Independent Women: Sundance Studies on Women in Indie Films Show Value of Support

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Caroline Libresco.Sundance programmerThere is no mistaking the excitement in the voice of the Sundance Film Festival’s Caroline Libresco.

In April, the Sundance Institute will release its annual survey into movies made by women, the next step in a process is that is creating arguably the most complete set of data available on how females filmmakers fare in independent films.

The central finding is perhaps unsurprising to those who keep a keen eye on the topic.

“What we find is when given support, when given an opportunity, women absolutely punch at equal the weight to men. No questions about skills or talents. It’s all about access,” Libresco says.

ONGOING SUNDANCE STUDY TRACKS PROGRESS

This is the third year of the ongoing study, with each year focusing on a different aspect of American women filmmakers and the work they show at Sundance, both in documentary and feature films categories.

Around 40 documentaries and 85 narrative features were shown at the festival in January. With thousands of films submitted from around the world, it is a tight competition getting a submission to the screen.

In 2015, the focus of the study is on what happens to films by women after they are screened at Sundance. Who sees them, has access to them and where? How are they supported in the wider industry?

MAKING A FULL FLEDGED COMMITMENT

Libresco, the festival’s senior programmer of documentaries, is passionate about the study. She credits Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam with driving the program, which feeds into her own hopes for widening opportunities for women.

“One of Keri’s real interests is in gender and diversity,” Libresco says.

“She has instituted this really robust program to try to create equity and equality in the members, because Sundance is a pipeline to Hollywood. It’s a great place to try and do some work.”

The institute is working with Dr. Stacy Smith at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg School for Communications.

A similar ongoing study focusing on the studio system, by Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television, has provided vital information on women in Hollywood. (Dr. Lauzen’s latest results are looked at in-depth the Week In Women’s AWFJ sister blog, Cinema Citizen.)

STUDY SPOTLIGHTS INDIE FILMS

Perhaps surprisingly, there was no such focus in independent films until recently.

“Three years ago, no one had looked at independent film in all of the studies. So we wondered what was going on with our own records,” Libresco explains.

In that first year, the Sundance/USC study concentrated on Sundance screenings female filmmakers from 2002 to 2013 and compared it to Hollywood numbers.

It found that in the Lauzen study of Hollywood for the years 2002 to 2013, just 4.2 per cent of directors across the top 100 box office films were female, according to Libresco.

INDIES GIVE HOLLYWOOD A RUN FOR THE MONEY

Contrast that with the Sundance numbers. Across all narrative and documentary feature films at the Sundance from 2002 to 2013, 24.3 per cent of directors are female, six times that of Hollywood’s.

Libresco makes a frustrated sound when asked how she felt about the numbers.

“For the first few years, (Dr. Lauzen) was really looking at Hollywood and giving the statistics about the numbers of women directors and Hollywood,” she says.

“It was so terrifying! Over a decade, nothing had changed in Hollywood. The numbers would go up a little and then down a little.”

PARSING PROGRESS

Libresco adds that two years ago there seemed to be a breakthrough at Sundance, with 50 per cent of U.S. narrative features in competition being directed by women.

“We thought ‘Oh my God! This is a breakthrough! We’re here!’ But our social scientist friends tell us unless you have a sustained change for three years in a row, you don’t have a change,” Libresco said.

“And 2015 was about the same as past numbers, about 25 per cent. We don’t see that appreciable change over time. We do see little changes bubbling up within sections of our festival, especially the first and second film categories.”

SUPPORT FROM ORGANIZATIONS IS ESSENTIAL

In the second year of the analysis, the Sundance Institute questioned how support by an artistic organization is essential to bolstering the numbers of women in film.

Libresco says: “There are a million organizations all working on supporting women and sometimes you knock your head against a wall wondering if this (support) has any meaning or importance out there in the grand scheme of things. What we learned was that support actually matters.”

She said the study took a close-up look at the Sundance Labs program, which mentors directors and screenwriters.

“What we learned was incredible. We looked at the documentary and feature labs from 2002 to 2012, and learned that the women who come into those labs punch at equal the weight of the men,” Libresco says.

“We measured that by looking at the rate by which they finish their projects and went into the Top-10 film festivals. They were at exactly the same rate at the male directors.”

FOCUS FORWARD ON SUSTAINING SUCCESS

The next big question for the institute to follow this year explores how women in indie film build on initial success, says Libresco.

“We’re going to be looking at what happens after Sundance, the time it takes for women to get from their first film to their second film,” she says.

“And we’re going to be looking at the rates that women directors are able to get representation by agents and get into career jobs. We don’t have that data yet.”

DOCUMENTARIES SHOW BETTER STATS

Libresco says Sundance has learned that documentary is the most successful film genre for female participation. From 2002 to 2013, 35.3 per cent of directors of U.S. full-length feature documentaries, were women.

“So that’s a lot higher than that 25 per cent figure,” Libresco says.

“We can point to all kinds of ideas about why that is. I think that part of it is because funding is democratized. And budgets are lower. Sometimes you go through public sources and foundation sources. It’s less about who you know but more of a democratic way in to the money. That’s number one, I think.”

Libresco wants to explore leverage points that facilitate female filmmakers so Sundance can make changes that will help. So far, the study has concentrated on American filmmakers, but she would like to see similar work carried out on an international level.

“I think it’s going to be a big story for us that connects all of these dots in certain ways,” she says.

“We’re telling the story of the pipeline from first film to Hollywood. We’re trying to fill that in and there is a lot more research that could be done by many different organizations all around the world to help fill in the story.”

Facebook: The Week In Women – AWFJ; Twitter: @theweekinwomen

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