Female Filmmakers Make Big Strides in Festival World, Nearly Doubling in Last Decade

This year's edition of the "Indie Women" study sees historic highs when it comes to filmmakers working in the festival and doc spaces.
Atmosphere:Downtown Austin Texas shuts down on what was supposed to be the final weekend of the cancelled annual SXSW festival to slow transmission of the COVID 19 virus on 03/21/2020. The Paramount and State theaters were supposed to be major venues during the festival. | usage worldwide Photo by: Newman, Jeff/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
The State and Paramount Theaters in downtown Austin, TX, home of the SXSW Film Festival
Newman, Jeff/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

While the studio world continues to offer opportunities to female filmmakers in ways quite different than those it offers to their male counterparts — the latest edition of the “Celluloid Ceiling” report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women comprised just 20 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 (domestic) grossing films of 2019 — there continues to be signs of actual life in the independent, festival, and documentary world.

The newest study from the Center and executive director Dr. Martha M. Lauzen finds that the percentages of women working as directors and writers on independent films continue to climb, “reaching recent historic highs in 2019-2020.” This new edition of the annual “Indie Women” study finds that women comprised 38 percent of directors working on narrative features and documentaries, up from 33 percent in 2018-19 and 29 percent in 2017-18. Women accounted for 35 percent of writers, up from 32 percent in 2018-19 and 26 percent in 2017-18.

“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 over 8,000 credits on more than 800 films, and over 88,000 credits on almost 9,000 films over the period of 2008 to 2020. 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.

Last year’s “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.

“We have now seen gains over the last two consecutive years for women working as directors, writers, and producers in independent film,” Lauzen said in an official statement. “The percentage of women working as directors on narrative films has more than doubled over the last decade, rising from 15 percent in 2008-09 to 33 percent in 2019-20.”

Still, men continue to outnumber women 66 percent to 34 percent when all behind-the-scenes roles are considered (directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, cinematographers). And yet it seems clear that a consideration for parity at festivals, once something of an oddity in the festival world, has made serious strides in recent year.

This year’s Cannes Film Festival, which has long publicly resisted any consideration of gender in making its selections (a stance that often trickled down to how many female filmmakers even attempted to get into the event, which is to say, very few) boasted of its own “significant increase” in women behind the camera, while Venice neared parity for the first time ever, TIFF similarly approached parity with its 2020 picks, and AFI FEST unveiled a lineup that was majority female-directed.

Documentaries also continue to offer more opportunities for women than narrative features, as has long been the tradition. The study found that women comprised 40 percent of those working in key behind-the-scenes roles on documentaries but only 29 percent of those working on narrative features. In addition, while festivals selected and/or screened twice as many narrative features directed by men as by women, they selected and/or screened almost equal numbers of documentaries directed by men as by women.

“For years, documentaries have provided more opportunities for women than narrative features. However, over the last couple of years, the employment gains made by women in the world of documentaries have outpaced the increases on narrative films. At 47 percent of producers on documentaries, women are approaching parity with their male counterparts. The same cannot be said on narrative features where women comprise a little more than one third of producers,” Lauzen added.

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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