When the Sundance Film Festival announced its lineup in January, it also announced that it had hit an important milestone: Half of the narrative films in its feature competition were directed by women. And now a new joint study by the Sundance Institute and Women In Film reports that Sundance has consistently bested the commercial film market in getting work by women in front of its audience. But even if Sundance does a better job than the movie industry as a whole—which is, frankly, no surprise—that doesn’t mean its job is done, or that women, who had a steep climb from the bottom, are continuing to make progress in independent film.
Of the 100 most-profitable movies released in the commercial market between 2002 and 2012, just 4.4 percent were directed by women, as compared to 16.9 percent of American narrative features and 34.5 percent of documentaries that showed at Sundance during the same period. But over that time, the number of female directors showing movies in all categories at Sundance stayed essentially the same, with minor year-to-year fluctuations. That rise in female directors in one category, the narrative feature competition? Good news, but not a sign that Sundance has moved the dial permanently.
And another important caveat: As the study points out, women are still having trouble getting into the Premiere category. “Given that Premiere films often have higher budgets and more prominent talent attached, this downward trend in female involvement is likely due to [this festival section] moving from the independent space toward more commercial fare,” the report’s authors wrote. In other words: Even at Sundance, there is a female ghetto.
One of the biggest hurdles female directors face, the report suggests, is their own confidence. Of the 51 independent filmmakers and gatekeepers who were interviewed as part of the survey, 43.1 percent suggested that women have a harder time getting financing for their independent movies. Part of that is due to the idea that films by women are less commercially viable, but the respondents also suggested that women were less confident in pitching their projects to investors. That may also be true when it comes to the festival submission process. “The content females are submitting to the Festival may be of a slightly higher artistic caliber than the content their male counterparts are submitting,” wrote the report’s authors. “Or, males may be more willing than females to submit work that is unfinished or in progress.”
I’ll absolutely take the lineup at Sundance over the one at my local multiplex most weekends. But it’s not enough for a festival that’s so proud of its work promoting new voices, and for independent film in general, to simply be better than studio competitors. You can’t be proud when the bar is so low.