LOS ANGELES (AP) — With help from a slew of corporate sponsors, Geena Davis and filmmakers focused on women and diversity have taken over Bentonville, Arkansas, a city of 40,000 best known as Wal-Mart's home base.
While it's not the first film festival to specialize in diversity, Davis said it's the only film competition to promise theatrical releases for winning entries.
"It's unheard of in the world, actually," the Oscar-winner said in a telephone interview before opening the festival Tuesday. "It's the only festival offering distribution across theatrical, digital and on TV and on DVD. ... That's just part of our push to show how commercial diverse films can be."
About 75 films will be screened over the four-day festival, which will also include panel discussions and a celebratory "A League of Their Own" baseball game, featuring appearances by Rosie O'Donnell and two original members of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Davis plans to expand the festival beyond Bentonville to include educational outreach and events throughout the year. Founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007, the actress plans to bring the research amassed by her organization to film schools and colleges around the country.
"It's very important to educate the next generation of content creators before they even start their professional careers," she said. "Once it's brought to (filmmakers') attention, once they hear the numbers, they're just stunned and horrified... how much gender bias there is and lack of diversity."
For example, research funded by Davis' institute and conducted by the University of Southern California found that women — who constitute more than half of the U.S. population — typically comprise just 17 percent of on-screen crowd scenes.
"That is one of the most shocking things when people hear it," Davis said. "And one of the things very often they'll say is, 'Let's just change that immediately.'"
A favorite catch-phrase of the Geena Davis Institute is "If she can see it, she can be it."
"In pretty much every sector of society, female leadership has stalled out in about the same range — interestingly, also around 17 percent," Davis said. "It's going to take a long time no matter how hard we work. We can't snap our fingers and tomorrow Congress is 50 percent women.
"But the one area of gross imbalance that can be changed overnight is on screen, because they very next movie somebody makes can be gender balanced."
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .