Female Christian filmmakers trailblazing their way amid discrimination in the movie industry

Actress and Director Shari Rigby and write Claire Lee on the set of Beautifully Flawed, LA dream center, photo published July 2019 | Instagram/ShariRigby

Christian women working in Hollywood say the faith-based film industry can be just as challenging for them to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts as it is for women working for secular studios and production companies.

To better understand the obstacles faced by women of faith working in Christian entertainment, The Christian Post interviewed award-winning actresses, directors, and two friends who created their own production company who share their advice for others starting their careers in the industry.

Women have been involved in making major Hollywood films since the 1920s, starting with Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed nearly 1,000 films in her time. But since the invention of film, there has also been a great lack of recognition given to female filmmakers.

The lack of notoriety can be seen in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards. Only one woman has received the honor of winning an Oscar for “Best Director.” In 2008, Kathryn Bigelow won the award for her work on “The Hurt Locker,” and she is just one of only four other women who have been nominated for the award in the history of the Oscars. 

In 2014, an investigation was spearheaded by the ACLU and EEOC following a leak of Sony documents showing that actresses were being paid less than their male co-stars. The investigation was meant to expose Hollywood studios' alleged bias against hiring female filmmakers. While people of faith might think the Christian entertainment industry operates differently, many of the female filmmakers The Christian Post interviewed said they, too, have felt the pangs of gender discrimination. 

Shari Rigby | Leah Klett/The Christian Post

Shari Rigby, the lead actress of the new film “Overcomer,” has faced opposition as both an actress and filmmaker in Hollywood, even in the faith-based world. Rigby has been acting and directing for several years and as of late has been taking a bigger role behind the camera. 

Rigby said that so often people “talk the talk,” but the Kendrick brothers, whose latest film “Overcomer” came in at No. 3 at the box office, actually gave her an opportunity to direct some of the scenes in the film. The California resident has also directed 20 episodes of her biographical show "Beautifully Flawed." With the exception of the Kendricks, Rigby says she’s not given credit for her work.

“This is where it gets a little tricky because yes, the men in the faith world have championed me and they've inspired me — Alex Kendrick being one who really launched me into this," Rigby said. "But at the same time, because I've been an actress, or I've been a mother at home, or I’m older or I haven't had as much training behind the camera, what I'm finding now is that most of these guys know that I have the ability and that I have been doing it, but they're not willing to actually take a chance on me.” 

“If I had the resume that some of these other filmmakers have, I think they would bring me things in a heartbeat," she added. "I just haven't had that opportunity yet.”

Rigby, a woman of faith, said it’s “OK” though, because she's looking to God to make a way for her where there seems to be no way. 

JD Dewitt and Robin McLain, Spokane Washington 2019. | Christian Post

Tag-team duo J.D. Dewitt and Robin McLain decided to form their own film production company, 5x5 Productions, because of the odds stacked against them. They just completed filming their first Christian romantic comedy, "Home Sweet Home." 

"I've always come at things outside of the box, so I expect others to conform to that box,” Dewitt said of her tenacity in the film industry. “I know for us, we've literally been told, 'You cannot do this.' For me, that's like, 'OK, you've just changed my purpose now. It will happen because I know what God has called me to do and what you say doesn't matter; my identity is in Him. So if He wants me to do this, it's going to happen!'" 

McLain said they were even told they couldn't make the movie they just completed. But their faith that kept them going. 

"Even with this movie that we were told we couldn't do, we would literally check in with each other because ... when your faith is so strong that this is going to happen … and you're like, 'I don't see the end game,' but I do. So we just kept going and here we are,” McLain told CP.

The film making duo don’t label themselves as a female-led company. They are a company that happens to be led by women. 

"When you talk about women in film ... when we hear that, it's like, 'Oh, right, we are,'" Dewitt said.

"There’s not a lot of female-led companies, especially in the Christian world. But again, that's the box that I'm happy to ..." 

"We will just bust right out of it," McLain interjected.

A 2015 study by the Sundance Institute found that movies directed by women will almost always be labeled as “independent” films, while movies directed by men are regularly considered to be “blockbuster status.” 

Lisa Arnold producer, director, and writer for the film "Caged No More" now on DVD, 2016. | (Photo: Pure Publicity)

Award-winning director, writer and producer Lisa Arnold, a veteran in the film industry, has over 25 years of experience in film, stage and television, and has also witnessed the industry's bias firsthand. She has tried to break free from the label “female filmmaker,” but is regularly reminded that her gender does play a role in her work. 

“Maybe it is naive of me, but I have never really seen myself as a female filmmaker, only a filmmaker,” she told CP when asked to comment on her experiences of working in film and television.

“Certainly though, the labels have come out and been emphasized over the last few years with the Me Too movement. I have been making faith-based and family films since 1998 and yes, in a sea of brother production companies,” she explained.  

“First, the Christiano Brothers, then the Kendricks, the Downes and now the Erwins,” Arnold said, listing the many Christian companies led by men that have had success in the faith-based and mainstream world of film. “I often joke that I really need my sister to come into the business with me! It has been difficult at times putting together the right team [of] people that believe in you and vice versa, people that honor the commitment and stay with it.”

