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Female Directors at Sundance Have a Long Way to Go, New Study Finds

Female Directors at Sundance Have a Long Way to Go, New Study Finds

Director Rory Kennedy had some harsh words about sexism in Hollywood at the Sundance Film Festival’s annual “Women in Film” panel.

“We live in a sexist world and Hollywood is at the heart of it,” said Kennedy. Fellow panelist Valerie Veatch, the director/producer of “Love Child,” said “The financing structure of Hollywood films is also part of the problem. Women
not playing nine rounds of golf stops us from having access to the
money, to the hedge funds and the other financing.”

Sadly, Kennedy and Veatch have more evidence of the barriers facing female filmmakers — at least when it comes to Hollywood films, according to a new study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles. There is some bright news, though. Women continue to fare better in the indie world, specifically the documentary world, but there has been no overall change in the number of female directors and producers at the Sundance Film Festival over the past decade.

More than 40% of the documentary directors and producers with
films screening at last year’s Sundance Film Festival were women, but once all festival films are included, the number falls to 30%. “Examining female participation at the Festival as directors and
producers from 2002 to 2013 revealed no meaningful change over time,”
the study found.

Keri Putnam, Executive Director, Sundance
Institute, and Cathy Schulman, President, Women In Film Los Angeles,
announced the findings of the the latest report at a gathering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The study was conducted by Stacy
L. Smith, Ph.D., Katherine Pieper, Ph.D. and Marc Choueiti at Annenberg
School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern

“Our collaborative initiative has furthered
the dialogue around the importance of women behind the camera. We are
grateful to the researchers and allied organizations in lending their
analysis and expertise to help us identify the most productive next steps
to address existing challenges,” said Putnam.

Schulman said of the results, “In terms of our committed
course of change for women, this year’s study is another invaluable tool in
understanding how Sundance and Women In Film can help guide the industry to
institutionalize permanent progress through our programs and collective

The research documented the gender distribution of filmmakers
participating in Sundance Institute Feature Film Program (FFP) and
Documentary Film Program (DFP) Labs between 2002 and 2013 to determine how
many emerging female writers, directors and producers receive critical
artistic support as part of their filmmaking background, and how this may
affect their careers and the pipeline overall. It also updated last
year’s inaugural study by quantitatively examining the gender of
1,163 content creators (directors, writers, producers, cinematographers,
and editors) across 82 U.S. films selected and screened at the 2013
Sundance Film Festival. Lastly, the research delved deeper into the
original qualitative interviews to further explore obstructions facing
female directors and producers in the narrative space.

Read More: No More Excuses, Hollywood News to Hire More Female Directors

One encouraging sign: female filmmakers who participated in the Sundance Institute’s feature and documentary development labs succeeded in equal numbers to men. The study concluded that gender had no impact on the likelihood of a film’s completion (about 41% of all lab projects by male and female filmmakers are finished, and 80% of those go on to play at major film festivals).

This latest study is a follow-up on last year’s study of women directors “Exploring the Barriers and
Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.”

As Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood wrote, “The first thing to say is how important this work is. Having
longitudinal research on women filmmakers not just based on box office
performance is really important to a deeper understanding of the large
scale cultural issues that hold women back.”

Some key findings of the study are below — you can read the full report here.

Key findings include: 


storytellers compete and flourish at Sundance Institute labs
. Of
the 432 lab fellows between 2002 and 2013, 42.6% were female. Women
comprised 39.3% of fellows in the Feature Film Program (FFP) and 54.5% of
fellows in the Documentary Film Program (DFP).
Institute Lab projects helmed by women succeed at just shy of equal rates
as male-helmed projects in production and top festival exhibition
The percentage of FFP lab projects completed did not vary by gender;
roughly 41% of male-helmed and female-helmed projects were finished. 81.3%
of all finished FFP films went on to play at the top 10 festivals
worldwide, and of these, no gender differences emerged. 
The initial report revealed career obstacles that face female
filmmakers, including gendered financial barriers, male-dominated
industry networks
, and stereotyping on set. We analyzed a
subset of the original 51 interviews with industry thought leaders and
seasoned content creators.
industry leaders think director, they think male
. Traits were
gathered from 34 narrative and documentary decision-makers and filmmakers.
We explored whether attributes of successful directors reflect
stereotypical characteristics of men or women. Nearly one-third of traits
(32.1%) were coded as masculine and 19.3% feminine. Conceiving of the
directing role in masculine terms may limit the extent to which different
women are considered for the job.
female directors on studio lists is limited by stereotypes
. A
group of 12 individuals working in the narrative realm were asked
specifically about hiring directors into top commercial jobs. Two-thirds
(66.7%) indicated that there is a smaller pool of qualified female
directors. Half mentioned that stereotypically male films (i.e., action,
horror) may not appeal as job opportunities to female directors. These
findings illustrate how a reliance on stereotypes creates decision-making
biases that weaken women’s opportunities.

Of the
1,163 content creators working behind the camera on 82 U.S. films at SFF in
2013, 28.9% were women and 71.1% were men
. The presence of women
differed by storytelling genre: 23.8% of content creators were women in
narrative films whereas 40.4% were women in documentary films.
2013 was an
extraordinary year for women in documentary filmmaking at SFF
42.2% of documentary directors and 49.2% of documentary producers were
women at the 2013 Festival. Focusing on directors specifically by program
category, 46.4% of U.S. documentary competition directors were female as
were 30.8% of documentary premiere helmers.
narrative directors saw gains and losses in 2013, but little overall
. For the first time, gender parity was achieved in U.S.
dramatic competition movies in 2013 with 50% of all helmers being female.
In contrast, only one of the 18 directors in the premieres section was a
directors at the 2013 Festival continued to outperform directors in the top
100 box office
: Turning to the 100 top-grossing films of 2013,
only 2 (1.9%) of the 108 helmers were female. This represents a 48.1% drop
from the percentage of female directors in the Festival’s U.S.
Dramatic Competition films.
female participation at the Festival as directors and producers from 2002
to 2013 revealed no meaningful change over time
. Instead,
the percentages of female participation often fluctuate but no continuous
and sustained increases or decreases were observed across the 12 years. For
dramatic features, females accounted for 24.4% of all competition helmers
and 13.9% of all non-competition helmers. In documentaries, the percentage
of female competition directors is 41.7% and 25% of non-competition
helmers. From 2002-2013 17.1% of
directors of U.S. narrative films and 35.3% of directors of U.S.
documentary films at SFF were female.

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