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Sundance study reveals barriers facing female directors

Blog
22 April 2015

There’s lots of insight into the barriers and issues facing female directors in a new study published today by the Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles.

The study looked at how the careers of female directors had panned out after premiering a film at the Sundance Film Festival, and why there continues to be a huge gender disparity in film-making.

What’s interesting is that the gender gap widens progressively over the course of directing careers so that ulimately the ratio of male to female directors stands at just over 23 to 1 for the top 1,300 top films from 2002 to 2014.

The study found that women directed one-quarter of the 208 films in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition between 2002 and 2014.

Of these, the study reported that:

- Gender is a significant factor in the types of stories told. Three-quarters of all SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies featured drama, comedy and/or romance, with female-directed films (92.5 percent) more concentrated in these genres than male-directed films (69 percent). Lead character gender was also associated with director gender. Male-directed films were more likely to feature male leads whereas female-directed films were more likely to feature female leads.

- Gender did not affect whether the Sundance Competition films received theatrical distribution. Of the 208 SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies from 2002-2014, 177 received domestic distribution (85.1 percent) and 31 did not. Female-directed films (88.7 percent) were just as likely to receive distribution out of SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition as male-directed films (83.9 percent).

- However, there are differences in the types of companies that distribute male- and female-directed films. Movies with a female director (70.2%) were more likely to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company—companies with deeper pockets and greater reach.

- When it comes to releasing films on a wide release, above 250 screens, male directors outnumber female directors by a factor of 6 to 1.

- The director gender gap is at its widest in top-grossing films. Across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors were female. This calculates into a gender ratio of 23.3 male directors to every 1 female director.

- The prevalence of women decreases notably when moving from independent to mainstream film. In 2014, there was a 25 percent difference between the percentage of female directors at SFF (26.9 percent) and the percentage of female directors across the top 100 films (1.9 percent). This is almost double the gap observed in 2002.

The study also used 59 interviews (39 male, 20 female) with buyers and sellers who were asked about the reasons for the lack of female directors in top 100 films. Forty-one female directors were also interviewed.

The key conclusions were:

• Perception of a Gendered Marketplace (44%): Female directors are perceived to make films for a subset and/or less significant portion of the marketplace. In contrast, films by males are perceived to reach wide and lucrative segments of the market. One explanation for this difference is the tendency to “think director, think male,” or to describe the job of a director or profitable film content in masculine terms.

• Scarcity of Talent Pool and Experience (42%): Industry decision-makers perceive that there is a scarcity of female directors and a small pool to choose from in top-grossing films. Those interviewed named, on average, three female directors who might be included on consideration lists. In contrast, 45 different women helmed one of the 100 top-grossing movies across 13 years, and over 100 different women brought a narrative film to Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2014.

• Women’s Perceived Lack of Ambition (25%): Participants mentioned or questioned the degree of interest women have in 1) the directing position generally and 2) genre-based jobs, including action and tent-pole films. Sellers were more likely to report this impediment than buyers were. However, when asked directly about their ambitions, nearly half of female directors (43.9 percent) interviewed articulated an interest in larger-budget, action or blockbuster films.

• Industry Gender Imbalance (22%): Responses described the skewed representation of women in the film industry. This includes the predominance of men in gatekeeping positions and an industry socialization process and/or culture (e.g., boy’s club) that is male-dominated.

• Little Support and Few Opportunities (14%): Individuals mentioned or questioned whether agents and managers are putting women up for jobs and the scarcity of chances or opportunities given to women.

• Competence Doubted (12%): Participants mentioned or speculated about beliefs that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew. When asked if their authority had been doubted, 70 percent of female directors interviewed answered that they had been challenged by a work colleague.

The study was authored by Dr. Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School.

“Female filmmakers face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies and ambitions. Now we need to move a heavy boat through deep waters, and WIF is committed to year-round action until sustainable gender parity is achieved,” said Cathy Schulman, President of Women In Film Los Angeles.





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