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Short Documentary Highlights Lack of Female Composers in Movies and TV

“Women Who Score,” a 12-minute film by Sara Nesson, available online, documents a remarkable concert — and a huge dilemma.

The concert took place last summer in downtown L.A., where Grand Performances hosted a night of film and TV music by 20 composers — a diverse collection of classical- and jazz-influenced works. What was unusual was that all of the composers were women. And therein lies the dilemma.

The concert, performed by a 55-piece orchestra and 30-voice choir, showcased the work of a segment of the music community that, for sheer numbers, statistics show, ranks woefully behind every other creative field in filmmaking.

Nesson, whose “Poster Girl” was a 2011 Oscar nominee for documentary short, heard about the event from her “Poster Girl” composer, Miriam Cutler. Nesson remembers Cutler’s recording session as “the most incredible, euphoric experience of the entire process, hearing the music bring my film to life.”

So she set out to record the concert, sponsored by the Alliance for Women Film Composers. Canon Burbank and the Emergence program of North Hollywood-based The Camera Division donated cameras and lenses for cinematographer Eve Cohen, and Cohen and Nesson shot two days of rehearsals, backstage interviews and the concert itself, attended by 1,500 people.

“The whole industry is struggling right now with the lack of diversity,” Cutler says in “Women Who Score.” “Nowhere is it more evident than among composers for film. The smallest of percentages of women are involved in scoring films. That’s not because they’re not interested; it’s because they can’t get though the initial gatekeepers.”

Lolita Ritmanis (“Flip the Script”), one of the 20 composers on the Grand Performances program and president of the alliance, says the concert had an immediate impact. Feedback from executives indicated that it helped focus attention on underrepresented women composers and at least granted them entry in the submission process for scoring larger, tentpole projects. She hopes the film “provides an ‘aha’ moment for not only the gatekeepers in Hollywood but for the public at large.”

Adds Germaine Franco (“Dope”), another of the musicians whose work was showcased: “It helped us as composers to build a camaraderie with each other, and to feel good about the fact that we are in an alliance; we’re not competitive.”

But, she adds, the composers need studio heads to take notice. “We’re not asking to be hired because we’re women. We’re asking to be hired because we’re professional composers and musicians and have been doing it for many years.” She believes that “working together, in numbers, is going to make a bigger change than us individually pounding on doors.”

The Alliance for Women Film Composers boasts 190 members.

Nesson says she hopes the film will make a difference. “I just want to support women composers,” she explains. “They’re not getting the attention they deserve. They’re not getting hired; they’re not even part of the conversation most of the time. I want people to understand there are fresh, interesting voices out there.”

(Pictured above: Sara Nesson shoots a rehearsal. Photo credit: Marilee Bradford)

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