Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative

At the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Exploring the Barriers & Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers:
Phase II
January 2014

Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Dr. Katherine Pieper, & Marc Choueiti

Executive Summary

The aim of this study is to update and more deeply explore topics covered in our 2013 report, Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers: Phase I. That seminal investigation with our partners, Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, assessed the gender distribution of 11,197 content creators at Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012.  A qualitative component also grounded the research, unpacking the impediments and opportunities of female directors and producers via 51 in-depth interviews with emerging and seasoned female content creators and key industry thought leaders.

With our partners, this report updates our inaugural study in three specific ways.  First, a quantitative analysis was conducted on the gender of 1,163 content creators (directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors) across 82 U.S. films selected and screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (SFF).  This allows for a snapshot of gender behind the camera at the 2013 Festival and illustrates if any change exists over the last 12 years. 

Second, the gender distribution of filmmakers participating in Sundance Institute Feature Film Program (FFP) and Documentary Film Program (DFP) Labs between 2002 and 2013 was documented.  This was done to determine how many emerging female writers, directors, and producers receive critical artistic support as part of their filmmaking background, and how this may affect their careers, and the pipeline overall.  Third, a deeper dive into the original qualitative interviews was undertaken to further explore obstructions facing female directors and producers in the narrative space.  The goal was to understand how perceptions and practices within the broader film community may limit narrative female directors’ careers.  Below, our key quantitative and qualitative findings are illuminated. 

Key Findings

2013 Sundance Film Festival Snapshot of American Films

Of the 1,163 content creators working behind the camera on 82 U.S. films at SFF in 2013, 28.9% were women and 71.1% were men.  The presence of women differed by storytelling genre: 23.8% of content creators were women in narrative films whereas 40.4% were women in documentary films. 

2013 was an extraordinary year for women in documentary filmmaking at SFF. 42.2% of documentary directors and 49.2% of documentary producers were women at the 2013 Festival.  Focusing on directors specifically by program category, 46.4% of U.S. documentary competition directors were female as were 30.8% of documentary premiere helmers. 

Female narrative directors saw gains and losses in 2013, but little overall change.  For the first time, gender parity was achieved in U.S. dramatic competition movies in 2013 with 50% of all helmers being female.  In contrast, only one of the 18 directors in the premieres section was a woman.

Sundance narrative directors in 2013 continue to outperform directors in the top 100 box office: Turning to the 100 top-grossing films of 2013, only 2 (1.9%) of the 108 helmers were female.  This represents a 48.1% drop from the percentage of female directors in Sundance competition films to the percentage of female directors in top-grossing films. 

Examining female participation at SFF as directors and producers from 2002 to 2013 revealed no meaningful change over time. Instead, the percentages of female participation often fluctuate but no continuous and sustained increases or decreases were observed across the 12 years. For dramatic features, females accounted for 24.4% of all competition helmers and 13.9% of all non competition helmers.  In documentaries, the percentage of female competition directors is 41.7% and 25% of non competition helmers. 

Artist Support through Sundance Institute Labs

Female storytellers compete and flourish at Sundance Institute labs.  Of the 432 lab fellows between 2002 and 2013, a full 42.6% were female. Women comprised 39.3% of the fellows in the Feature Film Program (FFP) and 54.5% of the fellows in the Documentary Film Program (DFP).

FFP and DFP lab projects helmed by females finish strong with artist support.  A total of 116 FFP projects were brought to the labs; 77 had male directors attached (66.4%) and 39 had at least one female director attached (33.6%).  The percentage of lab projects completed did not vary by gender; roughly 41% of male-helmed and female-helmed projects were finished. Out of these completed films, 33.3% featured female directors.  81.3% of all finished films went on to play at the top 10 festivals worldwide. Again, no gender differences emerged in exhibition rate. A full third of these prestigious spots were awarded to female-helmed projects.  Thus, female-directed stories consistently take up a third of the space whether in the labs, among completed projects, or at elite exhibition venues.  Women are completing and exhibiting their work at just shy of their participation rates at the Labs.

Out of 48 DFP lab projects, 14 (29.2%) were helmed by males and 34 (70.8%) were helmed by at least one female.  This translates into a gender ratio of 2.4 to 1, favoring female-directed non-fiction storytelling.  Of 48 lab-supported projects, 85.4% have been completed (n=41) and this finishing rate did not vary by gender.  Among completed projects, 12 (29.3%) had a male director and 29 (70.7%) had a female director attached.  Over half of these films (56.1%) went on to screen at one or more of the top 10 festivals worldwide.  Female-helmed movies comprised 69.6% of these exhibited documentaries.  In the DFP, female-directed projects take up over two-thirds of the space across labs, completed films, and leading exhibition arenas. 

Barriers Facing Female Filmmakers

Our initial report revealed career obstacles that face female filmmakers, including gendered financial barriers, male-dominated industry networks, and stereotyping on set.  We analyzed a subset of the original 51 interviews with industry thought leaders and seasoned content creators.

When industry leaders think director, they think male.  Traits were gathered from 34 narrative and documentary decision-makers and filmmakers. We explored whether attributes of successful directors reflect stereotypical characteristics of men or women.  Nearly one-third of traits (32.1%) were coded as masculine and 19.3% feminine.  For documentaries, the percentage of male-linked (23.1%) and female-linked characteristics (20.5%) was nearly equal.  In narratives, masculine attributes (e.g., aggressive, a general rallying troops for combat) outnumbered feminine traits (e.g., collaborative, supportive) by a factor of over 2 to 1.  The disparity between documentary and narrative traits reflects the gender balance seen among documentary directors and the gender imbalance in fictional content.  Moreover, the lack of fit between perceptions of women and narrative directors reflects skewed cultural norms about leadership.  Conceiving of the directing role in masculine terms may limit the extent to which different women are considered for the job. 

Putting female directors on studio lists is limited by stereotypes.  A group of 12 individuals working in the narrative realm were asked specifically about hiring directors into top commercial jobs.  Two-thirds (66.7%) indicated that there is a smaller pool of qualified female directors.  Half mentioned that stereotypically male films (i.e., action, horror) may not appeal as job opportunities to female directors. These findings illustrate how a reliance on stereotypes creates decision-making biases that weaken women’s opportunities. 

Despite the gains made by female storytellers in 2013 and the importance of lab support, these findings reveal where problems still exist.  Until cultural stereotypes and perceptions of the directing role grow more flexible, moving from independent film to commercial arenas will remain a difficult prospect for female filmmakers. 

Click here for the full report.

Click here for more information and additional research by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative and follow @MDSCInitiative.


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