Gender Bias Goes Indie: Only 25 Percent of Films at Major Festivals Had Female Director, Study Finds

Women represented 29 percent of all directors on independent films — a slight increase from last year’s 28 percent

Tallulah Ellen Page

So much for independent film providing a pathway to diversity and gender balance in Hollywood: A new study finds that only 25 percent of narrative movies in major film festivals in 2016-17 had a female director.

According to the 2016-2017 Women in Independent Film report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, the 23 festivals considered screened an average of six narrative films directed by at least one woman compared with an average of 18 features directed by men.

At the same time, U.S. festivals screened almost twice as many documentaries directed by men as by women in the same time frame — seven directed by women compared to 13 directed by men — even though indie features are often considered to be a starting point for newcomers to the industry providing an opportunity for those with less credits or experience.

The study has also found that independent films screened at high-profile film festivals like AFI Fest, Los Angeles Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Palms Springs International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Telluride Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, 72 percent of those working in key behind-the-scenes roles were men, while only 28 percent were females.

This represents a historical high with an increase of 3 percent in 2015-2016. Women represented 29 percent of all directors on independent films — a slight increase from last year’s 28 percent.

The study also found that women are more likely to direct documentaries than narrative features. Of all films considered, women fared best as producers (32 percent), followed by directors (29 percent), executive producers (29 percent), writers (26 percent), editors (22 percent) and cinematographers (11 percent).

“The marketplace capital these high-profile festivals bestow on filmmakers and their films cannot be overstated,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, said in response to the findings. “They are an effective and proven apparatus for generating attention. Inclusion in these festivals provides the vital first step in the public life cycle of films with limited marketing resources, and can boost reputation of their directors.”

On a positive note, films with at least one woman director had higher percentages of women writers, editors and cinematographers than films with exclusively male directors. On films with at least one woman director, women comprised 74 percent of writers compared to seven percent of women serving as writers on films with exclusively male directors.

The study tracked the sex of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on every U.S. feature-length film screened at the festivals considered. 10,953 credits were considered on 1,472 films.