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Film Festivals See ‘Historic Highs’ in Female Filmmaker Representation, But the Gender Divide Remains Steep

A new study finds that indie films are seeing an uptick in female filmmakers in all areas, but there's still more work to be done.

The Egyptian Theatre on Main Street during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2018 Sundance Film Festival - Day 5, Park City, USA - 22 Jan 2018

The Egyptian Theatre on Main Street during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Some of the country’s most high-profile film festivals can boast “historic highs” when it comes to the representation of female filmmakers behind the camera, a new study reports, though more remains to be done to bridge the gender divide. The recently released Indie Women survey, compiled by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, finds that the percentages of women working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, and editors on independent films reached recent historic highs in 2018-19.

The latest Indie Women study found that women achieved record-setting levels as directors (33 percent), writers (32 percent), producers (37 percent), executive producers (32 percent), and editors (29 percent). For the study, domestically and independently produced feature-length films screening at more than 20 high-profile U.S. festivals — including Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca — were analyzed.

“After many years of tracking stubbornly stagnant numbers, this year women achieved healthy gains in a number of key behind-the-scenes roles,” Dr. Lauzen said in an official statement. “Despite these increases, it is important to note that women remain dramatically underrepresented, with independent films employing more than twice as many men as women in these roles.”

Last year’s Indie Women study found that 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. That statistic reflected an increase of just one percentage point, up from 28 percent in 2016-17. Broken down by role, the 2017-2018 study found that 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.

Still, despite the new historic figures, the divide between male and female creators remains profound. Based on this study, independent films employed more than twice as many men as women in key behind-the-scenes roles in 2018- 19.

The study found that, of the films analyzed, men comprised 68 percent and women 32 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on films (documentaries and narrative features) screening at the festivals in 2018-19. In fact, high-profile festivals in the U.S. screened more than twice as many narrative features directed by men as by women.

And yet there has been anecdotal evidence that things are turning around. This year’s Tribeca Film Festival reached gender parity with its competition section, after spending years moving the needle towards equality. At Sundance, of the four Grand Jury Prizes given to competition films — the festival’s highest honors — each was directed or co-directed by a female filmmaker, reflecting last year’s Directing winners, who were also all women.

The study also found continued proof that films that employ at least one female director is more likely to have other women represented elsewhere. On films with at least one female director, women comprised 72 percent of writers versus 11 percent on films directed exclusively by men. On films with at least one female director, women accounted for 45 percent of editors versus 21 percent of films directed exclusively by men.

“These differences are dramatic and demonstrate that when women direct films, they disrupt traditional hiring patterns, installing women as writers, editors, and cinematographers,” Dr. Lauzen added. “This tendency counters the widespread and seemingly intractable bias that has favored male networks.”

The study provides employment figures for domestically and independently produced feature-length documentaries and narrative films screening from July 2018 through June 2019 at the following 22 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; 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.

Indie Women is the most comprehensive and longest-running study of women’s behind-the-scenes employment on independent films available. This year’s report examined over 10,700 credits on more than 970 films in 2018-19, and over 80,000 credits on almost 8,000 films over the period of 2008 to 2019.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University is home to the longest-running and most extensive studies of women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television. You can read the full Indie Women report right here.

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