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Producer Alex Cook talks to Womanthology about harnessing crowd funding to bring cutting edge female led drama to the screen

Alex Cook is a film producer who is currently raising finance on crowdfunding site Indiegogo.com to produce female-led psychological horror series pilot, ‘The Bird Chapters’. Alex also works as Senior Manager – Talent Development at BAFTA where she is responsible for identifying, developing and promoting new talent. Alex graduated from the National Film & Television School in 2013 specialising in script development. 

Alex Cook
Alex Cook

“…In this day and age I find this amazing. I wonder if, because most of the stories we see usually have male protagonists, women have developed a certain kind of empathy for male stories that perhaps isn’t reciprocated? If so, we need to ask ourselves “is this healthy?”…”

Please can you give us an overview of the project and why you feel passionate about female led drama?

Well, firstly it’s about a brilliantly flawed character. Our lead is not perfect, in fact she’s about as far away from the typical, dare I say, fluffy, female role as you can get. She’s experiencing the everyday world, with its various stresses and annoyances, and she’s reacting to it as if there were no boundaries.

She’s taking a look at the world and saying, “Hey, this isn’t okay, I have a voice; this is who I am, I’m doing something about it”. She has an extreme and twisted view, but she does something when the majority of us would suck it up and stay quiet – I like that, it’s empowering and feels brave.

Secondly, we may not realise it, but the majority of content on our screens is male-led, if not in front of the camera, then definitely behind it. The Bechdel test, asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Most contemporary works fail this simple test of gender bias.

In this day and age I find this amazing. I wonder if, because most of the stories we see usually have male protagonists, women have developed a certain kind of empathy for male stories that perhaps isn’t reciprocated? If so, we need to ask ourselves “is this healthy?”

Recent press articles have highlighted how few mainstream female directors there are and now it feels like the industry is listening; that said it’s not necessarily acting. It got me thinking “Hey, let’s start at zero and start a grassroots female filmmaking movement.” Ultimately that’s where it needs to start, more women picking up cameras.

I don’t have any money, just a dream to get women working with women on a female story. I want to make it entertaining, but most of all, make it interesting with wide appeal. If there’s a strong audience for the content (that is, ideally, a combined male/female audience), that’s how this will get longevity and impact; that’s how my team will get hired for other projects.

It’s not about trying to pigeonhole and make something that will only be watched by women; mass appeal and relatability is hugely important.

In the promo on the website, your colleague Renay Richardson, who wrote the story, describes a stereotype of strong women as they are typically portrayed on screen in most mainstream productions. Could you tells us more and about this and why are you looking to challenge it?

Female experience is so much broader than being the sexy love interest, trying to help men achieve their goals, pursuing a man, being vengeful against a man or wanting a baby, but that’s the fare we’re fed time after time. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with enjoying films that do this, I love a good chick-flick, but there’s a big gap in the female narrative and these are the sorts of stories I’m interested in telling.

When a good female-led narrative comes on our screen, I punch the air. Prime Suspect, Thelma and Louise, Orange is the New Black, Philomena, Monster, All About Eve are a few of my favourites. Belle, which is out in the cinema now, is directed by Amma Asante, a female director and tells an inspiring black, female story. I grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer; that was a brilliant series with some really strong female characters, it appealed to men and women and ran for ages.

But I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of female supporting roles on our screen are two-dimensional – they’re reactive to the male lead and have little to do. It’s frustrating when they’re interesting characters in their own right – we have so many incredibly talented actresses in the UK, let’s challenge them!

Also, in all but a few of the female-driven stories that reach us, the leads are pretty much ‘perfect’, or become so. They become the pedestal ideal that all women should aspire to and all men want to date / marry.

Don’t get me wrong, in order for a character to be compelling and watchable they need to have characteristics that make them intrinsically interesting to both sexes, but I’m interested in playing with a female character that you might not like, but you’ll respect.

This kind of great character arc happens for men all the time, look at House of Cards, look at The Godfather – where are their female equivalents? Let’s look at some powerful women in real life… Hello Rebekah Brooks, Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton. Do we like you? I’m not sure, but God damn you are fascinating.

Who are the other members of the team and how did you find each other?

I met the writer/director Renay Richardson at the National Film & Television School a few years ago, we both studied Script Development which at the time was run by the Script Factory. She has a great sense of humour and is not afraid to say what she thinks – I love her openness and her playfulness with ideas.

The editor Amy Hounsell worked at BAFTA a few years back, I really like her style and her way with people, she’s talented and subtle, I know she will go far.

Our lead actress Kae Alexander and Renay go way back, they were at school together. Kae has a wonderful way of being quietly strong on screen. She doesn’t have to say a word but you wouldn’t mess with her – I tower over her but I have to say, when she’s in character she’s got me scared!

