Malibu women shine at Broad Humor Film Festival

Malibu resident Constance Brenner won Best Romantic Comedy Screenplay for "Pomona Mona" at the Broad Humor Film Festival this past weekend. It is a film festival geared toward putting the spotlight on film comedies by women.

The film festival founded by Susan di Rende puts the spotlight on film comedies by women, and to give recognition to women making movies.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

“If you don’t have a big laugh on page one, then you have to go out and find it.”

Such was the piece of advice Malibu resident and screenwriter Constance Brenner received many years ago when she first started working on her comedy “Pomona Mona.” Fifty-nine rewrites later, her script won Best Romantic Comedy Screenplay in the 2008 Broad Humor Film Festival that took place this past weekend at the Electric Lodge Performing Arts Center in Venice.

“I love writing comedy,” Brenner said. “But my comedy is more like laughter through tears. I love physical comedy, but I think women are more introspective as writers.”

“Woman as writer” is the thrust of the Broad Humor Film Festival, founded three years ago by local filmmaker Susan di Rende. Through the festival, di Rende said she feels she is merely helping to level the playing field in a male-dominated industry in Hollywood.

“The trigger that got me doing this was a Screen Actors Guild screenwriting contest,” di Rende explained, “and not one woman made it to the finals.”

Consequently, the Broad Humor Film Festival is open to submissions by women only, in categories ranging from short films to completed features to screenplays. Screenplay finalists get to hear their pages read by professional actors at the festival, and there is even a “No Budget” competition for features made with less than $10,000.

“I love to laugh, so we look for comedic scripts,” di Rende said. “But I also want to help build a community of women filmmakers. Women’s laughter is so wonderful and our humor tends to be an opposite paradigm from men.”

Di Rende believes that, in screenwriting, men tend to create characters, then build a story around them that “pounds to a finish.”

“I’m reading scripts from women that are the opposite,” she said. “Women writers tend to create a world and then let the characters inhabit it. It’s not better-just different.”

Brenner thinks the difference is minimal.

“Some male writers write brilliant family comedy and some women write raunchy [comedy], and vice versa,” she said. “It’s the stage of life of the writer that equals the maturity or immaturity of the output.”

Brenner, who recently returned from working on a pilot shot in Paris, drifted into screenwriting from a journalism career.

“I was doodling on what I thought was going to be the great American musical when a friend got me in to see an exec at Warner Brothers,” Brenner said. “I went in with my mother-in-law and pitched it, and the exec said, ‘Give me a pilot on that.’ When we got outside, I asked my mom-in-law, ‘What’s a pilot?'”

Brenner then took a screenwriting class at UCLA and, two years later, presented herself again to the Warner exec.

“Remember me?” she asked.

The pilot didn’t go, but Brenner immersed herself in the craft of writing, eventually penning “Pomona Mona,” a comedy about a zaftig 7th-generation ex-stripper who finds love and self-esteem in the wilds of Alaska.

With character names like Pomona Mona and Bobby Babalona, Brenner has obvious fun with her word play.

“I wrote it with Danny DeVito and Goldie Hawn in mind,” she said.

Another Malibu screenwriter who has seen success at the Broad Humor festival is Michele Maher, who won the Best Feature Film category in ’06 with her dark comedy about the fashion industry, “Garmento.”

“I was doing the festival circuit with “Garmento” when Susan asked if they could screen it for the first Broad Humor fest,” Maher said. “I had been focused so long on the business side of the industry that it was a sort of rebirth for me to have it so well received. You lose sight of why you are writing, and having that supportive audience was just a great rediscovery.”

Maher graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in theater and received a film certificate from NYU.

“Having a theatrical background was incredibly helpful in developing structure and character for screenwriting,” Maher said. “I can get talky, and film is a visual medium.”

Maher ended up shooting “Garmento” in 35 mm with a budget of less than one million dollars. She managed to get limited theatrical release for “Garmento,” and said she is set to see “more action” on the film later this year.

“I don’t want to talk about it or jinx it,” Maher said, who is also working on a documentary.

Maher particularly enjoyed screening her film in Rome last year, which di Rende arranged.

“We got a terrific reaction from the audience,” di Rende said. “A lot of them were military guys who loved the films because they were great films, not because they were male or female films.”

Maher said she believes it is difficult to define what makes a “woman’s film.”

“Look at ‘Sex and the City,'” she said. “A hundred million dollars at the box office already. ‘Wedding Crashers’ was supposed to be a chick flick but was driven by male characters. It’s a great crossover movie.

“Bottom line is women like romance, to cry and to laugh,” Maher continued. “But mostly, they like to see strong women depicted on screen in a good light with revealing relationships.”