Another Inconvenient Truth

Victoria Cook’s viral Facebook post helped expose gender bias in documentary filmmaking

Published in 2017 New York Metro Super Lawyers — October 2017

It was January 2, 2016, and Victoria Cook, an entertainment attorney at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in Manhattan, found herself typing a lengthy Facebook post.

“I was mad,” she says. “I have a tendency to rant on Facebook, so it was a rant. It was an early morning rant.”

A month earlier, the shortlist for the Academy Award’s best documentary feature had been released, and, “as usual,” she says, “there were very few women” on it. At the same time, there was ongoing discussion, not only among insiders but movie fans in general, about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, which went by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Yet in this discussion, Cook says, “the documentary world was never referenced.”

The main problem, she felt, was the assumption that the documentary world was already diverse—“because there were so many women filmmakers and a lot of the content is about socially conscious subjects,” she says. Yet the predictions on who would be the eventual nominees were same-old same old: mostly male, mostly white.

So she vented. Then she tagged a few friends from the industry, and they read it and tagged a few others. “The next thing I knew,” she says, “it became a giant deal.” The Female Gaze, a blog about the visual arts, reprinted her post, and it was written up on IndieWire, Variety and other industry sites.

Some social-media rants lead to regrets, but not this one.

“I’m sure there are people who disagree with me,” she says. “As a lawyer, in general, conflict isn’t really problematic to me. I’m pretty not-shy about my politics or anything else. It’s possible that I’ve lost clients who think, ‘I don’t like that part of her.’ But the flip can also be true: ‘I share values with that person.’”

Cook, who grew up in South Jersey and went to high school in North Jersey (“You name the exit and I have some relationship to it”), has long been a film fan. Her first high school job was with the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, helping create an index of local places to shoot movies. At Columbia, and the Tisch School of the Arts, where she got a Masters in Cinema Studies, all of her internships were industry-related: working at a documentary company, at a talent agency, at MTV. “I wanted to be a professor in a real academic, film-theory kind of way,” she says. “At the same time, I helped friends work on documentaries and I helped produce a movie [Screwed, about New York pornographer Al Goldstein], which was a great experience. ... But I was also trying to make other movies and I never seemed to figure out how to do it.”

Instead, she went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, worked at Paul Weiss as a litigator for a year, then joined her current firm in November 1999. “Part of why I wanted to be a lawyer was social justice issues. [And] as a transactional entertainment attorney, I can help people tell those stories.”

She’s not an agent. On documentaries, she says, her job entails helping with production, finance and distribution, as well as access to subjects and making sure “the rights are flowing to the right place,” she says.

Cook works on feature films, too, including Robert Eggers' The Witch, Dee Rees' Mudbound and Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game, but her enthusiasm for documentaries is contagious.

Asked if she thought last year—which included Oscar nominations for I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, and an Oscar for O.J.: Made in America—was a good year for documentaries, she responds, “It’s always a good year for documentaries.”

Further reading: Discovery with Victoria S. Cook.

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