PARK CITY, Utah -- One of the key story lines of Sundance 2013 has been the strong representation of female directors at the film festival: eight of the 16 films in the U.S. dramatic competition were made by women. That’s up from just three in 2012.
But a new study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles and conducted by researchers at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism shows that there’s still a gender gap between women and men in the realm of American independent film.
The study found that just under 24% of all U.S. movies programmed for the Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012 were directed by women. Women were much more likely to direct documentaries at Sundance than narrative films; 34.5% of U.S. documentaries shown at Sundance in the last decade had female directors, while only 16.9% of U.S. narrative films did.
The study authors -- Stacy L. Smith, Katherine Pieper and Marc Choueiti -- noted that the gender gap is of significance not just as an employment or career issue. There is a growing body of empirical research, they said, that documents how having a woman at the helm of a movie can affect the types of stories being told.
"Female directors are more likely to feature girls and women on screen than male directors," they said.
They also noted that women filmmakers "impact the very nature of a story," citing one study that examined more than 900 motion pictures and found that "violence, guns/weapons, and blood/gore were less likely to be depicted when women were directing or producing, and thought-provoking topics were more likely to appear."
Even though there was big jump between 2012 and this year in the percentage of female narrative film directors at Sundance, the study actually found that there has been no sustained increase or decrease in the percentage of female directors or producers in the narrative or documentary films shown at the festival from 2002-2012. (The authors defined a "sustained" increase or decrease a trend that persisted for three or more years.)
To be sure, the gender gap is much narrower in the realm of independent cinema than in Hollywood; according to the study, only 4.4% of directors across the top 100 box office films each year from 2002 to 2012 were female.
The USC study examined the gender of 11,197 directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors in 820 American movies programmed for the Sundance Film Festival between 2002 and 2012 to identify the prevalence of female filmmakers. Researchers also conducted interviews with female filmmakers about their experiences.
In all, 29.8% of the directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors of U.S. movies at Sundance in the last decade were female, the research found. Not surprisingly, female directors were more likely to collaborate with female writers, producers, cinematographers and editors. On both narratives and documentaries, female directors had at least 20% more women working as writers, producers, cinematographers and editors as compared with male directors. Across all behind-the-camera positions, females were most likely to be producers.
The study also examined submissions to Sundance from 2009 to 2012 and found that women directors accounted for just 13.1% of all narrative film submissions. That means 6.61 submissions from male directors for every film submitted by a woman. In documentaries, 29.6% of the submissions were from women.
"If you look at the data, they reveal an environment in which women are creating and exhibiting films in strong numbers, especially in documentaries," said Smith, one of the study's authors.
Pieper, another author on the study, said that women may do better in the documentary sphere "because there is more democratized access to funding, more females in positions of influence, and more flexible and accessible production environments."
Though the study noted that Sundance has been "a pipeline for many female directors," the authors said there remains "a very steep fiscal cliff for women moving from directing independent to studio films."
There were only 41 female directors across the 1,100 top-grossing movies between 2002 and 2012, they found. Seventeen of them had participated in Sundance programs at some point in their careers.
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