Bentonville Film Festival

The Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) is held annually in Bentonville (Benton County), with the main focus of the four-day event being to promote diversity in the entertainment industry. Bentonville, in northwestern Arkansas, was chosen as the location for the festival at the suggestion of leadership from founding sponsor, Walmart Inc. Through the BFF Foundation, in partnership with Walmart and presenting sponsor Coca-Cola, the festival is the culmination of year-round efforts to encourage inclusion by the entertainment media.

The Bentonville Film Festival was founded in 2015 by Academy Award–winning actress Geena Davis. She earned an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for The Accidental Tourist (1988) and is also known for her film work in Tootsie (1982), Beetlejuice (1988), Thelma & Louise (1991), and A League of Their Own (1992). In 2019, she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her work in fighting Hollywood’s gender bias.

In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works to increase the presence of female characters in the entertainment industry. Under the umbrella of that organization, she launched the annual Bentonville Film Festival along with festival co-founder Trevor Drinkwater of ARC Entertainment.

Drinkwater is a producer and media executive whose credits include The Steam Experiment (2009), Sweetwater (2013), and Field of Lost Shoes (2015). ARC Entertainment provides brand marketing, retail strategy, physical distribution, and sales services for consumer products, with an emphasis on entertainment-based product lines. When Drinkwater learned that Walmart, with headquarters in Bentonville, was interested in supporting diversity initiatives, he and Davis partnered to produce the first Bentonville Film Festival, which began on May 5, 2015.

The mission of the Bentonville Film Festival is to work toward influencing mainstream media to increase diversity and the presence of underrepresented groups in their content, with the idea for audiences that “if they can see it, they can be it.” Its vision includes supporting achievements by diverse storytellers and connecting them with both entertainment industry leaders and major corporate entities.

The BFF website states that it is the only film festival in the world to offer guaranteed multi-platform distribution to its winners. Films that win the festival’s Audience, Jury, and Best Family Film awards receive theatrical distribution from AMC Theatres, are shown on the Lifetime cable television channel, and get a DVD or video-on-demand release from Walmart and Vudu. Subsequent to the first festival outing in 2015, eighty-seven percent of the films shown were distributed in some way.

Until 2018, the festival ran without there being a functioning movie theater in Bentonville. The organizers became adept at creative solutions such as utilizing any reasonable gathering space for festival activities as well as operating Cinetransformer units, which are ninety-one-seat mobile movie theaters.

The BFF enjoyed increased attendance each year. In 2018, there were around 85,000 attendees, with more than ninety feature films being shown. That year, the presence of festival-goers more than doubled Bentonville’s population of about 35,000 (per the 2010 census).

Along with Geena Davis, celebrities who have attended the Bentonville Film Festival include Joey Lauren Adams, David Arquette, Harry Connick Jr., Courteney Cox, William H. Macy, Martina McBride, Natalie Morales, Soledad O’Brien, Judge Reinhold, Meg Ryan, Aisha Tyler, and will.i.am.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, organizers arranged an online platform, along with a few drive-in venues, for festival activities to take place starting on August 10. In August 2021, amid the continuing pandemic, virtual and limited in-person showings were offered. Davis stated it was important, even in difficult times, to continue with the mission of BFF by elevating the voices of filmmakers and the stories that they tell.

For additional information:
“Bentonville, Ark., Hosts a Film Festival without a Movie Theater.” New York Times, May 5, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/06/realestate/commercial/bentonville-ark-hosts-a-film-festival-without-a-movie-theater.html (accessed August 19, 2021).

Bentonville Film Festival. https://bentonvillefilm.org/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

Erbland, Kate. “The First Bentonville Film Festival Made a Hard Push to Champion Women and Minorities.” The Dissolve, May 12, 2015. https://thedissolve.com/features/festival-dispatch/1021-the-first-bentonville-film-festival-made-a-hard-pu/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

“Geena Davis Explains How to Have a Film Festival These Days.” Vanity Fair, August 6, 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/08/little-gold-men-geena-davis-bentonville-film-festival (accessed August 19, 2021).

Killoran, Ellen. “Wal-Mart’s Serious (and Strange) Effort to Put on a Film Festival Celebrating Diversity.” Forbes, May 14, 2015. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenkilloran/2015/05/14/corporate-culture-shock-as-wal-mart-hosts-film-festival-celebrating-diversity/?sh=61dec4421d56 (accessed August 19, 2021).

McNary, Dave. “Geena Davis Launching Bentonville Film Festival to Push for Diversity in Film.” Variety, January 6, 2015. https://variety.com/2015/film/news/geena-davis-launching-bentonville-film-festival-to-push-for-diversity-in-film-1201393302/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

Murphy, Jocelyn. “Geena Davis Returns for Bentonville Film Festival.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 1, 2021, p. 4E. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/aug/01/familiar-faces-geena-davis-and-wendy-guerrero/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated: 08/19/2021