It's that time of the year again when most of Hollywood and the New York film world decamp to cold Park City, Utah, to feast on the latest indie fare at the Sundance Film Festival. This year seems a pivotal moment for the film business, with the writer's strike three months old, a glut of films that can't get distribution and new technologies like on-demand downloads surfacing each day.
Yet one alarming issue that rarely makes it beyond the occasional newspaper story is the lack of women in films that were both artistically and commercially successful this past year. Such top Oscar contenders as There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men barely have a female character, and in commercial hits like Spiderman 3 and the Transformers, women are relegated to the familiar role of girlfriend.
Women are also missing behind the scenes especially in one of the most important jobs in the film business, director. The most recent study by Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University shows that of the top 250 grossing films of 2007, only 6% were directed by women -- down from 7% in 2006 and down from an all-time high of a whopping 11% in 2000.
Film festivals, especially ones like Sundance, are among the few places where diverse perspectives not seen in multiplexes across the country are welcomed. Women directors have thrived at Sundance. The organization has made deliberate efforts to nurture new voices through its labs (where writer-directors work on scripts) and at the festival. Sundance is even teaming up with L'Oreal to offer a Women of Worth "Vision" Award, a $15,000 prize to a female director at this year's Festival.
But even Sundance for all its efforts has good years for women and bad ones. This year, of 16 films in the dramatic competition (out of 1,068 submitted), only three are directed by women, with a woman co-directing a fourth. And this level of participation was achieved by a group of people so committed to diversity that they "bend over backwards to try and include women," according to programmer Caroline Libresco.
Women are being trained as directors at the best film schools. Both NYU and UCLA say the female to male ratio is 50/50. (USC doesn't have a degree in directing, and twice as many men as women earned USC production degrees.) One source of good news: women are, and always have been, a large portion of the documentarians, a field that can seem almost like a female ghetto.
It's in fiction filmmaking where women gain little traction. Donna Deitch, whose Desert Hearts, the first mainstream film about lesbians, played at Sundance in 1986, has made her living directing television not films. Patricia Cardoso, who introduced Ugly Betty star America Ferrara to the world with Real Women Have Curves in 2002, has yet to make a second film even though she was attached to several, including Nappily Ever After with Halle Berry. Lizzie Borden, who was at the festival with Working Girls in 1987, made one regrettable film post-Sundance, Love Crimes, "that really killed me," she says. Tamara Jenkins took almost a decade from her first film, Slums of Beverly Hills (which was a part of the Lab), to her second, The Savages. A few who were at Sundance with shorts later had some success with features, such as Jamie Babbit, whose But I'm a Cheerleader screened in 2000, and Angela Robinson, whose short film Debs turned into a 2004 feature. The stories of women's post Sundance experience may be varied, but the road is not paved with agents, managers or offers -- typically it's difficulties, development hell and disappointments.
When we hear about the early Sundance successes, it's about Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape, not Nancy Savoca's True Love that won the Grand Jury Prize that year (1989). Why aren't Savoca or Nicole Holofcener or Rebecca Miller or Lisa Cholodenko or Kasi Lemmons as prominent as their male peers who have been through Sundance, like Joel Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, James Mangold, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Richard Linklater? The mythologizing of the male director goes way back, at least to the days of Orson Welles. Martha Lauzen believes we need to create mythologies around the few female directors who emerge from the pack. Jamie Babbit points to the group in which her second short was shown, which included Jason Reitman (Juno) and Adam Shankman (Hairspray.) "I was the only woman and when you look at the people in that grouping, I definitely have the worst career." And she's one of the success stories.
To explain the "second film syndrome" that seems to plague female directors, some say women pick less accessible films than male directors. Women directors themselves say they choose to tell more personal stories that are harder to market. Allison Anders, who had four films at Sundance, says, "guys tend to do more genre work [horror, sci-fi, action] and people know what to do with them." Lesli Klainberg, in making her recent documentary, In the Company of Women, learned that women directors were more picky and not necessarily looking for a Hollywood career. After Sundance, she says, "they don't just take the first or second jobs that were offered." Writer-director Alison Maclean came to Sundance with Crush in 1993 after having a short there previously. She struggled to get her next project off the ground and couldn't, so accepted an offer to direct Jesus' Son. Babbit took her second directing assignment on The Quiet precisely to make sure she didn't fall into the second film syndrome. Adds Klainberg, "The big difference is are you willing to do a second movie that isn't the dream movie. Men are willing to do it more than women."
Whatever stories a director wants to tell, the 10 days of Sundance is the time to toot her own horn and take advantage of being the center of attention. It disappears all too quickly. Jamie Babbit and Angela Robinson learned from their experiences of having shorts at the festival and very smart in exploiting the business opportunities that came their way. They are up front with their ambition and comfortable working in TV as well as film. Both are young, gay and able to look at directing from a business perspective. The raw ambition they exude has at times shocked other women -- Robinson caused a furor on a panel several years ago at when she talked about wanting to model her career after that of George Lucas. "I want action figures," she said. "I want a studio." Babbit got an agent from Sundance, as did Robinson, and made sure that she had a script ready for potential investors. Robinson immediately got a studio gig directing Lindsay Lohan in the Disney's remake of Herbie Fully Loaded. She's been an executive producer on The L Word and did a web feature, Girltrash!, that just got sold as a graphic novel. She's entrepreneurial and thinks about creating brands and intellectual property, goals not commonly expressed by women directors.
As Allison Anders says, "Sundance is the only hand that feeds for women directors." She implores women to be more prepared and not get caught in the "grateful to be there" mode not quite knowing how to move forward. She says: "Acknowledge that you could encounter every single person who could possibly finance your next feature and have a goddam screenplay ready."
The bottom line is that until there is a critical mass, it's going to be a struggle for all women directors. The next step is to figure out how the films from festivals like Sundance get seen by more than just industry folks with enough money to spend a week in the Utah mountains.
This post first appeared on The Women's Media Center