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Shoring up the Pipeline for Female Filmmakers at Sundance

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If you only pay attention to the press coverage and/or tweets from Sundance this year, you might think it is all about celebrity sightings, but in fact, there is some powerful paradigm shifting going on as well. I was honored to be cohost of a gathering about women in film, along with Jacki Zehner, a dear friend and superwoman in every sense, along with two great organizations—Women In Film Los Angeles and the Sundance Institute. Our collective goal was to look at the current state of women in film and launch an initiative to shore up the pipeline that channels women's ideas, sensibilities, and good work onto the big screen.

It wasn't the first time, of course, that we'd explored these ideas. This "conversation" actually started last year with an informal gathering where Jacki, Geena Davis, Gloria Steinem, and 50 or so women directors, writers, producers, and funders got together to discuss how women are represented in film—both in the stories and behind the scenes. Further, we discussed why there is a disappointing underrepresentation of women across all sectors of media, particularly in clout positions.

This year, more than 150 women got together to continue the conversation with some new data: 17% of the 3,879 feature-length films submitted to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival were directed by women, and that number is affected significantly by the documentary films, among which we find almost double the number of women directors submitting as for narrative films. Among films selected for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the numbers are a bit more (10% more) encouraging, with 27% of festival films directed by women.

There’s a bit of a brighter picture when we look at Sundance feature film and documentary film labs—where Sundance incubates filmmakers and their projects. Over the last two years, an average of 47% of feature film lab fellows and 45% of documentary film lab fellows were female.

As Keri Putnam, executive director, Sundance Institute, pointed out, the large jumps in these statistics reveal a pattern wherein women are originating high-quality projects, but are having a hard time getting them made. This, of course, isn't the only field where we see major pipeline issues for women—just look at law, medicine, and the sciences and engineering. But that doesn't mean we will throw up our hands in resignation. We're going to do something about it.

Cathy Schulman, president of Women In Film Los Angeles, explained that her organization would be collaborating with the Sundance Institute, first to thoroughly study the statistics on women filmmakers in the independent world, inviting other organizations to work with them to compile the best information, and second, to follow the 2012 Sundance “class” of female Festival, Fund and Lab filmmakers to analyze challenges they may face moving projects forward.

The goal is to formulate a vision for support within the scope of both institutions’ programs. The efforts will focus on supporting opportunities or paths toward sustained careers, inclusivity and parity, and the diversity in the content and backgrounds of women filmmakers. In addition, Women In Film has agreed to coprogram a symposium in Los Angeles with Sundance Institute spotlighting the challenges facing independent women filmmakers, and to open up their mentorship and career counseling programs to Sundance Institute supported filmmakers where they will receive guidance, mentoring, and business and creative support services.

It's thrilling to be present at these kinds of gatherings, when convicted women with access to resources and deep, wide networks, leverage their power to make sure that the next generation of Catherine Hardwickes and Jane Campions don't go unnoticed. I'll keep you posted on our progress.