Directing gender buzz

Times Staff Writer

Director Alexandra Lipsitz's debut feature, "Air Guitar Nation," struck the right chord with cinephiles on last year's film festival circuit.

The whimsical documentary chronicling the birth of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, where mock rockers finger the frets and twang the strings of their invisible instruments, won audience awards in Austin, Texas, and Traverse City, Mich. Her efforts paid off when a distributor picked up the film for release next month at art house movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

But like most movies, Lipsitz's film will live or die commercially on its opening weekend ticket sales. So her friends at the First Weekenders Group are pitching in. Aiming to do what they can to help diversify Hollywood's director corps, the group goes into overdrive to get people into theaters during that crucial first weekend whenever a female filmmaker such as Lipsitz unveils a movie.

"Everything rides on those first few days," Lipsitz said. "There is just not that much support for women in the film industry, so who else are we going to turn to?"

The group now reaches just 3,500 e-mail subscribers to its free newsletter -- not the kind of numbers that can make a dent in a major studio release. But it hopes to help give a boost to small female-directed movies while drawing attention to talented women directors. Last week, First Weekenders expanded its efforts by launching video podcast interviews.

"The fact that such a group needs to exist tells you that it's harder for women," said writer-director Robin Swicord, now finishing her feature directorial debut, "The Jane Austen Book Club."

The group grew out of an informal meeting in spring 2000 in Santa Barbara organized by independent film director Allison Anders ("Gas Food Lodging," "Grace of My Heart") that was aimed at helping women break through in the male-dominated business.

Anders expected half a dozen participants but said close to 200 women showed up. Two days of brainstorming led to a long list of ideas.

"Then we looked over the list again and said, 'Which of these things can we actually do something about?' " said Cari Beauchamp, author of "Without Lying Down," an account of the silent era's powerful but now forgotten women.

Soon after, filmmaker Tara Veneruso started publishing the e-mail newsletter every Thursday, promoting new theatrical releases, special screenings and DVDs from female directors. At one point during the early years, she spent a "depressing" eight weeks without finding a new release to promote -- "not even at an L.A. art house."

Veneruso, who along with a handful of volunteers keeps the First Weekenders Group running, expects the subscriber base to triple as the video podcasts are shown at the group's site, MoviesByWomen.com, on YouTube and through the iTunes network. Her first interviews feature Lipsitz, "The Dead Girl" writer-director Karen Moncrieff and "The Break-Up" actress Joey Lauren Adams, who made her directing debut with "Come Early Morning."

Although women say Hollywood's past overt sexism has eased, the ranks of female directors remain thin. Of the 250 top-grossing films released last year, only about 15 were directed by women, according to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Among the bigger titles: Anne Fletcher's "Step Up," Nancy Meyers' "The Holiday" and "Little Miss Sunshine," which was co-directed by Valerie Faris.

Catherine Hardwicke, director of "Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown" and "The Nativity Story," said the presence of top female studio executives such as Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal has made a difference.

Scrambling and behind schedule as the "Lords of Dogtown" shooting wound down, Hardwicke said she expected to be fired. Instead, Pascal gave her five extra days on the gritty 2005 skateboarding drama.

Still, women directors have their war stories. Swicord, who wrote the screenplays for "Little Women" (1994) and "Memoirs of a Geisha," is only now getting her directing break.

"Had I been male it probably would have happened sooner," Swicord said. "Sometimes you see a male writer get a directing job and say to yourself, 'Wow, that person only has one screen credit.' "

Although the First Weekenders Group's marketing efforts are dwarfed by multimilliondollar studio campaigns, the women say they can make a difference.

That's especially true with smaller films that rely on grass-roots marketing, Veneruso said.

She pointed to Georgia Lee's drama "Red Doors," which played for five weeks last fall, and Maria and Gabrielle Burton's 2003 comedy "Manna From Heaven," which played for about a year at scattered theaters, grossing more than $500,000.

"Through sheer perseverance, Tara and her team have been so effective at getting women to the theaters," Anders said. Patricia Foulkrod, whose Iraq war documentary "The Ground Truth" came and went last fall despite critical acclaim, said she wished she had heard about the group sooner.

"So many people said to me, 'I went to go see your movie but it was gone,' " Foulkrod told a dozen others from the First Weekenders Group, gathered at a California Pizza Kitchen after a screening of the bleak mystery "The Dead Girl" at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

Friends from the group often turn Friday nights into informal events, watching a movie with a few pals and then gathering for dinner or drinks to discuss it.

Veneruso, for example, gathers friends for an outing once a month. She already has "Air Guitar Nation," which opens March 30 in West L.A. at Landmark's Nuart, marked on her calendar.

As the group notes, every ticket purchase counts -- regardless of whether the buyer watches the film.

At the recent pizza gathering, Beauchamp proudly told the group that her 15-year-old son, Jake, had gotten the message.

When he and three of his buddies went to see the R-rated "Apocalypto" recently, they bought tickets to the PG-13-rated "The Holiday" before sneaking in to watch Mel Gibson's thriller.

"They could have chosen any movie at the multiplex, but he knew 'The Holiday' was directed by Nancy Meyers," Beauchamp said. "He told his friends, 'My mom will kill me if we don't pick that one.' "

josh.friedman@latimes.com

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Coming attractions directed by women

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Gray Matters

Director: Sue Kramer, making her feature debut. The UCLA film school graduate also wrote the screenplay.

Synopsis: Romantic comedy about a tightknit brother (Thomas Cavanagh) and sister (Heather Graham) who fall for the same woman.

Release date: Friday

Distributor: Yari Film Group

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The Namesake

Director: Mira Nair, whose films include "Mississippi Masala," "Monsoon Wedding" and "Vanity Fair."

Synopsis: Drama about an American-born son of Indian immigrants (Kal Penn) who clashes with his family's traditional ways.

Release date: March 9

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

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Air Guitar Nation

Director: Alexandra Lipsitz, who previously made Polish documentaries for the BBC, worked in several circuses and as a professional sailor.

Synopsis: Documentary chronicling the birth of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, pitting "C. Diddy" against archnemesis "Bjorn Turoque."

Release date: March 23

Distributor: Docurama

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I Could Never Be Your Woman

Director: Amy Heckerling, whose credits include "Clueless" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Synopsis: Romantic comedy about a mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) who falls in love with a younger man (Paul Rudd).

Release date: April 6

Distributor: Freestyle Releasing

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Sources: Media by Numbers, IMDB

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