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Women Activists Rocked Sundance, Celebrating a Sea Change

Women Activists Rocked Sundance, Celebrating a Sea Change

Women were all over the recent Sundance Film Festival, from many films directed and produced by them to a series of events celebrating the rise of women’s power. 

The Producer’s Brunch was dominated by keynoters Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler, whose 20-year-old Killer Films has produced 80 movies including “Still Alice” and 2016 Oscar contender “Carol” and boasted four films at the festival (“Wiener Dog,” “Frank and Lola,” “Goat” and “White Girl”). And New Yorker Julie Goldman was honored for documentary producing (“Life, Animated,” “Weiner”). 

Women in Film hosted a panel and gave out grants at one packed Sundance brunch, including Dawn Porter and Sari Gilman for their Sundance abortion film “Trapped.” Vimeo announced its Share the Screen initiative to feature women directors.

Among the high-profile films hitting big at Sundance were “Equity,” written, directed, produced and starring women, which was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in part because of its behind-the-screen narrative. Liz Garbus, whose Sundance opener last year “What Happened, Miss Simone,” made the final Oscar five for documentary, debuted a new film at Sundance, “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper,”  while festival regulars Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady debuted their latest, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” on opening night, which was picked up by Netflix and Music Box.

READ MORE: Wall Street Movie ‘Equity’ Starring Anna Gunn Was Made By Women for Women 

The Women at Sundance Brunch featured Universal chairman Donna Langley, who shepherded her studio to record numbers in 2015 with a diverse slate from franchise “Furious 7” and Lionsgate reject, Oscar-nominated “Straight Outta Compton,” to “Trainwreck,” written by and starring Amy Schumer, and “Pitch Perfect 2,” directed by Elizabeth Banks. “It’s about coming at things from a quality standpoint,” said Langley. “Maybe if I have a sensibility toward ‘Pitch Perfect,’ ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ it’s because I want to go to the movies and see things I care about. We’re not afraid to make movies toward one or two demographics. If we build it, they will come.” 

Banks admitted that she started to wonder if she didn’t “work hard enough or whatever excuse you want to make. But then when you look at the numbers, it’s reassuring: Only 30% of all roles go to women. That was a kick in the butt.”

The Sundance Institute and Women in Film have joined forces for several years to research the real barriers for women in Hollywood. They have discovered that from 2002 to 2013, women were just 4.2 percent of directors of top-grossing movies. Aired at the Women at Sundance brunch was one of the interstitial shorts from Epix docu-series “The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem” in which Vachon begged, “Instead of holding a million panels about it, let’s do something about it.”

“Project Greenlight” maverick producer Effie Brown, who dared to argue with movie star Matt Damon on the show, agrees. In her rousing keynote about examining one’s unconscious biases, she said that along the way, women and people of color agreed to take a back seat in Hollywood: “Somehow, we co-signed this. Somehow, we participated.” She exhorted the women to be active and push for diversity in hiring. “Our voice is powerful. We are a force of nature,” she concluded. “There’s nothing more fierce on God’s green earth than a woman with her mind made up.” Brown is now going to run Lee Daniels’ production company.

And New York press agent Donna Daniels, who reps many women filmmakers, arranged for Esquire photographer Elizabeth Griffin to shoot 11 women usually behind the media spotlight. “They stand for all the women here,” said Daniels, “whose names we see in credits all the time but we never see their faces. They are all very accomplished, fearless collaborators, positive women who shoot the eight ball into the side pocket every day, and make it work. If you want to have a positive reinforcement of women working in this business, we have to see them standing in their power.”

The women in the portrait are, from front row left, producer-director Blair Foster (six doc shorts in Amazon original series “The New Yorker Presents,”  “The Conversation,” a series of short films about race published by the New York Times’ Op-Docs), director Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp,” “Detropia,” “Norman Lear”), director Lucy Walker (“The Crash Reel,” “Wasteland,” Sundance VR short “History of Cuba and Dance”), Donna Daniels, Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp,” “Detropia,” “Norman Lear”), New York attorney Victoria Cook (Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein & Selz), who wrote a viral article about women documentary filmmakers and awards, Kahane Cooperman (winner of 11 Emmys and two Peabodys for Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” executive producer and showrunner of “The New Yorker Presents”).

Second row: Senior Vice President of A&E Indie Films Molly Thompson (Sundance entries “Author: The JT Leroy Story” and “Life, Animated”), Shari Springer Berman, who co-directed with Robert Pulcini “American Splendor” and “Balzac” in “The New Yorker Presents” series, documentary producer Julie Goldman (Sundance entries “Life, Animated,” “Wiener”), producer Caroline Suh (Epix’s “The 4% Project,” Sundance Channel’s “The Iconoclasts,” Netflix Original series “Cooked”), and Senior Vice President of Development and Production for Jigsaw Productions, Stacey Offman (producer, “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” CNN’s “Death Row Stories,” “The New Yorker Presents”). After the Griffin photo shoot we all repaired to a local Main Street bar for a drink. Fun. 

At an energized Sundance dinner hosted by Katie Couric there were four long tables of women, from producers Effie Brown, Wendy Ettinger, Gigi Pritzker and Andrea Sperling (“Transparent”), Sundance execs Keri Putnam, Michelle Satter and Caroline Libresco, and Women in Film’s Cathy Schulman, to doc directors Kim Snyder (“Newtown”) and Grace Lee (“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”) and actress-turned-directors Clea Duvall (Sundance entry “The Intervention”) and Rose McGowan (short “Dawn”). Each one stood up and introduced themselves, often to raucous cheers of support. “After working in TV journalism for 30-something years,” said Couric, “I was looking for a smart way to do quality work in a sea of crap. I like to explain complicated issues that help people understand them better, like childhood obesity (‘Fed Up’) and [Sundance doc entry] ‘Under the Gun.’ and I’m looking for the opportunity to mentor girls and women.” 

Documentary filmmaker Amy Ziering said that “The Hunting Ground” and “The Invisible War” “are changing the discourse from one in which the victim is blamed to one where the perpetrator is blamed. We are 51% of the population. It is time for us to be making the rules, not following them!”

“Transparent” showrunner Jill Soloway said that she wakes up “every day believing that the global patriarchy can be toppled. It seems easy at this point. We all have the internet. Check out Topplethepatriarchy.com. Protagonism is a privilege perpetuator, it is propaganda that perpetuates privilege. White men are making these movies with each other and for each other because it perpetuates their privilege. They are climbing mountains, wearing Nazi costumes, and pretending to be in the ’70s because it’s fucking fun! Filmmaking creates a universe where we become the subjects in our own lives. We have to stop them by shaming them, so that when they look around at a project filled with white men they say, ‘it’s embarrassing, we can’t do this any more.’ I think we’re getting to that place. Effie, all of you guys, topple the patriarchy! We’re doing it!”

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