Films Made by Women Are on the Rise at U.S. Film Festivals

A new study has found that women directors are getting more screentime at festivals than ever before.

Though the gap still exists between major studio films by male and female directors, the space in between continues to shrink, and in some areas, has disappeared entirely in regards to independent films at festivals.

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In the wider sphere of big studio films, this may not be the case, with one finding setting the number of male and women directors of the top films over the last 15 years at a whopping 11 to 1 ratio. But this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, women directors outnumbered their male counterparts — a trend evident in Martha M. Lauzen’s new study of female inclusion at top film festivals across the United States.

Lauzen has been surveying these trends since 2008 under the “Indie Women” project, which tracks the annual employment of women behind the camera with films at 20 U.S. film festivals including the Atlanta Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Slamdance, Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW Film Festivals.

“For years, industry observers have anticipated that the larger numbers of women working on independent features would eventually result in significantly higher numbers of women working on top grossing features. While the percentages of women working in some roles on larger budget films have increased slightly, we are still waiting for that surge to occur,” Lauzen said in a statement.

Her 2022-2023 study found that, at the festivals studied, the ratio of narrative features made by (at least one) female directors and male directors was seven to 10, an increase from the 2020-2021 study which found a six to 10 ratio. These numbers include films like Celine Song’s “Past Lives” and “You Hurt My Feelings” which premiered at Sundance 2023, Charlotte Well’s “Aftersun” at NYFF 2022 and Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms” and Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride” from SXSW 2023.

As for documentaries at those festivals, the study found that the total number of feature docs by women and men were equal, and that women accounted for 44% of key crew roles on documentaries compared to 35% on narrative films. Docs represented in this study include Lana Wilson’s “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s “Judy Blume Forever” out of Sundance 2023 along with Laura Poitra’s “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” out of NYFF 2022.

Lauzen’s surveys over the last 15 years also show a steady increase of women taking on lead roles in independent films as directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors or cinematographers. From 2008 to now, the percentage of women directors screened at these top festivals nearly doubled, and the same goes for writers, cinematographers and EPs.

After analyzing all of this data, Lauzen also found one very important correlation: “Films with at least one woman director had substantially higher percentages of women working as writers, editors, and cinematographers than films with exclusively male directors.” For example, on films with at least one woman director, women made up 71% of the writers, whereas on films with strictly male directors, women made up only 14% of the writers. With editors, the rates were 48% compared to 22%, and with cinematographers, 30% to 12%.

Lauzen’s comprehensive look at women in film is meant to capture the landscape of independent film making, which she says is “broadly defined as films made outside of the studio system. However, the study does include films produced by independent companies owned by the major studios.”

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