SCA graduate student raises funds for scholarship

From The Hunger Games’ Katniss to Frozen’s Elsa, recent blockbusters have favored portraying strong female protagonists. The number of women on-screen, however, doesn’t translate to a large number of women behind-the-scenes, with just 6 percent of 2013’s top-grossing films being directed by women.

Taking aim at empowerment · Though films such as The Hunger Games series feature prominent female protagonists, there has been a lack of women involved in the behind-the-scenes process of filmmaking. - Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Taking aim at empowerment · Though films such as The Hunger Games series feature prominent female protagonists, there has been a lack of women involved in the behind-the-scenes process of filmmaking. – Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Meena Ramamurthy, a third-year graduate student in Cinematic Arts pursuing her Master of Fine Arts degree in film production, witnesses this statistic on a daily basis. Overall, only 16 percent of behind-the-scenes movie positions in 2013 were held by women, a decrease since 2012.

“It’s tough for women to break into those upper-level positions,” Ramamurthy said. “[As a woman], your stuff has to be nearly twice as good, because maybe you won’t scream the loudest but your work will need to speak for itself.”

The lack of support for female filmmakers sparked Ramamurthy’s idea to form the Cinema School Calendar Girls 2014, which raises awareness of the limited representation of female filmmakers while simultaneously raising money for future women in cinema.

The project began as an assignment for an intermediate cinematography class. While other students sought out images of stunning landscapes and the downtown skyline, Ramamurthy had an entirely different idea.

“I thought it would be fun to shoot girls from our production program and use the proceeds towards scholarships,” she said.

She then posted her calendar on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo at the end of July, with the goal of raising $500 within a month. The project ended up earning more than triple that.

What began as just a “funny project” for Ramamurthy received an outpouring of support from both female and male filmmakers, and ended up raising $1,610.

Supporters paid $10 for each calendar. Donors also had the option to give other amounts, ranging from $1 for a “high five” to $50 for up to five calendars autographed by the calendar girls.

Ramamurthy describes the calendar as a “parody of a women’s swimsuit calendar,” because it showcases women who don’t work in front of the camera. Aspiring female editors, directors and producers were all featured in the calendar.

All proceeds from the calendar went directly to the School of Cinematic Arts as scholarship funds for future women in cinema. Ramamurthy worked intensively with the Student Services department to develop the scholarship, which is unique in the fact that it’s product-based.

“[The School of Cinematic Arts] has never done a student-initiated scholarship based on the sale of products,” Ramamurthy said.

Her own interest in cinematography began at a young age. Originally from a small town in Texas, Ramamurthy recalled that “there wasn’t much to do when I was a kid, so my best friend and I went to each others’ houses and wrote really bad scripts.”

This sparked the future cinema student’s lifelong passion for filmmaking.

Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling are the two women currently in the film industry that Ramamurthy admires the most, which isn’t surprising considering the fact that Ramamurthy eventually wants to be a comedy writer.

“They created their own market and did not wait for the rest of the industry to catch up,” Ramamurthy said.

After studying radio, television and English at the University of Texas at Austin, Ramamurthy launched her career as a filmmaker. She interned with the Disney Channel in Los Angeles, and then worked on a show for National Public Radio in New York City. Unfortunately, the show she worked on was cancelled when the recession hit, so she moved back home.

Ramamurthy then applied to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ M.F.A. program and earned a directing scholarship. The scholarship mainly served as a source of motivation.

“[The scholarship] was a significant amount but not enough to cover the cost of tuition,” she said. “But, for me, it meant more that someone saw that I had potential as a director.”

Ramamurthy hopes that the scholarship award funded by her project will encourage other young female filmmakers to break the industry’s glass ceiling.

For her, the main goal with the calendar project is to end the “boys’ club” mentality of filmmaking that she believes harms the industry’s film quality.

“It’s important to have diversity in filmmaking,” she said. “Filmmaking, storytelling and art help us understand each other better, and film is a great medium to experience the way someone lives.”