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Sundance Institute and Women in Film Release Unprecedented Study on Women Directors

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by Melissa Silverstein
January 21, 2013 2:09 PM
10 Comments
  • |
From L-R Cathy Shulman, Keri Putman, Stacy Smith

This morning, here in Sundance, a new ground breaking study of women directors "Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers" was released.  The study is the most comprehensive look to date examining the gender disparity women directors face in the film industry.

We all know that things are not equal, but never before has a study been done that tracks the career trajectories of women directors as well as writers, producers, cinematographers and editors.  The research was conducted by Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., Katherine Pieper, Ph.D. and Marc Choueiti at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California.

The study assessed 11,197 directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors whose movies screened in Sundance from 2002-2012.  (The films do not include the world category, shorts, and movies that did not originate whole or in part in the US.)  The also interviewed many filmmakers to assess the barriers and the opportunities.

Here are the findings:

- 29.8% of filmmakers (directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors) were female.

- Women are more likely to be producers, and as the roles become more high profile and money becomes a factor, the number of women goes down.  So women are more likely to be associate producers than producers.

- Women support women.  Films directed by women feature more women in all roles.  There is a 21% increase in women working on a narrative film when there is a female director and a 24% of women working on documentaries.

- Females direct more documentaries than narrative films - 34.5% vs 16.9%.

- 23.9% of the films in this study were directed by women.  Note: Women made up only 4.4% of directors in the top 100 box office films each year from 2002 to 2012.

- Sundance makes a difference - 41.5% of the female directors across 1,100 top-grossing movies of the past ten years have been supported by Sundance Institute.

Here are the challenges that face women:

- Almost half the women interviewed (43.1%) said that MONEY was the biggest problem.  It's about taking women directors seriously, it's about taking women's visions seriously.  It's about trusting women's visions and that is still a major problem.

- Almost 40% of the women said that "Male-dominated industry networking" is a barrier.

- Almost 20% (19.6%) say that balancing work and family is an issue.

- Getting stereotyped as a "women director" - 15.7%

- Not getting hired because they are women - 13.7%

Here are the opportunities:

- Mentor and encourage women early in their career.

- Improving access to finance

- Raising awareness of the problem

Here's the bottom line.  There is some great news here and some really sucky news.  Things are really great for women directors in documentaries but things are still really awful for women in narrative.  The men have the access to the money and they advocate for their peers.  There is still the perception that female content is not commerically viable and there is still a feeling that women directors lack the confidence to lead and are less trustworthy.

Money is still the biggest problem as researcher Stacy Smith said "there is a steep fiscal cliff for female narrative directors."  When money comes into play either in certain positions on the set or in the perception of the commericial viability of the film, women suffer.  The data also shows that male directors get more premieres and more prestige slots than women do.

Most fucked up stat: in narrative film when looking at women directors over the last decade, only 41 women have made films in the top 100 released films every year across the decade, compared to 625 men.   There are 15.24 male directors for each 1 female director.  So that means many men make multiple films and few women make any films.

Lastly, there has been NO sustained growth in women directors over the last decade in both narrative and documentaries.  Things are good some years and things are bad some years.    But things have remained constant.  So the next time someone says things are great for women directors tell them that things are not better, they have STAYED THE SAME and that we still have so much more work to do.

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10 Comments

  • fashion protection | January 6, 2014 10:26 PMReply

    1970 Raquel Welch in 'Sin' (Filmed in Cyprus)

    Another point to be made, leading ladies have different character arcs than leading men, the difference between James Bond or Jane Bond in that sense. I know it seems unfair, but, we probably have more nuclear physicists whom are male than female.

    On another note, you might see in the research how pervasive reality TV has become to the tune of academic writing and uses in the classroom for educational purposes. Reality TV has become the phenom. See FRAPA History in the Making

  • fashion protection | January 6, 2014 3:06 PMReply

    Just thought of an edgy political discussion for Reality News Topics.
    Ann Coulter -- Arianna Huffington -- Howard Stern (in.drag)

    The Gorgeous -- The Attractive -- The Animate

    I suppose the more practical title would be: A Political Debate
    as opposed to OOMPH! A Political Debate

    Classical Music Flute Harp Viola

  • M | October 5, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    How much does this shrink down when talking about Women of color? Because I bet it's pretty small.

  • P | April 4, 2013 6:18 AMReply

    Could part of the issue simply be that, not as many woman want to be Directors, or even work in the film industry in general. If you take away gender, and measure how many aspiring filmmakers there are in the world, I'm sure there would be a dominance of men. Maybe just not as many woman find the industry appealing.

  • JulieD | January 22, 2013 10:24 PMReply

    I really think that women need to finance their own projects whenever possible. Be resourceful, look outside the industry for money, pull out all the stops. Reduce your budgets to get started, sell foreign territories, whatever. I remember I was quite impressed when I learned that Huell Howser got all his own (outside) financing to produce his public TV show - that gave him total control; then he'd just give it to PBS to air for free, and sell related merch. It's that kind of financial creativity I'm talking about. Stop depending on some dudes to greenlight your project. Find an end run and do it!

  • RJ | January 28, 2013 11:45 PM

    I think your comment misses the point: female directors shouldn't have to do an end run. It's all well and good for directors of any gender to find non-traditional ways to finance their projects but it shouldn't be the only option and right now, for female directors, this study shows that it basically is. Anyway, what makes you think female directors aren't already doing all the things you mentioned? There's a limited amount of funding from any source, and with the way wealth is distributed, a lot of those outside sources are probably also men whose default is to fund other men.

  • Kathy | January 21, 2013 10:27 PMReply

    Here's the bottom line: Without feminist activism among women in the film industry, we will not make any progress. Without feminist activism among audiences, we will not make any progress. I am constantly urging my friends to support feminist filmmakers. Until the big boys see a consistant shift at the box office, very little will change. We the audiences need to do affirmative action and spend out money on films directed by feminist women instead of going to the latest Spielberg flick.

  • Mikkel | March 1, 2013 1:40 PM

    Kathy you are 100% right! Money talks. The big boys won't lift a finger to help women filmmakers until it matters financially. So more people have to see more movies made by women! Now the only other thing that can help is women filmmakers helping other women filmmakers - there are too many women out there who will not help other women filmmakers because they feel it will hurt them in some way. Women are taught in many was growing up that they have to fight other women - that they can't help other women - that they and only they can get all the attention in the room (especially male attention) - I have seen it time and time again.... women passing up opportunities to help other women and many times stabbing them in the back. Women have to support women filmmakers both in the box office and in careers.

  • Destri | January 21, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Impressive study! Thank you for sharing, Melissa. Readers, if you'd like to familiarize yourself with today's women directors, check out this list: thedirectorlist.com And then hire them!

  • Marian | January 21, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    Lovely to see this Melissa. Thank you! Huge congratulations to all involved! I have just a couple of comments the statement that 'women support women'. It's not always true. I think that women who make movies that feature women actors do that because they want to tell stories about women, not because they want to 'support' women actors, though that's a nice outcome. And when it comes to money being the biggest problem, anecdotal evidence is that women who produce are often as likely as men to prioritise golden boys over golden girls, i.e. cannot be relied on to support/advocate for projects that women write and direct. We need producers – men and women – who will advocate for women as well as mentor them and to acknowledge their vision and courage whenever we know about their advocacy. It's terrific to have this report to add to what's already out there, and if anyone wants as sense of some comparative information from outside the States, here's a link: http://wellywoodwoman.blogspot.co.nz/2012/11/after-i-completed-my-survey-of-new.html.

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