wolf
Feb 22 · 6 min read

During the recent historic Polar Vortex, most of us here in the Midwest hunkered down during the minus 52-degree windchill.

Nevertheless, a throng of fearless Chicagoans refused to let temps — or the film industry’s exclusionary temperament toward women — freeze their collective spirit.

Despite life-threatening conditions on Wednesday, January 30th, three women — Colleen Griffen, Ali Burch and Clare Cooney — braved the elements to screen their latest films at The Wilmette Theater to a warm-hearted and courageous audience of fifty.

Chicago Women In Film
Director Clare Cooney, Producer Colleen Griffen and Actress Ali Burch, together at The Wilmette Theater January 30, 2019 (Jason Rosenholtz-Witt)
Theatergoers braved sub-zero temps to screen Clare Cooney’s Runner and Colleen Griffen’s An Acceptable Loss. (Larry Lundy)

Following the two screenings, the women participated in a panel discussion, during which they each acknowledged the enormous challenges — and opportunities — for women in film. Click here to read some of their responses.

L to R: Director Clare Cooney, Moderator Christine Wolf, Actress Ali Burch and Producer Colleen Griffen (Jason Rosenholtz-Witt)

The Films
Runner is Clare Cooney’s directorial debut, an intense, thought-provoking film following a young woman who witnesses a traumatic event. Cooney not only stars in Runner — she also wrote, produced and edited the 12-minute, award-winning short.

Check it out here: https://youtu.be/0PKtGVJEpdg

Clare Cooney, Runner

An Acceptable Loss a close-to-the-headlines political thriller produced by Colleen Griffen, stars actresses Jamie Lee Curtis as the President of the United States and Tika Sumpter as her National Security Advisor. Chicagoan Ali Burch stars in a key, supporting role.

Producer Colleen Griffen and Actress Ali Burch, An Acceptable Loss (Photos by Elaine Suzanne Miller and Brandon Dahlquist)

An Acceptable Loss shatters the political thriller “model” by featuring a woman-of-color protagonist, a woman-over-55 antagonist, a Muslim American as its moral center, and 11 of 26 speaking roles with actors reflecting commonly underrepresented countries in film. The film also asks audiences to consider the question: “At what price are U.S. citizens willing to pay for safety?”

Though entirely unique stories, Runner and An Acceptable Loss both feature female leads who are raw, flawed, conflicted and struggling with the repercussions that come from inaction. Both films invite audiences to consider the price of silence, while utilizing characters whose humanity hits, at times, uncomfortably close to home.

So how do two films of different genres and entirely different scripts — made by women of different generations — strike such a familiar chord? It’s because the female characters are not there to soothe. There’s no doubt that audiences, used to seeing women putting others at ease, will find both of these movies unconventional and, perhaps even uncomfortable.

And, not unlike the filmmakers themselves, all the female characters in these films question, push limits and refuse to hide.

Both films reveal female characters managing resentment and explosive anger behind furrowed brows, deeply conflicted about expressing authentic voices while navigating a society that historically demands graciousness, gratitude and obedience toward men.

In one example from An Acceptable Loss, actress Ali Burch plays “Dee”, an academic administrator repulsed by her new and controversial boss, played by Tika Sumpter.

Dee, barely able to make eye contact — let alone offer her hand in greeting — represents anyone who’s tried to mask disdain, standing in direct contrast to women who are taught (or choose) to “grin and bear it”.

Moreover, Dee — and other female characters in both An Acceptable Loss and Runner — exhibit fewer smiles, fewer displays of “faking it”, and far fewer moments of “rolling with the punches” than audiences expect from women on the screen.

What A Cold Shoulder Toward Women In Film Feels Like
Recenntly, I asked women to share the challenges they’ve experienced in the industry — and the following stats further illustrate the uphill battle they’re up against, both in front of and behind the camera:

Behind the Camera
Martha M. Lauzen’s 2019 study — published by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film — provides historical comparisons of percentages of women employed behind the scenes by role.

According to Lauzen, of 2018’s top 100 films, women represented just 18% of producers and executive producers, 15% of writers, 14% of editors, 4% of directors and 3% of cinematographers:

From: “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-The-Scenes Employment of Women On The Top 100, 250 and 500 Films of 2018” by Martha M. Lauzen, PhD (shared with permission)

In Front Of The Camera
And, according to a 2016 study titled “Film Dialogue from 2000 Screenplays, Broken Down By Gender and Age,” only 18% of the films examined saw women occupying at least 2 of the top 3 roles in a particular film, compared to 82% of films with men in the identical scenario.

Therefore, it’s a refreshing departure from the norm to watch two female leads in An Acceptable Loss who, together, speak more than 60% of the film’s dialogue.

Women In Film: Raising Voices And Heating Things Up
Despite the industry’s historically icy attitude toward women, Clare Cooney, Colleen Griffen and other fearless women in film from the Midwest are making things happen for themselves — and for those who follow.

During our panel discussion after screening the two films, Cooney and Griffen were happy to share their experiences.

In the case of Runner, Cooney wore just about every filmmaking hat possible, including writer, director, producer, actor and editor. Not only did she make a film that looks far more expensive than its astonishing $900.00 budget, but she proved just how much one woman can accomplish.

Clare Cooney wrote, directed, produced, edited and acted in her first film, Runner.

As for An Acceptable Loss, Colleen Griffen says of her film’s budget, “I think the film community has the idea that ours was a big budget movie. In fact, the film [102 min] cost less than an episode of network television [average length 45 min], and way less than the big budget shows like The Crown and Game of Thrones. Network shows shoot for about 9 days; we shot for 32. So we had 1/6 the amount of money to spend per day.”

Producer Colleen Griffen

Usually, Griffen says, films in this budget range won’t have explosions or people running through moving cars or union crews and scenes with 800 extras.


Following the screenings, as the crowd began to file out of The Wilmette Theater and into the Arctic temps, I asked Griffen how she managed to produce so much movie on such a tight budget.

Griffen reached to open the door for me, just as she does for so many women working toward their passions, and wrapped herself in her coat, her hat, her scarf and her gloves. As we stood in the vestibule, she smiled and said, “This project could not have been made or released without women.”

Griffen, who dreams of Chicago becoming another epicenter of film, then stepped into the sub-zero night, warmed up her car, and drove several women home before walking through her own door to tackle yet another groundbreaking project.


Christine Wolf

Written by

Award-winning columnist, author, essayist and literary coach from Chicago, writing about the human condition. www.christinewolf.com @tinywolf1

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