Working with accomplished female filmmakers, Libby Geist explores the outcomes of Title IX.
Although she doesn’t take off from a starting line, dominate in a boxing ring, or nail a triple lutz, make no mistake: Libby Geist ’02 is a competitor.
During the past decade, she has become a major power player in the world of documentary films. Today as director of development for ESPN Films, Geist has joined an exclusive group of female executives who serve as the genre’s gatekeepers. In 2012, she became the face of Nine for IX, overseeing a series of films celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Title IX. They began airing this July.
Four decades ago, gender discrimination was commonplace in athletics. Physical activity for girls and women was cast as unfeminine, and while schools poured money and other resources into programs for male students, budding female athletes were left to fend for themselves.
“There was no incentive for them to keep going. A boy had the possibility of college scholarships. There weren’t opportunities like that for women,” Lynn Colella, who attended the University of Washington and earned a silver medal in swimming at the 1972 Olympics, has said.
It all changed that same year, when Congress enacted Title IX. The law forbids discrimination based on gender, requiring schools to begin offering comparable athletic programs for females. The nine-part ESPN series explores the legacy of the bill by telling the stories of female athletes and examining issues women in sports still face today.
Working with women filmmakers to feature women athletes felt like an ideal partnership. As word of the plan spread, directors began clamoring for Geist’s attention. After sifting through hundreds of pitches, she picked nine film subjects and hired nine teams that altogether involved thirteen women.
The genre’s best and brightest, including Academy Award nominees Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), as well as Emmy nominees Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), were among the filmmakers chosen. They tackled topics ranging from basketball coach Pat Summitt’s legendary NCAA career (Pat XO) to Venus Williams’s fight to obtain equal winnings for female tennis players (Venus vs.). Other films include The Diplomat, which explores how two-time Olympic gold medalist figure skater Katarina Witt became both a beneficiary and a victim of then-East Germany’s socialist regime. Director Hannah Storm explores the career and personal life of basketball superstar Sheryl Swoopes in Swoopes, while Shola Lynch investigates distance runner Mary Decker’s heartbreaking fall at the 1984 Olympics in Runner. French free diver Audrey Mestre (No Limits), as well as the U.S. women’s soccer team that captured the epic 1999 Women’s World Cup win (The 99ers), are also film topics.
Geist says that working on the series required “jumping into the unknown” — a trait she developed during her first semester in college.
“Madison was initially terrifying, because I grew up in New Jersey and I knew no one at this huge university in the middle of the country,” she says. “But I quickly made friends, and learned that not only could I make it in Madison, but that I also loved everything about the school and the city.”
After graduating with a political science major, Geist spent the summer in Wisconsin before landing an internship with the White Sox. “I remember packing all of my belongings, getting into my car to drive to Chicago, and having to pull over because I was sobbing and couldn’t see anything. I definitely did not want to leave that chapter of my life,” she says.
After a year with the baseball team, Geist moved to New York City, determined to make the next chapter of her life successful, too. While working at a Manhattan public relations firm, Geist met Dan Klores, a director and playwright. In 2004, when Klores decided to launch a production company, Shoot The Moon Productions, he hired Geist as a production assistant.
She fell in love with the filmmaking process, she says, adding, “Even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I first started … I liked trying to figure out a foreign territory. That said, my first year was kind of hilarious. I was calling friends who knew about camera equipment, sound, and Final Cut [software]. It was a funny way to start, but somehow I pulled it together.”
During her four and a half years at Shoot The Moon, Geist served as associate producer on Klores’s Crazy Love, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. While producing Klores’s Black Magic, the inaugural ESPN film that won a George Foster Peabody Award, Geist met Connor Schell, vice president and executive producer at ESPN Films and ESPN Classic.
“After going to so many different festivals and throwing myself into the documentary world, I realized that I really liked the development side of the business,” Geist says. “I felt like I had paid my dues in production by traveling, sleeping in the edit room, and doing all that crazy stuff.”
Geist enthusiastically accepted a job offer to become an associate producer at ESPN. Although she had much to learn about the day-to-day workings of a network and its special lingo, she had grown up around the television industry. Her father, Bill Geist, has been a CBS Sunday Morning correspondent for more than twenty years, and her brother, Willie Geist, is co-anchor for the 9 a.m. hour at NBC’s Today and co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
“A lot of people might think that I got into television because of my family, but I really just fell into it,” Geist says. “My dad involved us in his Sunday Morning pieces, so I was used to having producers and cameramen at our family functions — they even filmed my wedding. But I never planned on following in his footsteps.”
During her first year at ESPN Films, Geist worked alongside Academy Award-winning directors, including Alex Gibney and Barbara Kopple, on the network’s Emmy-nominated documentary series 30 for 30. The series — which started by showcasing the skills of thirty storytellers via thirty films in honor of ESPN’s thirtieth anniversary — earned a Peabody Award in 2010 and nabbed a nomination for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series in 2011.
Following on the heels of that success, Geist was put in charge of Nine for IX. “With the success of 30 for 30, [ESPN Films] executives and I are always thinking of spin-offs or ways to continue working in this space,” she explains. “Summer 2012 was the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, and ESPN did a huge amount of promotion and celebration. When that coverage took off, we thought, ‘Hey, what if we did something just about women?’ ”
Then came the really hard part: narrowing down the hundreds of pitches from eager directors to just nine documentary subjects. “We knew that these nine films couldn’t all be really positive, fluffy stories. We wanted to be really honest about the history of women in sports, and that’s not always pretty and perfectly packaged,” Geist says.
Among films in the series that explore difficult terrain are Let Them Wear Towels, which tackles the national debate sparked by the presence of women in men’s locker rooms, and Branded, which examines the role that sex appeal plays in women’s sports. The films are airing first on ESPN, then becoming available on iTunes and Amazon.com.
“I didn’t realize all the work that goes into creating a series — figuring out a logo, talking to a programming team, making sure that the films get prime-time air slots, creating a trailer and the sales package, and so on,” Geist admits. “It was a lot to learn and a lot of work, but it was really fun and rewarding.”
Nine for IX premiered in July 2013, and Geist has turned her attention to developing innovative sports content along with broadening ESPN Films’s relationships with documentary directors.
“I’m really proud of what ESPN Films has accomplished,” she says. “Whatever the next [documentary series]is, I definitely plan on being part of it.”
Addie Morfoot ’02, a freelance reporter based in New York City who specializes in personal profiles and documentary film coverage, has written frequently for the entertainment media.