Everyone with a hint of cultural awareness understands that the Sundance Film Festival has been an industry leader for talent introduction and incubation for decades. Across the narrative, documentary and shorts categories, emerging writers, producers and directors get catapulted toward their dreams in one of the most competitive and collaborative art/entertainment forms. Sundance also responds to society: the selection committee listens, programmers understand, and the whole cinematic extravaganza follows suit. If last year was about amplifying the voices of #MeToo and Time’s Up, this year was about advancing gender parity and normalizing the discussions around all of the aforementioned. They shouldn’t be exceptions. They should be expected.
This year saw so many examples of this in action—from the festival’s roster itself to support programming. Beginning with the films, a demographic report made in partnership between the Sundance Institute and Professor Stacy L Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative analyzed the roughly 26,000 films submitted for 2017 and 2018. 28% of feature-length and episodic projects submitted during those years had at least one woman director, as did 34.1% of shorts. Regarding acceptances for those years, 35% had a woman director, while 51.4% of short films did. This year (according to a different independent study) 41% of the accepted features and episodic works had a woman director, while 52% of shorts did. “The gains we saw for women over the past decade reveal that change is possible and where more support is needed,” Dr Smith explains.
Meanwhile, Hotel Park City hosted their third annual Power Women’s Cocktail. And official festival partner, Stella Artois led the charge along Main Street in their Stella Film Lounge. Not only did they host panels about women that actually featured women, they also celebrated success stories and put their money where their mouth is—by issuing four $25,000 grants for Women in Film‘s Film Finishing Fund. In addition to hosting their own cocktail and panel for women in film, they also invited the team behind the ReFrame gender parity stamp to explain what it is and how movies can get one.
Women in Film are an official partner of the Sundance Institute, and Stella Artois’ selections for the Film Finishing Fund get screen time (for their trailers) at the festival. The Stella Artois selection committee awards work that addresses social action, and offers a real call to change. One of the 2017 film finishing fund winners, United Skates, directed and produced by Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler, went on to premiere at TriBeCa, where it won the documentary audience award. John Legend’s production company, Get Lifted, soon after signed on and it will screen on HBO starting 18 February.
The 2018 honorees include Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vazquez’s Decade of Fire, about the ’70s South Bronx fires; End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, directed by Shannon Kring who continues to film well after most others have moved on; Pavitra Chalam and Akshay Shankar’s Rooting for Roona, which addresses health care in India; and Santuario, by Christine Delp and Pilar Timpane, a document of the time thus far tjat Juana Luz Tobar Ortega has been an asylum seeker in a North Carolina church.
Kirsten Schaffer, the Executive Director of Women In Film, Los Angeles is presented with a challenge each year. In addition to the four Stella Artois grants, the organization funds finishing grants on at least four other projects. “We are selecting the films that are dealing with the issues that really matter,” she explains to us, “but they’re also well-made films. Sometimes, finding that perfect combination is the challenge, and the opportunity.” She adds that their initial finishing contribution is often the start of a snowball effect. They come in, near the finish line, and give a filmmaker a recharge and support.
Women in Film’s Melissa Verdugo adds that the money isn’t the end of their work together. “We stay in tune with the filmmakers throughout the years following the grants and offer what we can,” she says, “Whether it’s just trying to show the film to people who can make decisions, separate than the festivals, or making sure we are supporting distribution.”
As for ReFrame, their mission is to change the culture—and they do so by honoring those who get it right. The non-profit makes use of ambassadors to spread its message of inclusivity, but it also gives films that meet gender balance quotas a stamp for use in their credits. Films like The Favourite, The Wife and Crazy Rich Asians received the stamp last year. Cathy Schulman, one of ReFrame’s founders shares, “It’s the product of a lot of thinking over the last 15 years.”
She continues, “After years of looking at statistics, it wasn’t particularly helpful at the end of the year to know how many women did this or that. The real question was, ‘Where are they falling out of the system? What are these inflection points where they lose their trajectory.'” From film school to their third film, there were no women to measure. Many dropped out of the industry. ReFrame put together 50 leaders and had them advocate—or pull the plug on relationships with companies that weren’t committing to a mission for gender parity. In doing so, they began to prove what the marketplace really was—and wanted. The stamp came from this. Go-to film database IMDb is a partner and actually tracks who has the stamp.
This year, actor/filmmaker Mindy Kaling broke a Sundance record with the sale of her film Late Night (a ReFrame stamp recipient), which went to Amazon for $13 million. Sitting in the Stella Film Lounge with Late Night director Nisha Ganatra, Kaling explains her own experience of being in the writers’ room at The Office—the joy and positivity of it all, as well as being the first woman to room.
Ganatra adds their film is about “when you get in and when you’re successful to open the door behind you and usher in as many women and possible—so we all rise together.” That’s a message everyone should adhere to—in film, TV or otherwise.
Photos by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Stella Artois