Local, award-winning filmmakers making women-centric films written, filmed, directed and produced by women
By Vera Wilson
If you were to stop someone on the streets of Wilmington and ask them how the local film industry is faring, they'd probably say it's lost some of its mojo. Changes to tax incentives, COVID, and, most recently, the writers' and actors' strikes, have taken a toll on Wilmywood, they'd say.
But if you were to ask Kristi Ray and Erika Arlee, you'd get a very different answer.
As co-founders of Wilmington-based film production company Honey Head Films, Ray and Arlee have found their sweet spot in the local film community by making women-centric films that are written, filmed, directed, and produced by women.
Ray and Arlee met in 2015 when Ray answered a casting call ad on Craigslist that Arlee had placed. (This was the first time that both had turned to Craigslist, so they took it as a sign that their partnership was meant to be.)
But serendipity wasn't all that brought them together.
“I actually hadn't had a female director or writer before,” says Ray, who is often the lead actor in Honey Head's films. “And Erika's dialogue and her characters were so authentic and so interesting to me.”
While working on the film, they realized they both hungered for the same thing: more dynamic, genuine female leads in film, so in 2016 they produced their first short film together.
“Afterward, the whole crew had such a great experience that they said, 'When are we going to do this again?'” says Arlee. “We were performing as the leaders we wish we had when we were actors or crew members on set, which was so different from the toxic environment they were used to.”
And so, Honey Head Films was born, not only to create films with strong female characters but to allow for and nurture a filmmaking environment where women feel safe and valued.
“That's what we call the honey — the sweetness we bring to the environment,” explains Ray.
A video on their website shows Arlee and Ray striking through words and changing phrases on a chalkboard that demean or exclude women – “Women aren't assertive enough to be directors” becomes “Women direct,” and “cameraman” becomes “camerawoman.”
“Women have been marginalized in the film industry for a long time,” says Arlee in the video. “Perhaps there's something we can do about that…by taking that extra second to think…do I know a woman who would like to fill this role?”
Ray admits that this can be challenging, “but we lead with positivity,” she says. “Lifting by climbing” is their mantra.
A New Wilmywood
You might think that the largely self-taught filmmakers run into some roadblocks as they challenge the traditional model of filmmaking, but Ray and Arlee say that's not been the case.
“In the last decade or so, I feel like we've seen a shift of people trying to be more innovative with how to make films,” says Arlee.
Even the larger and often male-dominated film companies in Wilmington have been supportive. So has the business community, as evidenced by their inclusion on this year's WilmingtonBiz 100 list.
“They are rooting for us to succeed,” says Arlee. “We're all trying to keep film here.”
Their collaboration has led to some impressive results. Their first feature film, A Song for Imogene, won Best Feature Film at the Flickers Rhode Island Film Festival this past August. The film was featured on the opening night of the 2023 Cucalorus Film Festival to a sold-out audience. On the schedule in 2024 is Fallout, an action thriller about a woman trying to save her daughter in a post-apocalyptic world.
Ray believes she knows why the audience responds so well to their films.
“Our female characters are not these one-dimensional characters or these flat placeholders in movies always centered around men,” says Ray. “They're relatable.”
Shoot Like A Girl
Ray and Arlee believe so strongly in providing support and inspiration for women filmmakers that they hold a summer camp each year for area high school girls called Shoot Like A Girl. The students are mentored by professional cinematographers, editors, sound mixers, etc. — all of them women. During the 14-day intensive program, the students learn to write their own script, produce a movie, and direct the cast. At the end of camp, they hold a film festival to showcase their work in front of family and friends.
“My favorite part of the camp is the soft skills that the students leave with,” says Ray. “They're always a little bit shy and uncertain at the start, but they learn to direct and talk to adults in a professional environment, and they walk away with this new confidence.”
The goal is that some of the students will go on to work in film, especially in roles usually assigned to men, and maybe even work at Honey Head.
Scholarships are available for the camp. You can find more information at honeyheadfilms.com.