Study: Women Make Up 29 Percent of Directors of Festival Features

Photographed by Jai Lennard
Reed Morano directed 2018 Sundance entry 'I Think We're Alone Now.'

The "Indie Women" report from SDSU's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film looked at 23 well-known U.S. film festivals.

This year's Sundance Film Festival boasted a program in which 37 percent of its films were directed by women — an increase of 3 percent from the 2017 fest —  and top prizes, including the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury prize for Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, went to titles from female directors and writers.

Still, a new study finds that women filmmakers are still largely underrepresented in the indie film scene as measured by the movies selected for festival programming throughout the U.S.

The newly released "Indie Women" report from Dr. Martha Lauzen and San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film looked at the programming of 23 well-known film festivals, including AFI Fest, SXSW and Tribeca, to determine how women are faring.

The study found that women accounted for only 29 percent of key behind-the-scenes roles — directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers — in the independent films screened at U.S. festivals in 2017-18, an increase of one percentage point from the previous year.

Women made up 29 percent of directors on the films from major festivals. That figure was even with last year and represented an increase of seven percentage points from 22 percent in 2008-09.

Also, the percentage of directors who are women working on indie features in the festival space was more than twice as high as those working mostly in mainstream, studio films, according to a study released earlier this year by the center. The study found that of the top 250 grossing movies of 2017, 11 percent were directed by women.

On the festival front, female talent was more in evidence in the documentary features categories, with festivals screening an average of 13 docs directed by men versus an average of 8 docs by women. On average, the same festivals each screened 16 narrative films directed by men, compared with six narrative features directed by at least one woman.

As was the case with the top-grossing features of 2017, films with at least one woman director had substantially higher percentages of women in other key behind-the-camera roles. For example, on films with at least one female director, 71 percent of writers were women versus 8 percent on films directed exclusively by men.

Similarly, festivals with at least one woman working as the head of programming screened higher percentages of films with female directors and writers than those with exclusively male heads of programming. At the female-led fests, 33 percent of the films had a female director and 30 percent had a female writer. By contrast, at fests with male heads of programming, 24 percent of directors and 22 percent of writers were women.

"The findings indicate that the celluloid ceiling endures in independent film for behind-the-scenes women, despite the heightened public and industry attention regarding their underemployment," said Lauzen. "The numbers have yet to reflect any sea change or seismic shift for women working on independent films."