Study: Women Underrepresented in Indie Films, Documentaries (Yes, Still)

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Tiffany Shlain attends Aol On Original Series presents "The Future Starts Here" in 2013.  (Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images for Aol)

Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, movies have largely lacked a woman's perspective. Auteurs like Dorothy Arzner were rare in the studio system, and 60 years later, things haven't changed much.

According to a 2015 San Diego State University study, just 20 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on films released in 2014 were women. A woman didn't win the Oscar for Best Director until 2010 -- and none have won it since.

The lack of women at major studios has become such a problem that earlier this year, the federal government threatened to sue the major studios unless they hired more women.

But it's not just limited to the Hollywood system: a study released last week by San Diego State University determined that women are also underrepresented in the independent film industry. The university's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film looked at 1,472 indie films released in the U.S. last year, and found that women made up just 25 percent of the directors of features, and 33 percent of the directors of documentaries.

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Selma'
Director Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Selma'

The study also examined 23 major film festivals in the U.S. and found that they favored films made by men. On average, festivals screened three times as many male-directed features, and twice as many male-helmed documentaries.


"Inclusion in these festivals provides the vital first step in the public life cycle of films with limited marketing resources, and can boost the reputation of their directors," says Martha Lauzen, researcher and executive director of the center, and the author of the new study about the lack of opportunities for women on the festival circuit.

One of the festivals included in the study was the San Francisco Film Festival. Representatives from the festival did not answer KQED's requests for comment.

But there are some bright spots in the study. Lauzen found that the number of women working on films crews is increasing. On projects with women directing last year, women made up 74 percent of the writers, as opposed to only 7 percent on projects directed by men.

Chief Content Officer, Refinery29, Inc. Amy Emmerich, Tiffany Shlain attend the Women At Sundance Brunch - 2017.
Chief Content Officer, Refinery29, Inc. Amy Emmerich, Tiffany Shlain attend the Women At Sundance Brunch - 2017.
( Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)

Tiffany Shlain, a local documentarian who founded the Webby Awards, says the disparity between the number of men and women being hired to work on films is blatant. But she doesn't understand why male crews don't want more diversity. When making a film, Shlain says she wants to access as many perspectives as possible as it only benefits the picture.

"On a whole, there are so many studies that show that when you have a more diverse perspective working on any project, whether it’s corporate board, whether it’s on a creative project, you are going to come to better ideas, more innovation and better reflect our society," Shlain says.

But Shlain says she's seeing improvement in terms of diversity on film crews. She says expects the trend will continue, thanks to those pushing for change like the Geena Davis Institute and GAMECHANGER Films. (Shlain herself works to create a more gender-balanced world through her project, 50/50 Day.)

"The way change happens is through awareness, consciousness, talking about it, accountability, doing tactical actions," Shlain says. "So many people are trying to tackle this issue, and I believe it’s going to change."

Shlain says she doesn't let the inequalities get in her way as a flimmaker. Her attitude is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow, the first, and to date, only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director.

"If there's specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons," Bigelow once said. "I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies."