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Study: Female Directors Face Strong Bias in Landing Studio Films

A three-year study of the marketplace for female directors has found that women are far more likely to work in independent film than on mainstream studio pics. Nearly half of the industryites surveyed believe that female-directed films appeal to a smaller audience than pics directed by men.

The study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film found that the ratio of male-to-female directed movies in competition at the Sundance fest from 2002 to 2014 was about 3 to 1. By contrast, for the top 1,300 highest-grossing pics released from 2002 to 2014, the ratio was a little more than 23 to 1.

The study was authored by Stacy L. Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. at USC’s Annenberg School.

“After three years of research, the question can progress from ‘why are female directors missing behind the camera in top films?’ to ‘what can be done to create change?’” Smith said.

The study examined distribution deals and results for films coming out of Sundance over a 12-year period, and it incorporates a survey of 59 filmmakers and film buyers and sellers to gauge industry attitudes about femme helmers. The results reinforce pervasive industry attitudes about the commercial limits of female-directed films. But the study also challenges conventional wisdom in some areas, notably regarding distribution opportunities for male vs. female directed indie films.

Among the study findings:

  • Gender is a significant factor in the types of stories told by directors in competition at Sundance. Three-quarters of all dramatic competition movies featured drama, comedy and/or romance, with female-directed films (92.5%) more concentrated in these genres than male-directed films (69%).
  • Gender did not affect whether Sundance pics received theatrical distribution. Of 208 movies from 2002-2014, 177 received domestic distribution (85.1%). Female-directed films (88.7%) were just as likely to receive distribution as male-directed films (83.9%).
  • Movies with a female director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than female-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a studio specialty arm or mini-major.
  • The director gender gap is at its widest in top-grossing films. Across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors  were female.

Among the results of the survey of 39 men and 20 women in the film biz:

  • 44% said female directors are perceived to make films for a subset and/or less significant portion of the marketplace.
  • 42% believe there is a scarcity of female directors and a small pool to choose from in top-grossing films.
  • 25% cited women’s perceived lack of ambition in taking on directing jobs.
  • 22% cited the skewed representation of women in decision-making roles in the industry as a factor in limiting job opportunities for female directors.
  • 12% cited the belief that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew.

“Having completed this three-year study, we have accomplished a thorough analysis of this issue and now know that female filmmakers face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies and ambitions,” said Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film Los Angeles. “Now we need to move a heavy boat through deep waters, and WIF is committed to year-round action until sustainable gender parity is achieved.”

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