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Can the Diversity at Sundance Move Beyond the Fest Circuit?

This year’s Sundance Film Festival unfolded in the shadow of Oscar snubs for “Selma” and its director Ava DuVernay. And though there was no overt Sundance theme, the crop of films and filmmakers seemed like a renunciation of a slate of Academy nominees that has been slammed for being too male and white.

In Park City, there was diversity both in front of and behind the camera, a point that fest founder Robert Redford underscored in his opening remarks Jan. 22. “Diversity is something that moves the ball,” Redford said.

Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard dubbed this year’s Sundance “the year of the women.” Roughly a third of the films in U.S. dramatic competition were directed by women, compared with the paltry 7% of female directors behind the top 250 films of 2014. Marielle Heller, helmer of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” said her film about a young teenager’s relationship with an older man was unique because it was told through a female perspective. “I was trying to capture where she was,” Heller said in an audience Q&A session.

There were enough breakout actress performances to fill 2016’s Oscars: Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”), Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”), Greta Gerwig (“Mistress America”), Bel Powley (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and Blythe Danner in her portrait of a retired L.A. widow in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” the first time the 71-year-old actress has headlined a movie. “I’ve never had a film role like this,” said Danner, who received one of the loudest standing ovations. “It was a three-dimensional character.”

Providing a perfect punctuation mark, DuVernay was at Sundance, with many festivalgoers approaching her to express their shock over the awards oversight.

Although Sundance prizes its arthouse vibe, highlighting these voices makes commercial sense, and the $7 million sale of African-American high-school film “Dope” shows the hope distributors are placing in that demo. Women make up more than half of the moviegoing population, and African-Americans and Latinos are two of the fastest growing ticket-buying audiences. But it’s an ongoing struggle for Hollywood to integrate the diversity at Sundance into the mostly white and male film business. In many cases, indie auteurs struggle after they leave the comforting confines of Utah.

At the premiere of Leslye Headland’s “Sleeping With Other People,” Sundance director John Cooper kicked off the festive occasion on a somber note. “Let’s face facts,” he said. “Women directors come, and they don’t come back.”

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