There’s no business like show business. But for women in the industry, that adage can take on a darker meaning. Female filmmakers are scarce, and large, persistent gender inequalities can bring extra challenges, says Kathleen Messmer, founder of film production company Anvil Springs Entertainment.
“Starting a business as a woman is tough” enough, she says. “Starting a film production company? Please.”
Already a difficult task for most filmmakers, Messmer faced outsized hurdles raising capital. To make a film, you need large amounts of cash up-front, since a project won’t generate income until after it’s distributed. To get that money, filmmakers must secure investments or loans — and without income to report, the latter can be very tough to get.
And she struggled to scale her company in an industry with a big “woman problem.” According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Hollywood’s lack of gender diversity is especially large behind the camera. Researchers found that, as of 2010, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers are female. “Running a business in this line of work, it’s tough as a woman, because it’s a good ol’ boys’ club,” she says.
Take, for instance, one of Messmer’s recent experiences pitching a movie to investors, who “would always, interestingly enough, talk to the man in my group instead of me,” she says. “I had to step up and say that I’m the executive producer and owner. But without fail at every appointment, they would always talk to the man. Every single one. It made me even more determined to do what I’m doing.”
What she’s doing is building a low-stress, predominantly female firm, where women are involved in every step of the storytelling process. Her production company, which launched in 2008, is now a multi-million dollar firm with 13 employees on its payroll — most of whom are women.
Indeed, in addition to telling compelling stories, her mission is to “give a leg up to other women” who want to work in movies.
Finding Her Way to Film
Messmer wasn’t always a filmmaker — far from it, in fact. Born in Germany and raised in Tacoma, Wash., in a strict home with two military parents, she initially worked in government. But when layoffs upended that career, she tapped into her passion for exercise and became a personal trainer. For nearly two decades, she owned and ran two fitness-focused businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Along the way, she married and had two children.
That path came to an end in 1999, when an injury left her unable to work. For awhile, she got by on disability payments. But the day came when agency officials told her that, to keep receiving assistance, she would have to go back to school.
Initially, she didn’t want to go back — in fact, she says she chose to major in film at San Francisco State University, in part, as a form of rebellion. (She says she had been a movie buff ever since seeing “One Million Years B.C.” in middle school, though.) But she ended up enjoying the experience so thoroughly that, after earning her Bachelor’s degree in 2004, she went on to earn a Master’s degree in photography from the Academy of Art University in 2013.
After completing her undergraduate degree, she found work as a script supervisor on a variety of projects. On top of gaining experience in the television and film industry, though, the work opened her eyes to the reality of being in show business. “When you work as the right hand of a director, you see it all — the yelling, the misbehaving,” she says. “The people are unhappy; it’s a really bad scene.”
These instances made her want to create a different sort of space — a drama-free and female-friendly one. She realized that dream by forming her own film production company, which she based in Albuquerque, N.M. to capitalize on tax advantages for filmmakers there at the time.
Messmer’s entrepreneurial drive again kicked in. “I’m a control freak — it had to be me in charge. One thing my parents did teach me is, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. I didn’t want anybody else to screw up what I was trying to build.”
From Anvil Springs’ start, she was committed to doing things her way in order to carve out a place for future generations of female filmmakers. “I wanted it to be done differently than what’s out there traditionally,” she says. “I wanted it to be woman-owned and -operated.”
A Thoughtful, Welcoming Space
First and foremost, Messmer demands calm communication on her sets — a rule she’s had from the beginning. “Once I decided to start my company, I told myself there was no way in Hell I’m gonna run it like” the combative creatives she had worked with and under.
To keep her sets civilized, Messmer says she’s “very picky” about who she works with. When hiring, she is not necessarily looking for deep experience; in fact, she often gives opportunities to newcomers to the industry. Rather, she seeks out people — mostly women — who demonstrate true passions for both filmmaking and life-long learning.
“I believe everyone deserves a chance,” she says. And she creates an educational environment by pairing more seasoned colleagues with trainees, who get the opportunity to both learn skills and earn a living wage. “Everybody has to start somewhere, and there’s nothing better than on-the-job training.”
She considers this approach to be a form of giving back and social consciousness, values that are evident in other company practices. For example, Messmer often offers production-assistant jobs and other non-union work to members of the Albuquerque community. She is also fostering a “green” company; in addition to on-set recycling efforts and an embrace of solar energy, she endeavors to work with other companies that source products responsibly and ethically, and who value their employees as she values hers.
“This is the only planet we’re gonna get, and we need to take care of it,” she says. “It’s astounding how much waste there is in the industry.”
But perhaps most importantly, Anvil Springs partners with a number of national organizations to tell stories that address significant social issues, especially issues affecting women. One of the studio’s upcoming products takes on the subject of domestic violence and how cycles of abuse are perpetuated through generations of a family.
Bringing Her Vision to Fruition
Anvil Springs is currently developing seven projects — each with a message, she says. “The whole point of our company is to always tell a story that evokes a conversation when people walk out of the theater — instead of just, ‘Where do you want to go for dinner?’”
In addition to domestic violence, upcoming works tackle subjects like gun proliferation and the effects of Alzheimer’s disease — and will do so in emotionally evocative ways. Take the latter film, which will tell the tale of a journalism-school graduate who lands a job editing a newsletter in a nursing home and forms a deep bond with a resident with Alzheimer’s.
She says that, while it’s not the happiest story, it’s not the saddest, either. She will use both comedy and drama to highlight the impact of Alzheimer’s on those who have it, and those around them. “Those are the types of stories we like to make movies about — ones that have a message, without being preachy about it,” she adds.
To inspire her audience, Messmer believes she must continue to inspire her employees. They certainly have inspired, motivated and helped her build a film production company that satisfies her vision. “I thought I could do it all by myself,” she says, recalling Anvil Springs’ earliest days. “I was so wrong — it takes a village.”