Reel Women: Award-winning filmmaker, April Wright

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April Wright

Editor’s Note: They are leaders. They are inspirational. They are mentors. They are visionaries. They are, quite frankly, badasses. They are our 2020 Reel Women During Women’s History Month, you will be able to meet these incredible personalities in Advertising, Entertainment, Media and Production. Get ready.

April Wright is an award winning filmmaker who brings a fresh and creative approach to her documentaries and narrative projects. She’s drawn to material based on real events, especially stories with an unexpected hero or point of view. Working as a narrative programmer for the Sundance Film Festival for the past 15 years, Sundance has been her film school. 

April co-created two edgy dramatic series that are currently in development, partnered with an Emmy winner and Executive Producers from HBO’s Euphoria and Grey’s Anatomy. She’s developing a feature film about the woman who led the charge to save Radio City Music Hall from demolition in the 70s, going up against the powerful Rockefellers and NYC politicians. 

April’s latest documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace” has enjoyed a theatrical release, won numerous Best Documentary and Grand Prize awards at film festivals, was named by critics as one of the top documentaries of 2019 and was featured in over 50 articles including The Hollywood Reporter, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Box Office Magazine and Forbes, who called it “a richly crafted look at our passion for movie theaters.” Her documentary “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” with Executive Producers Michelle Rodriguez and Stephanie Austin (Terminator 2, True Lies) will release in 2020. 

April was recently attached to direct a thriller for Lionsgate, and her scripts have been part of the Sundance / Women in Film Financing Intensive, as well as the final rounds for Sundance episodic and narrative labs, the WIF/Blacklist episodic lab, Austin Screenwriting, Scriptapalooza, and winner of the Script Magazine screenwriting competition. Her upcoming doc “Carnival” was one of five finalists for Tribeca IF/THEN, and she plans to turn it into a series. Her short doc “Julio’s Dream” about the Griffith Park Carousel screened recently at the American Cinemateque Aero Theatre in the “Worlds within our World” series. 

April is a member of the Alliance of Women Directors, Film Independent, the International Documentary Association, Women in Film, Film Fatales, and she is an alumni of the Sundance Institute. Before working in film and television, April received an MBA from Northwestern and had a successful business career working for companies like AT&T, Delta Air Lines, Mattel, and Caesars Palace. While making her documentary on drive-in movies, she visited every state except Alaska. 

April Wright

What did you originally want to be when you grow up?
I never had a specific profession that I wanted to be. I briefly thought it would be fun to be a Stewardess, because you’d get to fly and travel all the time, but when I learned what they made, I knew it wasn’t enough, so then I thought maybe I could be a lawyer. When I went to college, I figured majoring in computers meant I could always find a job. I was very practical. I always went to as many movies as I could, and paid attention to directors, producers and actors and their careers, so I knew I’d work in the film business one day.

How did you get into the film industry?
I didn’t directly go into film, because my family didn’t have money, so being practical and knowing I had student loans to pay back, I majored in computers and started working for AT&T in Chicago.  While working at AT&T, I received my MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern, and moved to Los Angeles a week after graduation.

April Wright

I had a very successful business career working as a consultant for Accenture at companies like Delta Air Lines and Caesars hotels/casinos, and later for Mattel doing business development for new media.  I took writing and cinematography classes at UCLA, and in 2004 I won a screenwriting competition from Script Magazine.  

Around that time I formed my own production company April 9 Entertainment, my first film was made in 2005 from a script I wrote, and that’s also when I started researching my first documentary about drive-in movies. 

I started screening submissions for the LA Film Festival and AFI Fest, and in late 2005 I started working for Sundance Film Festival doing programming which I have now done for 15 years. I always say Sundance has been my film school.  I directed my first film – which was a narrative feature film in 2007, and have written and directed several shorts and docs since then. 

Who were your mentors?
In the film business, Marion Rosenberg, the producer of many films including The Deer Hunter and Revolutionary Road, was an early mentor through Women in Film. I also worked as Manager of the Women in Film Foundation , and learned a lot from Gayle Nachlis who was Executive Director of the organization, and Susan Cartsonis who was President of the Foundation Board. I learned from all the very experienced women on that Board. Trevor Groth at Sundance. 

