Film Festivals Failed to Highlight More Movies From Female Directors in 2021-22, Study Finds

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The independent film world remains male-dominated, but female filmmakers made modest improvements behind-the-scenes, at least on the movies that got screened and streamed at festivals in recent months.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, which found that between 2021 to 2022, women comprised 39% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on independent films at high-profile film festivals in the U.S. That was an infinitesimal 1% increase from the previous year. Many of these film festivals played host to prominent movies from female auteurs such as Sian Heder’s “CODA,” which debuted at Sundance before capturing the Oscar for best picture, Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” another Sundance entry that sold to Netflix, and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which screened at the New York Film Festival before winning an Academy Award for best director. But despite their success, the number of female directors at these gatherings only increased by a percentage point to 40%.

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In terms of other roles, women comprised 35% of writers, down a percentage point from 2020 to 2021; 42% of executive producers, a 4% increase; 44% of producers, roughly even with the previous year; 33% of editor jobs, down 4%; and 21% of cinematographer credits, down 2%.

It’s been a time of great upheaval for the nation’s largest festivals, which were largely forced to go virtual or offer more digital screenings as a concession to COVID. The changes in strategy didn’t level the playing field. Many prominent festivals have touted the strides they’ve made in featuring more films from female directors and underrepresented filmmakers. However, they still highlight more movies from their male counterparts. Festivals screened and streamed an average of six narrative films directed by at least one woman compared to an average of 10 films directed by men, the study found.

There were bright spots. Women are much better represented in behind-the-scenes roles on documentaries than narrative features, where they account for 43% of those working on documentaries compared to 34% of those working on narratives. Moreover, the festivals streamed and screened almost equal numbers of documentaries directed by women (an average of 10) as by men (an average of 11).

The independent world was also more supportive of female filmmakers than the major studio realm. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film also tracks representation on the highest-grossing movies and found that women comprised 21% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 100 films in 2021. That’s an 18% gap from their representation in behind-the-scenes roles on films that play the festival circuit.

To tabulate its results, the report examined 9,960 credits on 730 films. In addition to Sundance and the New York Film Festival, it also looked at the lineups of 20 prominent festivals including AFI Fest, Slamdance Film Festival, SXSW Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival.

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