Sundance Film Festival for 2019 breaks records for submissions and diversity, as its new programming director shatters a glass ceiling

(Ben King | courtesy Sundance Institute) Lupita Nyong'o plays a kindergarten teacher protecting her students from a zombie infestation in director Abe Forsythe's horror-comedy "Little Monsters," which will screen in the Midnight program of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival will boast “the most inclusive lineup we’ve had in a long time,” said new programming director Kim Yutani — and her team has the numbers to prove it.

Organizers at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute announced Wednesday a slate of titles — chosen from a record 14,259 submissions, including 4,018 feature-length films — that will screen Jan. 24-Feb. 3 in Park City, Salt Lake City and at the Sundance resort.

Of the 112 films selected, 40 percent are directed or co-directed by a woman, 36 percent by a person of color and 13 percent by someone who identifies as LGBTQ.

That level of representation, festival director John Cooper said this week, is “organic to us. We program the festival and then we look at numbers. … It backs up a story we’ve been saying all along.”

“There’s a shift happening, and we are not only part of it but we’re responsible for leading it,” Yutani said.

The prominence of underrepresented storytelling voices and the attention to statistics showing that growing diversity are also reflective of Yutani’s new position as the first woman and first person of color to direct the programming at a major international film festival.

“I’m trying not to get too caught up with what it means,” Yutani said when asked how her promotion has shattered another glass ceiling. “If anything, just me having the job is something that I hope means something to our film community. That it sends a signal that somebody different is in charge, and maybe somebody who would not normally think Sundance is a place for them would think of Sundance as possibly a home for the stories they are telling.”

Of the 16 titles chosen for the U.S. Dramatic competition, the biggest showcase in Sundance’s program, eight are directed by women and a ninth is directed by a man-and-woman team. Among the 16 U.S. Documentary competition films, five are directed by a woman, one is directed by two women, and two more are directed by teams of men and women.

Compare that with the Cannes Film Festival last May, where three of the 21 films in competition were directed by women. Or the Venice Film Festival in August, where only one of the 21 competition films — Australian director Jennifer Kent’s thriller “The Nightingale” — was directed by a woman. (“The Nightingale” will screen in Sundance’s Spotlight section.)

Such an imbalance reflects Hollywood’s gender disparity. In its annual study, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women — who buy half the movie tickets every year — directed 11 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2017.

Sundance has long fought against that disparity. Its U.S. Dramatic competition slate in 2013, for example, boasted a 50/50 split of women directors to men, with women directors Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”) and Lake Bell (“In a World …”) leaving Park City with jury awards.

This year, 41 percent of the directors of U.S. Dramatic competition films are people of color, and 18 percent identify as LGBTQIA+. Among the filmmakers in the U.S. Documentary competition, 39 percent are people of color, and 23 percent identify as LGBTQIA+.

Sundance’s drive toward diversity isn’t confined to the filmmakers. Last week, the festival announced that the 24-member programming team Cooper and Yutani lead now has 12 women and 12 men. Also, the festival is setting aside more press credentials for critics who are women, people of color or LGBTQIA+, and Sundance has teamed with University of Southern California researcher Stacy L. Smith to study the demographic breakdown of the filmmakers who submitted to this year’s festival.

“The world is telling us it’s important,” Cooper said.

Onscreen, festival attendees will see dramas and comedies led by such women as Alfre Woodard, Michelle Williams, Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Jillian Bell, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o and Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”).

Some of the documentaries will spotlight such notable women as sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, yacht racer Tracy Edwards, and Texas journalist Molly Ivins. Also on tap is an exposé of movie mogul and former Sundance regular Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged incidents of sexual assault and harassment kicked off the #MeToo movement just over a year ago.

“There are a lot of films that question patriarchy and looking at gender that are coming at it in a much more outspoken way,” Yutani said. “People are feeling more empowered to tell the truth, to tell their stories.”

“There’s lots of really strong women characters, for sure,” Cooper said. “A lot of women characters who are vulnerable but still complex and still very fierce."

Yutani is described by her colleagues as a strong advocate for films. She’s not as demonstrative as her predecessor, Trevor Groth, the Salt Lake City native who spent 25 years rising through the ranks of Sundance before leaving just after the 2018 festival for a job with film financier 30 West.

“She doesn’t talk a whole lot, but when she does, you definitely want to hear what she has to say,” said David Courier, a senior programmer at Sundance who has worked with Yutani for more than a decade. “She’s like this powerful stealth bomber in the room.”

Yutani, who is of Japanese heritage and gives her age as “well into my 40s,” got her start in movies as a student at UCLA, writing a paper about the maverick filmmaker Gregg Araki. Her professor suggested Yutani interview Araki to flesh out the paper.

Araki “was very sweet and very open,” Yutani said, and they talked for an hour about how he made movies and got them financed. When Araki started work on his first $1 million movie, 1995’s “The Doom Generation,” he hired Yutani as an assistant.

“I realized very quickly the production world was not for me,” Yutani said. “But I did have this real passion for independent cinema.”

When “The Doom Generation” premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, Yutani went with it.

“I was really captured by how exciting it was,” Yutani said, recalling seeing the premieres of Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and a secret preview of Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids.” “There’s such energy at Sundance. … I left with this feeling of, ‘How do I go to Sundance every year?’”

Yutani found her path through festival programming, first in a mentoring program at the Los Angeles LGBTQ festival Outfest, and in 2005 on contract to select short films for Sundance.

“This was in the days of a lot of VHS tapes, and I remember a big box of VHS tapes wearing through my VCR,” she said.

Yutani has been programming features for 10 years, moving up to senior programmer before the 2010 festival — when Cooper was promoted from programming director to festival director, and Groth was bumped up to Cooper’s old job.

“To be a good programmer, you have to have much more than a good eye for a film,” Yutani said. “There’s also so much you bring personally to the job. … Programming was the first job to me that synthesized everything that was interesting to me: music, pop culture, history, art, writing.”

Courier said one of Yutani’s discoveries was filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, whose bisexual comedy-drama “Appropriate Behavior” played in Sundance’s Next program in 2014. Yutani advocated for the movie during the selection process and later became friends with the director.

“If she’s thinking about making a film, she will often talk to me about it in the early stages,” Yutani said.

When Akhavan was contemplating adapting Emily M. Danforth’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” a queer coming-of-age novel set in a Christian conversion-therapy camp, she sent a copy of the book to Yutani for advice, Yutani said. Akhavan’s movie, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, debuted this January in Park City and won the Grand Jury Prize.

Yutani, Cooper said, “has incredible taste. She has a very refined understanding of curation of a festival, as opposed to just a critical eye.”

Cooper said Yutani has been a quick study as programming director. “What she had to do, which I learned my first year as [programming] director, is you have to listen to the group,” he said. “You have to hear where the passion is, you have to listen for it, and then trust your instincts to put together the best program.”

A downside of being programming director is that more meetings means less time to watch movies.

“Once I got the job, I realized, ‘Oh, this is why Trevor took so long to watch movies I needed to watch,’” Yutani joked. “When I ran into Trevor a few weeks ago, he said, ‘How are you managing not watching films?’ … The answer was, ‘I figured it out.’ I just work hard.”