News & Notes

Summary : Exploring the Barriers and Opportunites for Independent Women Filmmakers

By: Annie Schweikert, WIFV Intern

Research by Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., Katherine Pieper, Ph.D., and Marc Choueiti
Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles

Empirical research has shown that the gender of directors, producers, and writers fundamentally affects the type of stories told. Female storytellers are much more likely to depict women and girls onscreen, hire women behind the screen, and to choose thought-provoking stories over those of violence and gore. Despite these qualities (or perhaps because of them), the statistics of female directors, producers, and writers in the mainstream film industry have remained low for years, suggesting that traditional Hollywood power structures are a fundamental impediment to female representation.
However, independent filmmaking (particularly documentary filmmaking) currently represents a path with better odds for female filmmakers. This study is one of the first to examine the independent film industry, and does so by quantitatively documenting female filmmakers’ involvement in the Sundance Film Festival as well as qualitatively interviewing both new and established female filmmakers. “Filmmakers” here refers to directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors.
The results of the study show significantly greater female representation in independent filmmaking. From 2002-2012, women directors comprised 22.2% of Sundance narrative competition films and 41.1% of documentary competition films. In comparison, only 4.4% of directors of the top 100 box office films during the same period were women. The ratios are similar for female content creators across the board, with an overall ratio of 2.96 men filmmakers to every 1 woman in narrative features and 1.56 men to every 1 woman in documentaries at the festival.
Still, these statistics have not fluctuated much or at all over the time of the study in either the Sundance or the Hollywood statistics. Sundance does appear to be a conduit to female participation in studio films (41.5% of women filmmakers in Hollywood’s top 1100 films had participated in some way at Sundance), but the overall representation of women in filmmaking has not increased. Also, female directors were more likely to appear in Competition films and less likely in Premiere films, where films have bigger budgets and more famous actors. This disparity implies that the prestige and commercial viability of the Premiere films are more biased towards male talent.
In addition, though the ratios of gender parity are better in independent filmmaking, women hoping to break in continue to find significant difficulties. Most mentioned was the funding structure of narrative film, which is dominated by men. Women are viewed as “less confident” when requesting financing, and their projects are viewed as commercially unviable. This perception is hard to change when women typically start out with less financial backing due to lack of funding access, making them look less prepared and less attractive to other financers. The structure of documentary financing is noted as more egalitarian due to specific financial support for women and minorities, as well as less structured time or need for resources.
The qualitative end of the study also included the most-mentioned strategies to improve the odds for women in independent film. These strategies were listed as mentoring, improving access to financing, and raising awareness of the problem. The latter was noted as particularly important, based on the false optimism of some respondents who believe that the situation is improving or that it is not particularly bad in the film industry. The report concludes with reiterating the need to acknowledge the artistry and appeal of women-helmed films.


To view the report click here

News & Notes Categories