Last year, the Sundance Institute released an important study confirming what every female filmmaker already knew: If you want to direct a Hollywood film, don’t be a woman.
The odds are slightly better for women who want to direct indie films. A second installment of the study, released this week, shows that 35 percent of American-made documentaries screened at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002-13 were directed by women, in comparison to 17 percent of U.S. narrative films at the festival that were directed by women.
That’s a marked contrast to Hollywood, where about 4.4 percent of the 100 top-grossing Hollywood films during the same 12-year period were directed by women.
“Indie film is doing a lot better, but we have a long way to go,” says Caroline Libresco, senior programmer and director of special programs for the Sundance Institute.
Doing better, but still: There’s been “no meaningful change over time” of the number of female directors and producers leading Sundance films, according to the report, commissioned by Sundance and Women in Film Los Angeles, and conducted by a team led by Stacy L. Smith at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
‘Having this conversation constantly’ • “The statistics are a scandal,” said director Lucy Walker, at Sundance to promote her short documentary “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” speaking at a panel spotlighting female filmmakers.
“Until we get to an equal playing field, we’ve got to keep doing panels like this,” agreed panelmate Rory Kennedy, at the festival to promote “Last Days in Vietnam,” which she directed and produced.
The film world is changing, “simply by the fact we’re all having this conversation constantly,” said Jill Soloway, who won the best director award for her 2013 Sundance film “Afternoon Delight.” It was, at first, difficult to find a distributor for her sexually bold film — the movie played in 25 American cities in August and September, and currently is available on iTunes — and she grew tired of hearing there wasn’t an audience for female-centered films about women over 35.
Why does the number of female directors matter? Supporting female directors and storytellers will help viewers see a full range of authentic and original stories in the media, said Utah filmmaker Geralyn Dreyfous, the Salt Lake City-based film producer who founded the Utah Film Center.
Dreyfous is a partner in Impact Partners, which has funded more than 45 documentary films in the past six years, including Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 Sundance documentary “Miss Representation.” “You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, as the documentary reveals how female characters on TV or in movies are most often represented as wives or girlfriends, looking for love.
A female ‘above-ground railroad’ • Change in the film world can be found in an emerging network of allies working to fund and mentor female storytellers. This network might work similarly to the way Emily’s List bundled small donations to help level the playing field for Democratic female politicians.
It’s a female “above-ground railroad,” said filmmaker Judith Helfand, creative director of Chicken & Egg films.
“Artists don’t just live on two coasts, and they don’t just live at film festivals,” she said. “We’re all part of an ecosystem that is starting to become a girl’s club, an old girl’s network that you can actually get into. Everyone’s trying to chip away at that.”
Helfand’s 9-year-old nonprofit funds female-led documentaries, including the Sundance documentary “Private Violence.” The documentary by Cynthia Hill is a freshly harrowing look at what might be considered a classic “women’s issues” story about domestic violence. Hill said she made the film to retire the question “Why didn’t you just leave?” after having her own experience in the past with domestic violence, which she chooses not to discuss.
The film “is my way of being able to directly address it and say the things I need to say, but I’m using other women to tell it,” Hill said before the Salt Lake City screening, where activists linked the film to reports of the Spanish Fork murder of Kelly Boren, her mother and two children. “Because that story is universal. You can’t hear this story from so many women, from so many walks of life, and it’s the same exact story, and that’s scary and sad.”
Gender, of course, plays into the subjects she focuses her camera on. But Hill says she experiences more roadblocks as a filmmaker because she chose to return home to North Carolina and to tell Southern stories.
Confidence — and voice • After all, the forces of the digital revolution are making filmmaking more accessible, said Hill, who studied pharmacology before turning to filmmaking after making health-care videos.
“The statistics haven’t changed, but the amount of women making documentary films has changed,” Hill said. “If you have the passion and creativity, you can do it. Nobody can tell us no anymore.”
Women are reaching out to each other in multiple directions. “Nobody needs the studio” anymore, said Soloway, who worked on the TV shows “The United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under.” “All you need is the confidence and the voice to start creating.”
Soloway is piloting a comedy show, “Transparent,” that will stream on Amazon, and with a friend has launched wifey.tv, a website spotlighting videos made by women.
One powerful example of the emerging ecosystem is Gamechanger Films, a $6 million investment fund Dreyfous helped found last fall, with a mission as straightforward as its name: “Gamechanger aims to shift the gender disparity in the film marketplace by tapping into the enormous yet undervalued talent pool of women directors and providing the financing necessary to bring their work to audiences worldwide.”
“Our idea is we want to help discover new voices,” says Dreyfous, the Academy Award-winning producer of “Born Into Brothels.” Gamechanger supports narrative films directed or co-directed by women, with budgets of $2 million or less.
And just months after Gamechanger was launched, its track record looks good. Its first film, “Land Ho,” a buddy comedy about a road trip in Iceland by two male retirees, co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, made headlines late this week when it was purchased by Sony Pictures.
For a younger generation, seeing beyond gender • Stephens, 29, said she’s not sure how her gender factored into the script, beyond the tone of the movie’s female supporting characters and how they reacted to the two male lead characters.
Many of her influences as a storyteller are drawn from her history of growing up in Appalachia and living in West Virginia. Stephens said she co-wrote and co-directed the film with her male filmmaking partner, but she was the one who pushed for the more colorful language in the story.
“And I think that comes from me being a kid growing up in the hills where people are a little more outspoken,” Stephens said. “That plays into who I am. My age plays into who I am. I’m sure something about me being a girl added to the film. I just don’t know what.”
Women behind the camera
A study commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival and Women in Film Los Angeles identified gender issues beyond the low number of female directors. When interviewed about directors, industry leaders were likely to use stereotypical male attributes or to make claims that women wouldn’t be interested or able to direct horror or action or other genre films. “When industry leaders think director, they think male,” the report states.
At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, of the 1,163 content creators working behind the camera on 82 American films, nearly 30 percent were women. In narrative films, 24 percent of content creators were women, while 40 percent of documentary directors were women.
In another bright spot, female filmmakers who participate in Sundance filmmaking labs are as likely as their male colleagues to finish their films and have them accepted at the country’s top 10 film festivals.