PARK CITY, Utah — Why are women represented so much better at Sundance than in Hollywood at large?
In the broadest of strokes, Sundance movies are written and directed by women at a far greater rate (about a third) than at the studio level (about 3% of the top-grossing films). Festival programmers maintain that they don’t pick female filmmakers on purpose — it just always seems to work out that way.
For whatever reason, indies are more friendly toward diverse voices. It’s surely why Vimeo chose Park City to announce its pledge to support at least five film projects created by women, starting with SNL castmember Aidy Bryant’s short film.
There’s been no shortage of talk about the issue, but what to do about it has proven confounding and elusive. Is there anything the independent film world can teach Hollywood about gender equality?
Mashable spoke with several prominent female filmmakers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to find out what they thought can and should be done to effect substantive changes in the entertainment industry at large.
“Be the change you want to see,” says Alysia Reiner (above), the Orange is the New Black star who co-produced and stars in Equity, the story of the women of the Wall Street crash in the U.S. Dramatic competition section this year in Park City.
“Being on two shows that are so female-driven (she also plays D.A. Wendy Parks on How to Get Away with Murder), and having showrunners like Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes, you can’t help but be deeply inspired. We don’t see that in the film world, and it’s time.”
Sian Heder, a writer on Orange who’s at Sundance with her feature directorial debut Tallulah, feels torn. On one hand, she loves that this is the conversation now, and on the other, she just wants to know how it’s actually going to translate into hiring practices.
“I do think that someone needs to write about it in a different way,” Heder says, “and you’re getting there by asking us how to [put it into action].”
So we kept asking. And a handful of directors at this year’s Sundance gave us their thoughts what can be done about Hollywood’s gender disparity.
Does the volume of conversation about female directors this year make you feel any added pressure?
“I am nothing but grateful for it,” says Meera Menon (above), the director of Equity, who was hired by Reiner and producing partner Sarah Megan Thomas as part of the change they wanted to see. “I feel like every person I’m talking to within the industry seems to be specifically angling in on how to cultivate female talent behind the camera. It can only be a good thing and maybe the change will be a bit glacial in its pace, but at least it’s happening.”
Veteran actress Clea Duvall, who’s debuting her first written/directed feature The Intervention at Sundance, says she, too, sees people in Hollywood making an earnest effort.
“My experience making this movie was that the more women I had, the more excited people were about the project. But I realize mine is a singular experience and it’s not that way for a lot of people.”
“I’ve been pushing really hard to get this movie made for a number of years,” says Heder (above), “and when I directed it I had a 16-month-old and I was six months pregnant. So not only was I a woman director, but I was a woman director at the height of my womanhood. We locked picture and I went into labor that night. I was bringing a newborn into my color correct and my sound design and breast pumping in the room with my composer. I was bringing a newborn into my color correct and my sound design and breast pumping in the room with my composer. It was just the most absurd version of being a female filmmaker. But the pressure is just to make great movies, so that when people go to look for a female director they’re not just hiring them because they’re a woman, but because they’re great artists and make great movies.”
“The only pressure [is the pressure] I put on myself,” says So Yong Kim (below right, with the cast of Lovesong), who’s first film In Between Days won many festival awards including at Sundance and is now back in Park City with the female road-trip drama. “[I] wonder if I’ve done the best I can with a film or if I’ve pushed my limits in the filmmaking process. That’s where the pressure comes for me.”
What would be something that you’d suggest the money people do in order to correct the gender bias?
Kim: “It’s really important for the younger generation to see women directors who are achieving their vision. Mentorship is very important. I see that clearly now. I was mentored through the Sundance Institute and I continue to have a relationship with them, and I think fostering that for college or high school-aged filmmakers is important, even continuing mentorship and internships throughout their careers.”
Menon: “There has to be two things: Outside the studio system, we need more companies like Gamechanger (a film fund that provides equity financing to narrative feature films directed by women). We need that concentrated arena of money being put into the problem. And then within the studio system, there needs to be more of an embrace of a perceived risk the gatekeepers have when they think about young talent. I don’t think that kind of fear of risk exists around young male talent, but I think there is a kind of crippling effect when it comes to taking a risk on a younger, more green female director.”
Duvall: “People want to watch movies about women. Whenever there’s a female-driven movie that comes out and does well, the same story is written about how people are interested in female stories and there should be more stories about women. Then it’s like Groundhog Day — not a lot changes, another female-driven movie comes out, and everyone says, ‘Look! Everyone cares about women!’ Let’s not treat that like new information, but something we already know.”
Heder: “Cast a wider net in terms of where you’re looking [for talent]. I’m a part of a group called Femme Fatales, which started as a salon for women directors to get together and share craft secrets. Now I think it’s turned in to a resource for studio execs to look for talent. There are a lot of female execs and producers, and I don’t know if they’re afraid to put themselves out there, but they need to start hiring more women.”
Would you like to direct a blockbuster, and if so, which franchise?
Duvall: “I would love to. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I was so blown away by it. I walked out and thought that I would love to direct a movie like that. Then I was like, wait a minute, that level of passion from the fans, I would be terrified to do that, but I would love to work my way up. Directing a Star Wars would be a dream come true; Empire Strikes Back was my first movie when I was two-and-a-half. I saw it in the theater 17 times. I would do Yoda impressions by myself in my room and would always listen to the theme song.”
Heder: “I would love to direct a blockbuster that has great characters. That would have to be at the heart of it. I don’t know that I see myself directing an action franchise, but I supposed Hunger Games could be fun.”
Kim: “That would be a blast. I’d like to do Harry Potter — which is already finished of course — but I would love to do something of that scale because I have two daughters and I’d like to direct something they could watch. Maybe The Avengers too, they love that movie.”
Menon: “My role models are guys like Ron Howard, who has done every type of genre. The answer is yes, absolutely I want to direct a blockbuster. Something like Wonder Woman. Anything that represents the kind of complicated, dimensional female character. I think we [women] need to be like Ryan Coogler and how he said what he wanted to do next — we have to give them the answer, tell them where to put us and how to situate us.”