So why aren't more Women in Adventure films?
For most of 2017 I’ve been producing a series of short films for Salt Street, an independent film company that makes bold and exciting action sports films. Together with Director Ed Birch, we were successful in pitching a six part series to Channel 4, in which we would take a group of urban athletes on tour to try their sports in abandoned locations. We wanted the films to feel inclusive, a crew that anyone would want to be part of, and that included a strong female presence. It was much harder than we imagined, and it’s given me a new insight into the reasons that there still aren't enough women in adventure and action sport films.
Women don’t always see themselves and their experiences reflected in outdoor related film and media. In 2016 I carried out a research project, Women in Adventure, which asked women about their motivation, inspiration, and participation in outdoor adventure and action sports. The most common characteristics they found inspiring included passion, determination, perseverance, strength, resilience, and positivity. Those characteristics aren’t gendered, but women also said they are most inspired by people they know, people they can relate to - people they feel ‘could be me.’ Naturally that includes other women as well as men. They wanted to see more diversity of women on screen and in the media, in terms of appearance, age, and level of ability.
Choosing our athletes and bringing the crew together was an exciting job. We thought carefully about the right mix of characters, sports, and ability. In skating, BMX, highlining, and freerunning there were plenty of male athletes to choose from, but it was a different story for female athletes. We wanted big tricks, and it was hard to find women at the highest level of the sport. If you put a good person next to an exceptional person, on camera the differences will be highlighted. Our female athlete needed to be exceptional. When I asked male athletes to name the best females in their sports, they often said they couldn't think of any.
After a lot of research we found an incredible female freerunner who was keen to be part of the crew. Unfortunately, she was injured shortly before the shoot, and we were faced again with the challenge of finding a top level female athlete. We were offered a male replacement, one of the best in the world, and discussed whether it would be enough to include a female presence through guest athletes and featuring the female film crew on camera. We were clear that wasn’t what we wanted, and with a week to go we found another world class female freerunner who would match up to the skills of the men.
Working with a top female athlete put our budget under pressure. There are comparatively fewer women, the best of the best are able to charge a premium which reflects their skill, experience, and limited availability. All the female athletes we considered were significantly more expensive than male athletes, exceeding the pay of any other individual on the shoot. When approving our budget we had to make the case for investing so much in one individual, and we were fortunate that our commissioners were supportive. The reality for many filmmakers is that budgets are restricted, and there’s a risk that women are priced out of projects.
As filmmakers we have to be committed to increasing diversity. To me that doesn’t have to mean making a ‘women’s film’ about women’s issues, it means ensuring that women are present as more than decoration or supporting roles. It means we have to be creative in our storytelling. If the focus is always on pure action and the biggest tricks, we aren’t capturing the whole story of the sporting community and the individuals it’s made up of.
There aren’t as many women in front of the camera because there aren’t as many women taking part in outdoor sports. We can’t represent them if they aren’t there, but if more girls and young women start highlining, BMXing, skating and freerunning, it won’t take long for change to happen. I'd like more women to aspire to fill roles in the outdoors, not just in sports but in all areas of the industry. One of the ways to inspire and motivate is to seek out positive role models, and feature them in our films.
Although I know women are underrepresented in adventure films, I was still surprised to find it more difficult to bring female athletes into our films than male athletes. It took perseverance and it involved some compromise. At the heart of our films, we want to motivate all our viewers to try a different sport, whether they're male or female, young or old. We want them to feel part of our crew. For now, that means working a little harder to include strong female role models.
Anna Paxton is currently Producer of Britain’s Abandoned Playgrounds, a series made by Salt Street Productions, and commissioned by All4, the online channel for major UK broadcaster Channel 4. Due for release this autumn, the series will be free to view online. Follow on Instagram @anna_paxton_ #AbandonedPlaygrounds.