As Indigenous woman filmmakers, we knew that our path through the industry would be narrow and that our film, Fancy Dance, would have a small window for success based on the abysmal record of representation for Indigenous folx in Hollywood. As such, we channeled our collective wills as granddaughters of Dust Bowl survivors, descendants of genocide and avowed followers of the indomitable Merata Mita to give this film the best shot possible.
If there existed a “how to make a successful movie in Hollywood” checklist, we followed it to a tee.
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Step one: Create a compelling script (after her sister’s disappearance, a hustler kidnaps her niece from the child’s white grandparents and takes her to the state powwow in hopes of keeping what’s left of her family intact) – check.
Step two: Find top-tier producing partners (Nina Yang Bongiovi, Tommy Oliver) – check.
Step three: Cast amazing actors at the top of their field (soon-to-be Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone) – check.
Step four: Premiere and screen at world-renowned festivals (Sundance, SXSW, BFI London) – check.
Step five: Receive excellent reviews (THR called it “exceptional”) and festival prizes (Hamptons, L.A. Outfest, Mill Valley, NewFest, Sun Valley, Tacoma) – check.
Step six: Get a distribution deal – …crickets.
Maybe we went wrong somewhere? But with a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and all of our accolades to boot, we are left mystified by the disconnect between our apparent success and an industry-supported distribution push.
Our film premiered in the same year as Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Both films star Lily Gladstone, are set in Oklahoma and deal with themes surrounding settler violence against Native peoples. As first-time indie filmmakers, we were under absolutely no illusion that Fancy Dance would receive the same kind of industry support as Mr. Scorsese’s juggernaut, but the disparity is so great that it renders our film virtually invisible and leaves only one available perspective: the non-Native one.
Adding to the perplexities, a major studio expressed interest in screening Fancy Dance internally for diversity training, yet showed no intent to discuss acquisition, exemplifying the industry’s often superficial engagement with diversity and representation. There’s been no lack of studio interest in creating Native American storylines told by non-Native creators. Films and series like Killers, Yellowstone, Prey and their predecessors like Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, The Lone Ranger and even Disney’s Pocahontas have proven that a thirst for Indigenous stories exists. So, does Hollywood’s idea of Indigenous storytelling really only extend to the bounds of the white lens and the conceits of the untamed West?
In a recent report titled “The Lily Gladstone Effect,” USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative conducted a comprehensive analysis of the top-earning films from 2007 to 2022 and found that less than 0.25 percent of these films featured Native Americans in speaking roles. This means that over 99 percent of Hollywood’s most prominent films excluded Native representation. In another recent study, researchers at IllumiNative found that nearly 80 percent of Americans surveyed are interested in learning more about Native American cultures.
When you combine these two compelling pieces of research, a glaring disparity emerges: While less than a quarter of a percent of Hollywood films feature Native characters, 80 percent of Americans expressed interest in exploring Native cultures. This stark contrast highlights a significant market and a tremendous opportunity for the industry to invest in projects that resonate with their audiences’ genuine interests. Embracing a broader vision and investing more in authentic Native stories presents great potential not only to enrich our society’s understanding of Native people but also to yield sustainable and significant profits. The business case is there.
As creatives in Hollywood who’ve worked on critically acclaimed shows including Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds, we are witnessing what finally feels like a shift away from the tired, stereotypical representations of Native peoples. The enduring talents of established Indigenous filmmakers like Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo and Sydney Freeland are carving a sustainable path for us all. Their recent achievements signal a small breakthrough in an industry that has, for over a century, clung to the deeply misguided belief that Natives lack the skills to act, write and direct. Indigenous filmmakers are not only proving their immense talent but also demonstrating the viability of their projects as marketable and profitable endeavors.
Despite all of this, Hollywood remains reluctant to include us. When they do, the ill-formed Native tropes often prevail. Is the Indian figure only worthy of screen time when he’s at the business end of a cowboy’s gun? Are our own versions of these stories less valuable because we get to decide how our blood is shed for consumption?
The overwhelming response from our festival audiences indicates otherwise. We are deeply moved by the sold-out crowds and the engagement. Some of our most rewarding screenings have been at festivals where Killers of the Flower Moon also played. People are leaning into these topics. They want more Lily Gladstone. They want additional perspectives. They want Indigenous points of view. Sleeping on Native-made films not only represents a missed business opportunity but also a broader societal gap in understanding Native cultures.
We believe there is space for both Indigenous-made films and observational Indigenous interest movies like Killers of the Flower Moon. Allocating even a fraction of that movie’s marketing budget would be a game changer for Fancy Dance and other Native films. But without industry partnerships and a pathway to streaming, our projects remain excluded from the conversation and their commercial potential. We remain hopeful that we will find a distribution partner that will recognize that value. We’re ready to check the final item off of our checklist.
Erica Tremblay and Miciana Alise are the co-writers of Fancy Dance, which also is Tremblay’s feature directorial debut. Tremblay is a queer filmmaker from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, and Alise is an Afro-Indigenous writer from Alaska.
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