The independent film world may be more welcoming to women than major studios, but female directors are still less likely to premiere their films at Sundance or Tribeca than men.
That’s the takeaway from new research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. After doing a deep dive into 23 prominent U.S. film festivals in 2015 and 2016, the study’s authors found that women comprised 35% of directors working on documentaries and 19% of directors on narrative features. In total, that amounts to 28% of all filmmakers.
That’s a far greater representation than on studio films — research found that women comprised just 9% of directors of the top grossing films of 2015. It also marks an improvement of five percentage points from the prior year, even though it trails the recent historical high of 29% from 2011 through 2012. To get its results, researchers combed through 9,873 credits on 1,036 films.
Hollywood’s gender imbalance has been a hot topic across the entertainment industry in recent months. Jennifer Lawrence made headlines last fall when she penned an op-ed that criticized studios for paying her male co-stars more than she earned on “American Hustle,” despite her sterling box office record.
Last year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began interviewing female directors to investigate discriminatory hiring practices. The move came following a push by the American Civil Liberties Union to drill down into the disparity between male and female filmmakers.
“The independent world is more welcoming of women than the studio world,” said Martha Lauzen, the center’s executive director. “However, in spite of the increasing dialogue around the issue of diversity, we’re not seeing a lot of change. The numbers have yet to move.”
Indeed, these festivals, which include such major gatherings as Sundance, Tribeca and the New York Film Festival, feature far more films from male directors than female filmmakers. They screened more than three times as many narrative features from men as from women and twice as many documentaries.
Even when women do get their films into festivals, they aren’t given a chance to move on to the next level. Directors such as Ryan Coogler (“Creed”), Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”), and Jon Watts (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”) all got their start at Sundance before landing high-profile studio gigs. A few major female directors such as Ava DuVernay have been given big-budget projects, such as “A Wrinkle in Time,” after impressing critics and audiences with their work on smaller scale dramas. Yet, that the exception. By and large, the same chances to break through to the next level, don’t seem to be there for female directors coming out of Park City.
“They are not getting the same opportunities as men,” said Lauzen. “Festivals are career stepping stones, but the barriers are higher for women when it comes to studios films. Men with very little feature film experience get $100 million films, but women are still seen as riskier hires.”
Across indie film sets, there are few signs of improvement. Last year, women comprised 25% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on festival films. That represented a decrease of one percentage point from the prior year, pointing to a general stagnation.
Films with female directors tended to hire more women than those with men behind the camera. Women comprised 74% of writers on those films, as opposed to 6% on films directed by men. They made up 43% of editors on female-helmed movies and 20% of cinematographers compared with 15% of editors on male-directed films and 8% of cinematographers.
Lauzen said she was not certain if film festivals receive far fewer submissions from female directors. But she did say that at film schools, women typically comprise between a third to more than a half of the student body.
“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to solve this or any one explanation for why the numbers remain so low,” said Lauzen. “It’s a stew of factors.”