“You can see why family partnerships work so well; family is always family!” the “Caged No More” filmmaker noted.  

Arnold said the other obstacle she has faced comes from having to fight for her “vision” or when she speaks out about something she believes is being “mishandled.” 

“It has been challenging for my voice to not only be heard but respected,” the 33-time film festival award-winner said. “I have, as probably most females have, encountered some harsh language and backlash when I have to stand up for something. It's not fun and I am the worst at confrontation, so I do rely on God to fight my battles for me and just stand in truth.”

Sharon Wilharm at an award ceremony |

Women’s ministry leader and award-winning filmmaker Sharon Campbell Wilharm said she didn't even consider herself a filmmaker when she first began working in film because of how much of a minority she was. 

“I remember in the early days when we'd go to industry events, I'd be one of the only women in the room,” Wilharm told CP. “When my husband and I made our first movie in 1999, I was the writer and director, but it never occurred to me to call myself a filmmaker. I honestly had no idea women could be filmmakers. It wasn't until we'd made four or five feature films that I began using that term.”

“The Good Book” director is grateful that the tide is turning as film festivals are “actively seeking female-driven movies and recognizing female directors.”

“More women are feeling encouraged to pursue careers as producers, screenwriters, and directors,” Wilharm noted, although “male-focused films still dominate the faith-film industry.”

“As a women's ministry leader, I've discovered just how hard it is to find stories that are told from the female perspective. We need more stories written by women, about women, for women,” Wilharm stressed. 

The Sundance Institute study, which was conducted within a three-year observation span of the industry, showed that 70.2% of movies with female directors were given “fewer financial resources and lower industry clout.” Also, 43.1% of male-directed films were more likely to receive distribution from a studio specialty arm or mini-major compared to 29.8% female-directed films.

Rigby pointed out the financial disadvantage as well. 

“It does seem to me that people, in general, investors are more willing to invest in men, or invest in these men-driven companies, than they are in women. We really have to go after the very private, private investor that’s willing,” Rigby said.  

Arnold also sees the “greatest obstacle” any filmmaker faces is getting a film made “the way you see it and at the excellence you desire and demand.”

In 2017, Variety reported that women only accounted for 11% of directors of top-grossing films. Although a women empowerment movement has started and there has been a slim increase in this number, it’s still not the shift many women hope to see in having equal opportunity. In 2018, CNBC published that just four of the top 100 films in the United States were directed by women. 

Those numbers, nevertheless, do not add up with the statistics showing that female-driven movies actually do well at the box office. 

Faith-based flicks have also done well at the box office over the past few years, and with the surge of Christian content crossing over into the mainstream comes another issue, Rigby said.

She finds that another thing female creatives in Christian entertainment have working against them is being replaced by big names. They are not given a chance because some Christian studios are conforming to the mainstream industry standards as they become more successful. 

“I have actresses that come to me all the time and they'll say to me, ‘I've been working in this industry for about four or five years now and I’m really, I’m coming to a great place of having some good momentum. But according to the majority of producers, or creators in my field, I don't have enough value or status to even audition for their movie,’” Rigby said. “Then they say, ‘But how is it that they can then pull somebody else in that they might be a Christian, or maybe they're a believer, but ... everything that they're doing represents a worldly perspective?’”

These women refuse to give up 

Despite the many challenges these filmmakers have encountered, they refuse to give up and are trailblazing a path for their work because of their faith. 

“It takes determination, perseverance, faith, and a driving mentality of ‘make it happen’ to be successful in this field no matter who you are,” Arnold emphasized. "I have really broken free over the last year and am happy in that realm because it leads me to partner with multitudes." 

The successful director said the trick is to “pray hard and rely on God's discernment” for who to partner with and how to use your gifts.

Arnold currently has what she described as a “spectacular” team and they collectively are creating phenomenal content in all forms of art.

“If you are struggling today, just hang in there and always be creating, learning and moving forward. Your time will come,” she added, encouraging those who have faced some of the challenges she's also endured.

God is such a big God, Rigby emphasized. “I know that He's put each and every one of us in the positions and the places that we're at. So I can't imagine that at some point He’s not going to bring this dream that He's already given me, these little nuggets of gold to fruition.”

Rigby is also working on bringing women into the industry through the ministry The Women in My World.

“I'm not too sure of how many groups that I could actually put my finger on right now, to say, ‘look at these sisters over here doing this;’ it's been pretty fragmented. We have to probably be more proactive at this and bring more women together in environments that they really can encourage each other,” she continued. “It’s really about a sisterhood and developing a relationship, and then from that relationship seeing where it goes. I think that’s really the way that we're going to continue to change the narrative.” 

Dewitt and McLain said they are focused on creating unique content that will touch the hearts of their viewers. 

"I think what we want to bring to the table in this entertainment industry is something that's relatable to others. If that means going to the edge a little bit, we're willing to do that because that's what people can actually relate to, and something also for the younger generation that maybe just want to have entertainment that is current and even trendy and what their culture is,” DeWitt explained.

McLain concluded, "I like the uplifting part of it. So it's entertainment first — it's got to tell a good story — but we really wanted to have entertainment that was uplifting. So the important part for me was that it has a message. It's entertainment so people want to watch it. It's funny, it's got heart but you go away thinking."

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