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Indie Festivals Must Step Up to Get Equal Representation for Female Filmmakers

In the latest study from The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, even the U.S.'s biggest indie film festivals fall short when it comes to female creator representation.

Keri Putnam, executive producer of the Sundance Institute, addresses the audience at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2017 Sundance Film Festival - Women at Sundance Brunch, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2017

Keri Putnam, executive producer of the Sundance Institute, addresses the audience at the Women at Sundance Brunch

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Despite an increased uptick in the conversation regarding greater representation of female talent within the film industry, even indie-leaning film festivals are falling behind. The latest study out of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, led by executive director Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, examines 23 “high profile” film festivals in the United States (including heavy-hitting festivals like Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, Tribeca, and New York) and finds that there is still a deep divide between male and female filmmakers.

According to the newest edition of the study, titled “Indie Women,” the examined festivals screen almost three times as many narrative features directed by men as by women. The annual study considers women’s representation on domestically and independently produced feature-length films screening at said festivals, and is the most comprehensive and current study of women’s behind-the-scenes employment on independent films available.

The festivals that were included in the study screened an average of 16 narrative films directed by men, compared with an average of 6 films directed by at least one woman in 2017-18. In the documentary field, female filmmakers fared slightly better, as the festivals screened an average of 13 films directed by men versus an average of 8 by women.

Overall, women accounted for 29 percent of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the indie films screened at the examined U.S. festivals in 2017-18. This new stat reflects an increase of just one percentage point, up from 28 percent in 2016-17. Broken down by role, women comprised 29 percent of directors, 26 percent of writers, 26 percent of executive producers, 36% percent of producers, 27 percent of editors, and 17 percent of cinematographers.

The study further broke down numbers to find that 85 percent of the films screening at festivals had no women cinematographers, while 77 percent had no women writers, 73 percent had no women editors, and 66 percent had no women directors.

“The findings indicate that the celluloid ceiling endures in independent film for behind-the-scenes women, despite the heightened public and industry attention to their under-employment,” Lauzen said in an official statement. “The numbers have yet to reflect any sea change or seismic shift for women working on independent films.”

Earlier this year, the Center also released its annual “Celluloid Ceiling” study, which tracks women’s behind-the-scenes employment in the film world (focused on high-grossing films, mostly studio offerings). The 2017 study found that “women comprised 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents an increase of 1 percentage point from 17% in 2016 and is virtually unchanged from the percentage achieved in 1998.”

Debra Granik on the set of "Leave No Trace"

Debra Granik on the set of “Leave No Trace”

Scott Green

While the numbers on the indie side are higher than those on the blockbuster-leaning side, there is still a major gap between gender representation on all levels of filmmaking. But there’s some hope to be found.

Over the past 10 years, no major market festival has delivered a slate with at least 50 percent of films directed by female filmmakers. A number of festivals have, however, made recent strides toward gender parity (and, at the very least, greater representation among female creators). This year’s Hot Docs festival (of note, a Canadian festival) reached gender parity, while Tribeca aimed for a 50-50 split among its directors and landed on a slate that included 48 percent films directed by women, while SXSW hit 34 percent and Sundance was at 37 percent (and, quite notably, for the first time in the festival’s 34-year history, all of the directing prizes went only to women).

When IndieWire spoke to Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith about this year’s slate, he was optimistic about the future of representation, especially on the festival circuit, where earning a spot on a slate can have instant, life-changing effects for a director’s career.

“I hope that people can see that there is so much work out there if you look for it, if you dig for it. I think we just have to do what we think is the right thing to do, but also pay attention to the kind of work that’s being made and the different ways that stories are being told by different filmmakers from different culturally diverse backgrounds, different genders,” he said. “At the very least, we’re asking the question and putting it into minds that we are interested in that work and that maybe they should be also continuing to look for work made by female filmmakers because there’s an audience.”

The study also found that films with at least one woman director also had “substantially higher percentages” of women writers, editors, and cinematographers. By way of example, the study found that “on films with at least one female director, women comprised 71 percent of writers versus 8 percent on films directed exclusively by men. On films with at least one female director, women accounted for 47 percent of editors versus 17 percent of films directed exclusively by men.” One proven way to get more women behind the camera: those in power must reach back to help others up.

The study provides employment figures for domestically and independently produced feature-length documentaries and narrative films screening from June 2017 through May 2018 at the following 23 festivals: AFI Fest; Atlanta Film Festival; Austin Film Festival; Chicago International Film Festival; Cinequest Film Festival; Cleveland International Film Festival; Florida Film Festival; Hamptons International Film Festival; Los Angeles Film Festival; Nashville Film Festival; New Directors, New Films; New York Film Festival; Palm Springs International Film Festival; Rhode Island International Film Festival; St. Louis International Film Festival; San Francisco International Film Festival; Santa Barbara International Film Festival; Seattle International Film Festival; Slamdance Film Festival; Sundance Film Festival; SXSW Film Festival; Telluride Film Festival; Tribeca Film Festival.

In total, “Indie Women” considers 10,758 credits on 991 films in 2017-18, and over 69,000 credits on almost 7,000 films over the period of 2008 to 2018.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University is home to the most current and comprehensive studies of women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television. You can read more about their work — and read the full “Indie Women” study — by visiting their website right here.

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