There Are More Women Directors Than Ever At Sundance — So Where Are Their Oscar Nominations?

Photo: Courtesy of Bleeker Street.
On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 2019 Oscars. And lo and behold, there was not one woman named in the Best Director category. This incredibly depressing turn of events isn’t exactly surprising. Only five women have ever been nominated in the 90 years the ceremony has been held, and only one (Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker) has ever won. Still, the news that the Academy was making its biggest push for gender and racial diversity by admitting 928 new members seemed like a reason to hope that this year might be different. And in some ways, it was: Black-led films and filmmakers were represented in an unprecedented way, proving Hollywood can change when it wants to.
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And it's not like there aren't contenders to choose from. New demographic data released by the Sundance Institute and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative shows that the roster of directors submitting their projects at the prestigious Sundance Festival is increasingly diverse.
The report states that 28% of feature-length films submitted to the festival across 2017 and 2018 had at least one female director, compared to 34.1% of the shorts. What’s heartening is that of those accepted to compete, 35% of feature films had a woman director, while 51.4% of short films did. In addition, 45.5% of U.S. short films and 24.3% of US dramatic features accepted to the Sundance Film Festival in 2017-2018 had a director of colour, although women of colour remain woefully underrepresented.
This demonstrates a conscious effort on the part of festival organisers to ensure diversity and strive for gender parity. That desire for representation extends to the Sundance Institute’s labs and artist support programs as well, which indicates we’ll see even more robust numbers in the future.
Even now, we’re already seeing progress. In 2019, there was a 50% increase in the number of films submitted by women to the dramatic feature category, and directors of colour helmed 55% of accepted short films and 38% of accepted dramatic features.
“This study shows us where the pipeline for women and people of colour is robust and where more support is needed,” said Dr. Stacey L. Smith, who presented the findings during a panel moderated by Franklin Leonard at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday alongside producer Nina Jacobson, actress and screenwriter Lena Waithe, and Sundance Institute’s Director of Outreach and Inclusion Karim Ahmad.“The gains we saw for women over the past decade reveal that change is possible.”
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So, what happens between the festivals and the Oscars? Why doesn’t the critical acclaim directed at women like Tamara Jenkins, Chloe Zhao, Lynne Ramsay, and Debra Granik translate into awards?
A previous study by the Inclusion Initiative may hold the answer. In 2018, only 22.3% of the top grossing films were directed by people of colour, and 4% were directed by women. That proves that representation wanes as filmmakers get further in their career trajectories. At the time when most (male) directors are gaining in reputation and clout, women directors and directors of colour are struggling to find work.
Only nine women have ever won the festival's grand jury prize in the narrative competition — but even that hasn't always come hand in hand with commercial success. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Joyce Chopra shared that after she won for Smooth Talk in 1986, she was initially overwhelmed with offers. "I got phone calls I couldn't believe at my home," she says. "Steven Spielberg's office wanted to meet and Jim Brooks wanted to meet. I was absolutely swarmed."
But things took a turn when she was tapped to direct Bright Lights, Big City, starring Michael J. Fox. "I got fired after a month," she says. "After that I couldn't get a phone call returned." Like many woman directors, she turned to TV, where there were more opportunities.
This latest study shows that the problem isn’t — as so many in Hollywood have claimed over the years — that there aren’t diverse directors to choose from. It’s simply that they are not getting the support they need as they advance in their work. There’s a more than 50% decrease in the number of women who participate in the Sundance Directors Lab compared to the number of top-grossing films directed by women. That’s a major disconnect.
“Good stories depend on diverse perspectives,” Waithe said in a press release. “Those perspectives will only be supported with intentional outreach and support for intersectional voices across the spectrum. The audience is there to support good stories but we have to work harder to see those stories brought to light.”
Hear that, Academy? We’re waiting.
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