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Women by the Numbers: More Female Voices Are Getting Heard At Sundance & In the Indie World

Women by the Numbers: More Female Voices Are Getting Heard At Sundance & In the Indie World

Women by the Numbers: More Female Voices Are Getting Heard At Sundance & In the Indie World

by Patricia Thomson

Kevin Bacon stars in Nicole Kassell’s “The Woodsman,” one of the growing number of films by women directors to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

When Tamara Jenkins was pitching “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” a puzzled executive asked, “How could you open with a scene about a girl getting her first bra?” Jenkins replied, “Are you kidding me? I could make a whole movie about it!”

Gini Reticker laughs when she tells this anecdote — one of hundreds she and codirector Lesli Klainberg heard while making “In the Company of Woman,” a documentary about the contributions of women to independent film. Though that first bra script has yet to be written, scores of other topics near and dear to women have made it onto movie screens in recent decades: single motherhood, ambivalence towards marriage, body image, being considered the ugly girl, female eroticism, lesbian loves, careerism — just to scratch the surface.

The parade of films explored in “In the Company of Women” is heartening, because it’s easy to forget just how much ground we’ve covered, particularly when statistics dump cold water on the party. Back in 1987, when women were first getting a foothold, they directed only 3 percent of the top 100 films. Fifteen years later, that number had edged upward only slightly — to 7 percent. That same 7 percent held for the top 250 films, as well, according to Martha Lauzen, a professor at San Diego State University who published these findings in the paper “The Celluloid Ceiling.”

As Lauzen’s graphs starkly render, women who aim for the director’s chair face a tough challenge. In contrast, as producers they’ve managed to double their numbers during that 15-year period (to 26 percent). They’ve also fared better as editors (20 percent), executive producers (15 percent), and writers (11 percent) Only female cinematographers fall below them on the charts, limping in at 1 percent.

Reticker isn’t surprised at the disparity. “Producers take care of everybody,” she says. “You’re making sure everything runs smoothly, that everything’s taken care of, rather than having a vision you get everybody to support.” Sundance programmer Shari Frilot concurs. “[Directors and cinematographers] are the two that run the set, that really bark the orders,” she says. “A director has to convince somebody of their vision — of their world view, really. And I think that’s more difficult for women than for men.”

The other clue is evident throughout “In the Company of Women”: Women directors prefer character-driven films. In a fluke of bad timing, they started entering the field just as the ’70s was winding down, with its complex, ambiguous, character-driven movies. “Jaws” reset the priorities of Hollywood, privileging genre directors and tent-pole strategies ever since.

Character-driven stories migrated over to the independent film world, and so did women. Their numbers at Sundance bear this out. Nearly one quarter of the 2004 slate was directed or co-directed by women (24 percent overall, 23 percent for feature films, and 25 percent in the Dramatic Competition). That’s triple the tally in Hollywood. According to Frilot, those numbers keep improving. “When I first got here in 1999, it was a horrible year for women and it really stung us. Then in 2000, there were all these women, and it became a press point for us. Every year has gotten better. I feel a chapter has turned.”

Reticker is encouraged by another development. Women are branching out in the stories they tell. “Directors like Rebecca Miller, Lisa Cholodenko, and Patty Jenkins are making movies about characters that interest them. Their characters are so much more morally ambiguous, kind of like the characters of the ’70s,” she says.

Nicole Kassell’s “The Woodsman” is another case in point. For her feature debut, the writer/director latched onto a story about a pedophile that she saw on stage. Kassell approached playwright Stephen Fechter, asked to write a script on spec, and delivered the goods in a month. Next thing she knew, they were collaborating. “It’s a very masculine subject,” she says. “But I don’t want to limit myself by gender or race or genre. The important thing to me is to make a complex character-driven story.”

Female fiction helmers like Kassell, Debra Granik, Jessica Sharzer, Jane Weinstock, and Enid Zentelis have a long way to go before catching up with their documentary peers. (A beefy 56 percent of Competition Documentaries were directed or codirected by women this year.) But they’re making headway. “When directing feels like a really hard job, or when I think of that [7 percent] statistic, I work harder to open the field,” Kassell says. “And we’re doing that — I hope.”

[Sundance’s “The Next Wave: Where Does Women’s Film Go from Here” panel will be held today from 2-3:30 at the Filmmaker Lodge.]

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