Thirty-four percent of all films that screened at Sundance this year were directed by women – in years past, the average has hovered around 25 percent – and female filmmakers were prominent across all sections, with women debuting films in not just the competition sections, but also the forward-thinking NEXT section, the wild Midnight category (which played home to the long-gestating anthology “XX,” featuring four shorts directed by women) and even the starry Premieres docket.
The rise of female-directed films was particularly felt at this year’s awards ceremony as two of the four juried competition directing awards went to women: “Beach Rats” helmer Eliza Hittman picked up the award in the U.S. Dramatic, while Pascale Lamche earned the World Cinema Documentary directing nod for her Winnie Mandela doc “Winnie.”
Elsewhere, “Novitiate” director Maggie Betts was given a special jury prize for Breakthrough Director and “Step” helmer Amanda Lipitz got her own special jury award for Inspirational Filmmaking. The World Cinema Dramatic juries also doled out special nods to “Pop Aye” filmmaker Kirsten Tan for screenwriting and “Motherland” helmer Ramona S. Diaz for “unique vision and design.”
It was a fitting culmination to a festival experience in which many female filmmakers were especially excited to be included.
“I think Sundance is one of those rare organizations that everybody is treated like a filmmaker,” Michelle Morgan, whose “L.A. Times” bowed at the festival, told IndieWire. “I don’t feel like a female filmmaker. I feel like a filmmaker on equal footing with any other filmmaker here.”
Other filmmakers echoed that sentiment. Gillian Robespierre, who debuted her indie hit “Obvious Child” at the festival in 2014, returned this year – alongside collaborators Elisabeth Holm and Jenny Slate – with “Landline,” and found an environment that remains welcoming to all filmmakers.
“Sundance treats their filmmakers great,” Robespierre said. “I happen to be a woman, so I can say they treat me great.”
Other filmmakers were happy to be able to share the experience with filmmaking pals, like Sundance regular Ry Russo-Young, who premiered her “Before I Fall” at the festival. It’s Russo-Young’s third film to bow at Sundance, and she was excited to share it with other female filmmakers, particularly Zoe Lister-Jones, whose directorial debut “Band Aid” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and featured a crew predominately comprised of women.
“It’s really nice to have friends that I’ve known from previous festival years or that I’ve met on the circuit [be at Sundance],” Russo-Young said. “Coming back after all these years – it’s kind of like you’re a class of kids, and you were all freshmen back then, and now you’re like juniors or something. There’s a nice camaraderie about it.”
“Lemon” filmmaker Janicza Bravo felt that camaraderie in other ways.
“There’s women of color here with movies,” Bravo said, whose parents are both from Latin America. “I don’t know if this is an inappropriate thing say, but often times [festivals] can only allow one.”
This year’s Sundance played home to a number of films directed by women of color, including Dee Rees (whose “Mudbound” was of the festival’s most lauded offerings), Sydney Freeland, Diaz, Sabaah Folayan, Kyoko Miyake, Tan, Rose Troche, and Betts, among others.
“When I knew there were women other of color submitting movies, I had this anxiety of like, ‘Well, they can only let one of us in, can’t have three black women at the festival,'” Bravo added. “Then they did and I was like ‘Oh, my God,’ and that was a shock to me.”
She continued, “In my experience of going to many festivals, there have always been the one of me. It was exciting to see there were more of me.”
Still, filmmakers were quick to point out that the Sundance environment doesn’t indicate the world at large, especially when it comes to the entertainment industry.
“This Sundance in particular does feel like there’s a lot of great female directors and writers and producers, but I do not think that’s reflective of Hollywood,” Robespierre said.
The filmmaker referred directly to the most recent Celluloid Ceiling study, which found that despite a recent groundswell in discussions involving diversity behind the camera, the number of female directors helming the top 250 films actually declined in 2016. The study found that only 7 percent of the filmmakers who made those high-earning films were women, down from 9 percent in 2015.
“There’s a lot of great articles coming out that have been published about women in film, but unfortunately there are more articles than women working in film,” Robespierre said. “That’s a shame that the articles haven’t really progressed the situation forward.”
She added, “That doesn’t mean stop writing about the articles. They’re really important and we should never stop talking about people who are suppressed.”
As Robespierre and many of her brethren are well aware, talk only goes so far.
“I hope that their movies sell,” Bravo said of her fellow female filmmakers. “Because that they’re here is great, but are they going to sell? And once they sell, how will they be distributed? That is the thing that matters to me. And for the first-time filmmakers, are they gonna do their second films? I’m interested in the conversation after.”
Bravo’s concerns are warranted, and remain a major directive of the festival. In 2015, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles announced the findings of a three-year study of female filmmakers whose work screened at the festival.
While the study found that gender did not appear to impact which films were bought out of the festival — a key factor in not only a particular film’s longevity, but also that of the director who made it — it did unearth major differences between what sort of outfits picked up their films.
Female directors were more likely to sell their projects to indie distributors, while male directors were more likely to get picked up by specialty studios and mini-majors. Like the Celluloid Ceiling study, the Sundance and Women in Film investigation also found that female directors were significantly less likely to helm top-grossing films (most often blockbusters and studio-backed ventures).
Still, a number of female-directed films did sell at or before festival, including Marti Noxon’s “To the Bone,” Betts’ “Novitiate,” Hittman’s “Beach Rats,” Rees’ “Mudbound,” Alethea Jones’ “Fun Mom Dinner” and Robespierre’s “Landline.” Combined with the many accolades doled out at the festival’s conclusion, it’s heartening news at a time when the industry’s most diversity-minded professionals are eager for it.
“What a great year to have so many cool women with a diversity of voices, which is really what we need in the world,” Russo-Young said. “We don’t want one female voice, we want a bunch that have a different perspectives. We’re not just one sort of person.”