What is your greatest achievement?
This is a tough one, because I feel like my biggest achievements are still ahead of me and I’m just about to hit my stride, but I was proud to get the MBA from Northwestern.  I’m happy all my films have done well and won awards, but I’m still making things independently and hope I will soon be moving into bigger budgets and bigger productions as a creator and director. Also I’ve been to 49 of 50 states, and it was always a thing in my family to try to get to all 50, so I only have Alaska left to visit. Also I have three nieces and being a good role model to them has always been important to me. 

What is your biggest disappointment?
In this business you have disappointments constantly, and rejections constantly. It’s just part of the process. I can’t think of any that I hang onto. You have to let those things go.

ALSO READ: MORE REEL WOMEN

What are your biggest pet peeves? 
Pet peeves… things that annoy me. People who take credit for other people’s work.  Injustice. I guess I don’t sweat the small stuff because I can’t think of anything that’s a pet peeve.  

What are your predictions for the film industry over the next decade?
This is a very interesting question.  If we expand it to overall entertainment, it’s awesome. There are more and more streaming channels and outlets for content – broadcast, streaming, cable, all these places are giving creators the opportunity to make films and series like never before. It’s a golden age, a renaissance. And it’s easier for people to make high quality films and shows with the cameras nowadays, even on your phone. But if we just talk about film – movies, theatrical releases, I think we’re in an interesting era, where most studios are making films based on pre-existing IP and higher budgets, and last year Disney owned 80% of the box office. I’ve done films about drive-ins and focused on art house cinema and in some ways those places are thriving, but they’re also threatened with the lack of leverage for booking, the consent decree recently being overturned, and I’m seeing a lot of independent theatres and drive-ins and even smaller chains closing or going up for sale, and there is a LOT of this happening in the past year or so.  I hope the cinema experience continues and survives – I think it will, but we are in the midst of revolutionary change in the industry.  

I also think we’re in an interesting time for women and people of color – in recent years there have been studies and data showing the number of women directors in top films hadn’t moved since the 70s. So it was very hard for women and POC to get the same opportunities, but now there is an increased awareness, people can have conversations based on facts and data, and there is an effort towards bringing more women and POC into the industry and giving us more opportunities. Until recently, myself and other women had been making films for years, but still not getting brought into the system. I am seeing improvement now.  We all hope more positive changes are underway and can be sustained.   

Name a job you had that would surprise people.
I was a Beauty Advisor at Estee Lauder. And I did consulting at Caesars Palace – and literally lived in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for four months until they moved us to apartments. That was very interesting! My first job was working the refreshment counter at my family’s Roller Skating Rink.

Who plays you in your life story?
Sometimes people have said I look like Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I’d be okay with her playing me, although I haven’t done anything remarkable. I strive to be a working director. Part of my focus is researching amazing people, for docs or narrative films, and there are so many women who have done big things whose stories deserve to be told, I can’t even imagine myself on the list of somebody who should have a movie about them.

What do you wish you had more time to do?
I wish I had more time to have fun. This career has been a major hustle for many years, pushing boulders uphill. I’ve been on the all work / no play end of the spectrum. I hope for more play in my future!

Do you talk to yourself?
Sometimes. Years ago I had my niece in the car seat with me driving and she kept saying “huh?” and I remember having to explain to her that I was only talking to myself!

What inspires you to be creative?
It’s so funny because I always saw myself as a business woman, because that was my career, and yet I always liked to hang out with actors, artists, and musicians, and finally recently I realized I can’t stop creating – I constantly have ideas, files of ideas, many half-finished projects – I create constantly. I don’t have enough time to get to my whole list of creative projects and ideas. However that being said, this job is a business, and that side takes up a lot of my time, so I’m glad I have those skills, but shifting gears into a creative space is tough sometimes. 

Upcoming projects:
My documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace” is still booking theatrically all over the country and being invited to film festivals where we’ve been honored with many Best Documentary awards.  My upcoming documentary “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” is expected to release later this year. I’m currently working on several television projects, and trying to push forward a narrative film project based on the book by Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, a David v. Goliath story about the woman who led the charge to save Radio City Music Hall when it was threatened with demolition in the late 1970s. I’m also working on two new docs about the history of cars in movies and television, and about a traveling carnival that I’ve been following in the Northwest for several years. 
  

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