She has amazing versatility, she’s currently starring in BAD EDUCATION with Jack Whitehall which is a comedy role. The rest of the female crew I’ve met through contacts in the film industry and through top recommendations. I love the fact that our writer/director is black, our lead is Asian, the rest of the crew come from all over the world – we’re a real melting pot! I should add that our line producer Cassie is male, and is totally wonderful.

What is the film and TV industry like for women?

It’s a mixed bag of great and not so great. In terms of the positive, not only do we have some world-class front of camera talent, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Julie Walters (I could go on!), in the UK we have so many incredible women in top jobs.

BAFTA is running a Film Question Time later in June and all the top choices for the panel were women: Isabel Davis, Head of International, British Film Institute; Kate Muir, Chief Film Critic, The Times and Alison Owen, Producer (Saving Mr. Banks, Brick Lane, Elizabeth).

That said, in terms of accessing finance; it tends to be men that hold the purse strings. I think Hollywood is beginning to catch onto the massive market for female-led films: Maleficent, The Hunger Games, Brave, Gravity have made huge grosses. But in the UK I think there’s still a lot of work to do, hardly any UK-produced films had women as leads last year and even fewer were directed by women.

In terms of directors, the male to female ratio is pretty damning. Awards nominee lists are incredibly male-dominated which arguably shows that men are getting access to good scripts ahead of women. But, on the bright side, there are a number of really exciting female writer/directors coming through in the UK: Clio Barnard, Amma Asante, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay for instance.

Writers Abi Morgan and Jane Goldman are utterly inspirational and there are some incredibly strong women producers producing female-led content: Call the Midwife, produced by Pippa Harris at Neal Street for example.

BAFTA, through its awards and its learning and events programme makes a clear point of being active in levelling the playing field and promoting talented women to the industry and public – that’s something I’m really proud of being a part of. But articles quoting recent figures of women working in the industry say it’s around 6 in 20 and lower in creative roles. There is plenty more still to do to balance the scales.

Running a crowd funding campaign is typically as bit of a stressful process. How far in are you and how are you bearing up?!

We launched on 16th June and we close on 17th July. That’s 32 days to raise £8K which isn’t very long, but long enough to gauge initial audience interest and to hone the elements which are appealing to people. This is really important as there are seven shorts to the series and the final scripts are still being developed.

One of the reasons I went for the crowdfunding approach was to find out if there was an audience for what we’re doing. It’s risky and we have no idea if we’ll raise the full amount – I’d like to think we will. But what I can say is that it really is a full-time job.

We have Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Vimeo and our main Indiegogo campaign that we’re keeping active. We’re constantly trying to engage with people that might have an interest in what we’re doing, but it’s not the easiest concept to describe in 140 characters and it’s a fine line between engaging with people and spamming them!

For me, it’s all about the little victories, for instance we have Margaret Cho as a Twitter follower – I’m a huge fan!

What has the response been like?

Everyone seems to love what we’re doing. When they take the time to have a look they’re full of enthusiasm. The real challenge is getting people to click on the webpage and then of course to support with money when they have no idea who we are. So far, we’re around a third in and have raised a third of the funds. The key now is to keep the momentum going.

How does crowd funding open up opportunities for women in particular?

As mentioned, streams of finance are often controlled by men, particularly in the entertainment industries. Crowdfunding creates a totally level playing field. It gives us an opportunity to see if there is an audience and to then present that audience to future funders. An incredible result would be for us to both smash our funding target and show a strong following on social media.

This result would create a strong argument for UK funders to invest in these kinds of non-traditional female-led stories.

What is next once you raise the finance? 

We’re very excited about our shoot which is scheduled for mid-August. Once the funding push closes and we know our budget it will be all about squeezing every single pound to get that production value on screen.

We’re also looking at the various film festivals and working out our approach strategy – if we can get into the key festivals, it will raise our industry profile and make funding more likely for the rest of the series.

We’re working hard on the second and third scripts so they’re ready to go when the phone starts ringing. In the meantime I’m sending emails to industry contacts to warm them up… Watch this space!

What are your ambitions for the project if all goes according to plan?

We’re on a bit of a journey, both in terms of finding our audience and looking at where a story like this best fits. Our current plan is to roll it out as a web-series; this gives us the benefit of being easily shareable and reaching as many people as possible over time. If people then really engage with the character, the sky is the limit!

But our driving ambition is to get our story made, to learn, to improve and to keep pushing the female narrative agenda. I also want this series to be a career springboard for my team. We’re putting ourselves out there, we’re on the line, we’re doing something different and we’re hoping for success… We hope the public like what we’re doing, and we believe that if they do, they’ll support us.

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