To celebrate Women’s History Month this year, we’re honoring something near and dear to us — the remarkable women who work at Focus Features. We asked five women to tell us a little about themselves, what they do, and what they want for women in the future of the film industry. Our five-person panel includes Lisa Bunnell (President of Domestic Distribution), Kirstin Carag (Vice President, Digital Publicity), Michelle Momplaisir (Vice President of Production and Development), Kat Okum (Finance Manager), and Rachel Parham (archivist).
Their enthusiasm for and dedication to supporting new cinematic voices and producing extraordinary movies promises a great future for film. And the example they set we hope will pave the way for even more women in the film industry.
What made you want to work at Focus Features?
Kat Okum: Focus films have always resonated with me more than any other studio. My favorite movie of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A quote from the film was on my Facebook way before I ever worked here. While I was working at Universal Pictures, I saw that Focus Features was part of the NBCU umbrella, and I knew that I had to work here somehow.
Lisa Bunnell: I was a film buyer for over 2 decades with Loews Theaters and Landmark Theaters where my emphasis was on art & specialty film. On the exhibition side, I worked on Focus Features films since the company’s inception and have always appreciated their mission. The only job that I really would leave exhibition for is this position at Focus.
Kirstin Carag: One of my first campaigns out of college was Gus Van Sant’s Milk. I was an assistant on the agency side, and I knew I was getting to be part of an important film, especially living in Los Angeles where Prop 8 was on the ballot at the time. In speaking with the press and seeing their reaction to Sean Penn’s performance, I knew I wanted to work for and within the studio which makes films that reflect society and will have a cultural and timely impact on different communities. I made the jump to Focus Features two years after that campaign.
Michelle Momplaisir: The films! The studio’s commitment to filmmakers and their impact is unmatched, and I think our portfolio is a testament to that.
Rachel Parham: I don’t work directly for Focus Features, but rather I partner with Focus to preserve the record of their productions in the NBCUniversal Archives. I lucked out, because I love working with assets from Focus. They encompass such a broad and diverse range of films. Whether it’s a high-fashion period piece like Downton Abbey, a social commentary like BlacKkKlansman, or even a modern-day basketball drama like Boogie, Focus produces and distributes an amazing variety of content, and I get to work with a lot of the materials that go into making those films.
What is your official position and what do you do during the day?
Okum: Finance Manager. I don’t want to bore anyone with the day-to-day, but I can say my favorite part of what I do is talking with the creatives that make our films come to life, then taking those conversations and transforming them into key financial insights. It makes me feel like I am a part of getting these important stories told.
Bunnell: I am the President of Domestic Distribution. I oversee all the aspects of getting a film into theaters properly and making sure that we are honoring the filmmakers’ vision. Along with our regular meeting, I divide the work for the week into sections. On Monday and Tuesday, I work on the current product. On Wednesday and Thursday, I work on future product, On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I work on the gross results for all films. In Distribution, we work on the theater plan for each film, what formats we will use (such as 70/35mm, Dolby Atmos Vision, etc.), maintain our relationships with exhibition and filmmakers, establish film terms, and monitor the industry grosses by film and theater. Each film has their own DNA. I like to think of them as our children. We need to make sure that our filmmakers feel like we are treating their films with the individuality they deserve.
Carag: I’m the VP of Digital Publicity. I basically speak to bloggers, podcasters, and journalists who work at digital outlets (like Rotten Tomatoes, Refinery 29, Complex) and make sure we’re covered editorially on the online space for all our titles — whether it’s them posting our trailer on Instagram or reviewing our films or speaking to our talent. When the campaign allows it, I work with influencers to engage them in creative ways to cover our films on their respective platforms.
Momplaisir: I’m Vice President of Production and Development, and part of the team that manages the studio’s films creatively across production, development and acquisitions.
Parham: I am an archivist with NBCUniversal Archives & Collections. I am responsible for preserving and documenting the history of the studio by collecting and maintaining significant assets used during the production process. I also maintain documents, records, and other artifacts pertaining to the company and its subsidiaries. A significant portion of my job is selecting, cataloging, and housing the assets in our collections, so they can be preserved in perpetuity. I also work on programs that bring Focus assets to movie fans, like marketing events, promotional displays, and even museum exhibitions.
Who are the women at Focus Features or in the film industry that inspire you?
Okum: Donna Langley. There are very few women (and even less women of color) in leadership positions in the film industry. Seeing her as the head of a major film studio and driving much of its success has been awe inspiring. It lets other women of color, like me, know that it is possible for us to be leaders too.
Bunnell: There is no shortage of women who are inspiring at Focus Features! Dani Weinstein, our EVP who heads publicity, is simply the best at what she does. She makes the impossible reality. Kiska Higgs, our President of Production, is extremely talented. She is a force of nature. And Nancy Goliger, EVP of Creative Advertising, is truly a legend in our industry. Her beautiful spirit drives our campaigns to another level. We have so many talented women at Focus. I am so proud to be part of it all.
Momplaisir: All of the women at Focus inspire me each day. Special shout outs to Donna Langley and Victoria Alonso, who have supported me and taught me so much.
How would you like to see women’s participation in the film industry increase?
Okum: I feel like we need to have more female filmmakers, screenwriters, and directors. We really need female voices not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. Overall, I think we are seeing more female participation in the film industry across the board on all levels. It feels like we are going in the right direction, but we need to continue to make sure it stays that way.
Carag: It’s a two-fold answer for me. I would love more women (and women of color) to have a seat at the table at any industry they belong in and to have a voice. Additionally, I would love to see progress in journalism and for outlets to invest in more in female journalists and critics. As Meryl Streep counted one year, the number of female critics is astoundingly low.
Parham: I would like to see more women — and women of color in particular — working in every leadership role across the film industry. From the President and CEO of a major studio, to the executives who greenlight film projects, to the director of a tentpole blockbuster, I think women can enrich the film and entertainment experience in truly unique and spectacular ways.
The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced.” Where do you want women’s voices to be heard more clearly?
If you could make a film for next year’s International Women’s Day, who or what would you want it to be about?
Okum: It would be a documentary on Stacey Abrahams and the 2020 race in Georgia. How she turned out the vote and flipped a solid red state blue in the span of two years after her loss in the gubernatorial race is a story that needs to be told.
Carag: I was proud that Focus Features released six movies by female directors in 2020. In 2022, I’d love to see that number increase and see more women of color be in the director’s chair, writing and producing stories about women of color, and starring in more leading roles.
Parham: I would make a movie about a modern-day woman, or women, and their journeys to greatness. Historical biopics are fantastic for introducing audiences to women of the past, and the battles they fought, but it is all too easy to dismiss a movie about someone like Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks as a story “about the past,” and therefore, not reflective of the battles women are still fighting today. A movie about someone contemporary and accomplished can highlight that women still struggle today, and we still have a long way to go before we achieve true and complete equality.