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Women Composers Strike a Chord in Sundance Lineup

It’s the year of the woman composer at Sundance, with 15 features and shorts sporting scores by women, along with a celebratory event for the newly formed Alliance for Women Film Composers.

That number is believed to be a record. Female composers wrote the music for just 2% of the top 250 grossing films in 2013, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Numbers were slightly higher in documentaries (11% ) and independent films (10%) but overall constituted “the lowest of the low” among women working behind the scenes, says composer Laura Karpman.

Karpman, a four-time Emmy winner, has been working in the biz for 25 years and concedes that “it’s a boys’ club” much of the time.

In fact, she says, “there are hundreds of us” — women working as composers, orchestrators, programmers and composer assistants — but they are surprisingly invisible to much of the industry. “We have to change that, and we have a lot of ideas about how to change it.”

“It’s a question that always comes up: Why are there so few women composers?” says fellow veteran Miriam Cutler, whose documentary “The Hunting Ground,” in the photo above, is screening at Sundance. “It’s not fun to always have to field this question. It’s not complaining; it’s just a fact.”

Concrete stats are hard to come by. Best estimates are that about 100 women consistently work as media composers. The L.A.-based Society of Composers and Lyricists includes about 170 women, 15% of its approximately 1,100 members, but that figure also includes songwriters and music editors.

When English composers Rachel Portman and Anne Dudley won back-to-back scoring Oscars in 1997-98 (for “Emma” and “The Full Monty”), “we thought it would blow open the door,” Karpman says. It didn’t.

In August 2013, BMI film-TV VP Doreen Ringer Ross sponsored a luncheon for women composers (including those belonging to rival performing-rights org ASCAP) and the photo taken that day went viral.

It was a who’s-who that included Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (“Nurse Jackie”), Deborah Lurie (“Safe Haven”), Lolita Ritmanis (“Avengers Assemble”), Pinar Toprak (the upcoming “Geostorm”) and two dozen others.

The seeds for the Alliance were planted that day. The original idea was to hold a concert showcasing women composers but “our mandate became so much wider than that single event,” says Karpman.

“The mission is to let people know that we are here, for young women to see that there are role models, an absolutely essential piece of the puzzle. It’s about the next generation. They can see that women have actually done it. It gives them a tremendous feeling of confidence.”

One of those younger, emerging composers, Heather McIntosh (whose “Z for Zachariah” is debuting at Sundance), admits, “it’s tricky. It’s kind of a male-driven universe. I consider myself a composer first and foremost, but I am a woman. It’s part of the equation.” She describes the Alliance as “a superhero convention of completely badass composers.”

The Alliance now has several projects in the pipeline, Karpman says, including concerts, a series of radio broadcasts, a CD and an online directory of women composers. It will celebrate with an invitation-only brunch Jan. 27 at Sundance. And that afternoon, Cutler and McIntosh, along with Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum (whose film “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” is also debuting at Sundance) will participate in a composer-director roundtable.


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