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Documentaries Continue to Provide Far More Opportunity for Female Filmmakers Than Narrative Films

The latest edition of The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film's "Indie Women" study finds both opportunity and stagnation.


“Honeyland” co-director Tamara Kotevska and co-cinematographer Samir Ljuma

Courtesy of Filmmakers

While 2021 might have brought with it some major changes when it comes to the ways in which female filmmakers are lauded in Hollywood — including, for the first time ever, the nomination of two women for Best Director, with Chloé Zhao eventually winning for “Nomadland” — other areas of the industry continue to fall behind. The latest report out of The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, titled “Indie Women in a Pandemic Year,” finds that documentary films continue to employ higher percentages of behind-the-scenes women than narrative features.

Per today’s study, “Women accounted for 42 percent of individuals working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on documentaries versus 35 percent of those working on narrative features.” That should come as little surprise to anyone who closely observes the differences between docs and narrative films, as docs have long provided more opportunity for female filmmakers of all kinds. Still, as more women continue to rise to prominence in the studio (and thus overwhelmingly narratively inclined) world, the stagnation rankles.

In every behind-the-scenes role but one, documentaries employed higher percentages of women than narrative features (only as writers did the percentage of women working in narrative films narrowly surpass that of women working on documentaries: 37 percent versus 35 percent, respectively).

According to executive director Dr. Martha Lauzen, “The findings confirm that women continue to enjoy higher rates of employment on documentaries than narrative features. Every iteration of this study since 2008 has found that women fare better in the world of documentary films.”

The study also finds that the festivals it chronicles “streamed/screened almost equal numbers of documentaries directed by women (an average of 7) as by men (an average of 8). Festivals screened an average of 6 narrative features directed by at least one woman versus an average of 9 narrative features directed exclusively by men.” The festival world has long lagged behind when it comes to parity, but recent initiatives have made it clear that the old ways aren’t working anymore.

The new study also reiterated something that has long been true: when films have at least one female director in place, there are higher percentages of women across other BTS areas, including writers, editors, and cinematographers. The study found that “the percentages of women working in other key behind-the-scenes roles more than doubled.”

“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 examines 7,452 credits on 582 films, and over 95,400 credits on more than 9,500 films over the period of 2008 to 2021. The study considers women’s employment on domestically and independently produced feature-length films screening and/or selected at more than 20 high-profile U.S. festivals including AFI FEST, SXSW Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.

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. Dr. Lauzen’s many other annual reports on related subject matter include “Celluloid Ceiling,”“It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” and “Thumbs Down: Gender and Film Critics, and Why It Matters.” You can read the full “Indie Women” report right here.

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