Academy Awards analysis: What this year’s Sundance Film Festival tells us about another year of #OscarsSoMale

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The 91st Academy Awards are Feb. 24.

It’s amazing how common sense and basic math can apply to everything, including the film industry.

One of the narratives of this year’s cinematic awards season has been the lack of women nominated in the best director category at the Golden Globe Awards, at the Directors Guild of America Awards and at the upcoming Academy Awards, which have earned a new disparaging hashtag: #OscarsSoMale.

As the Women’s Media Center’s Investigation 2019: Gender and Non-Acting Oscar Nominations found, women are, again, largely missing from the picture, with men receiving 75 percent of the nominations for the 91st Academy Awards, which will be handed out Feb. 24.

No women are nominated in Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, and Visual Effects, and only one woman was nominated in Animated Feature film and in each of the two writing categories.

Women nominees are down from last year for Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Production Design, and Animated Feature. There is no change from last year in the categories of Adapted Screenplay, Documentary Short, Original Score, and Original Song, according the Women’s Medic Center.

“Again this year, women’s talent has not been recognized in many of the most powerful behind-the-scenes categories such as Directing, Cinematography, and Editing,” said Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, in a statement.

“Since the Women’s Media Center started counting the number of women nominated for non-acting Academy Awards as of 2006, the overall percentage of women nominees has increased from 18 to 25 percent. By that calculation, it will take another 50 years for women to be equally represented by the Academy. We need industry leaders to get on board and hire more women, especially women of color, in front of and behind the camera.”

Industry-wide efforts to improve gender parity have had some impact, but not as much as anticipated, according to the Women’s Media Center analysis. The overall percentage of female nominations in non-acting categories was marginally higher than last year – 25 percent compared to 23 percent, with the number of women nominees higher in the categories of Documentary Feature, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Live Action Short and Animated Short.

“A nomination for an Academy Award can open doors,” said Jane Fonda, co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, in a statement. “With three out of every four non-acting nominations going to men, women, again, are missing that stamp of approval.”

Director Marielle Heller, left, and Melissa McCarthy behind the scenes of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Shortage of opportunities

There are many factors that possibly play into this year’s egregious awards season situation: Great films like Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” and Lynne Ramsey’s “You Were Never Really Here” have largely flown under the radar and are tough sells because of their challenging subject matter, while Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” earned three key Oscar nods – best actress for Melissa McCarthy, best supporting actor for Richard E. Grant and best screenplay Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty – without the film’s helmer receiving a nomination for her obviously excellent efforts.

But one major factor that almost certainly prevents more women from being nominated is that there simply aren’t enough women getting the opportunity to make movies in the first place.

As previously reported, the 21st annual The Celluloid Ceiling study by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, looked at the top 250 films of 2018 at the domestic box office and found that women made up only 8 percent of directors. That number that was down 3 percentage points from the 11 percent in 2017.

You don’t have to be a statistician to realize a smaller pool of candidates is going to yield a smaller pool of finalists for awards.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, as the recently concluded 2019 Sundance Film Festival vividly illustrates.

Alfre Woodard in “Clemency.”

Sundance inclusion

For the first time in the history of Sundance’s prestigious U.S. Dramatic Competition, more than half of the films in the category boasted a female director in 2019, with nine of the 16 films having a woman directing, or in one case, co-directing with a man, according to The Wrap.

In 2018, only 31 percent of the films in the category were directed by women. A study in May from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that major U.S. film festivals featured an average six narrative features directed by at least one woman, compared with an average of 16 narrative features directed by men.

Of the 112 films the Sundance Institute picked for the festival’s slate, 45, or 40 percent, had a female director. Thirty-six percent were directed by one or more filmmaker of color, and 13 percent by one or more persons who identify as LGBTQIA.

And when it came time for Sundance to hand out its awards Feb. 2, the power of the numbers became clear, with women filmmakers dominating.

Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency,” which stars Alfre Woodard as a warden at a maximum security prison struggling with an approaching execution, claimed the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Chukwu said as she accepted the honor that one of her hopes, which she would like the film to play a role in, is that “we can end mass incarceration and dismantle the prison-industrial complex.”

Chukwu, who is Nigerian-American, is the first black woman to win the festival’s biggest prize, according to IndieWire.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in “Knock Down the House.”

Awards and sales

In a year that saw more female filmmakers than ever presenting work at Sundance, the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition also went to women filmmakers: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang for “One Child Nation,” which takes a critical look at China’s one-child policy.

Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s “Honeyland,” from Macedonia, which centers on efforts to save endangered bees, garnered the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary. It was also given a special jury prize for its cinematography by Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma and another special jury award “for impact for change.”

The Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Drama was presented to Joanna Hogg’s dysfunctional relationship drama “The Souvenir,” starring newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Oscar-winning performer Tilda Swinton and writer John Byrne. The film was picked up by A24, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The timely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary “Knock Down the House,” directed by Rachel Lears, won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. According to Deadline, Netflix paid $10 million for worldwide rights to the film, the biggest documentary sale ever brokered at a film festival.

As previously reported, some of the other big sales at Sundance also were femme-centric, woman-directed films, including the Mindy Kaling-Emma Thompson vehicle “Late Night,” the Awkwafina starrer “The Farewell” and Pippa Bianco’s feature film debut “Share,” for which she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and Rhianne Barreto earned the Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting.

So, it’s not hard: More opportunities for women to make and present their films means more women whose films will be sold, released and honored with awards.

And all of those accomplishments – as the Women’s Media Center notes – lead to even more opportunities: According to Variety, “Late Night” director Nisha Ganatra is in negotiations to helm Universal and Working Title’s upcoming music industry romance “Covers,” written by first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson.

In other words, the numbers add up like this: the real formula for changing the #OscarsSoMale situation is in changing the number of women getting the chance to make movies.


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