Women at Sundance

About Women At Sundance

At a time when women make up 50.8% of the U.S. population, just 4.2% of the 100 top-grossing American films are made by female directors; and that statistic hasn’t changed over the last decade. Sundance Institute has provided unprecedented opportunities for thousands of unique voices to flourish for 35 years. Each year between 2002 and 2013, 25% of American directors at the Sundance Film Festival have been female. While markedly ahead of the mainstream industry, our commitment to achieving diversity among our filmmakers is still a work in progress.

In our digital age, society is increasingly shaped by stories told with moving images. Diversity in media is critically important to the health of our culture because it is through media that we understand ourselves and each other. The stories that frame our lives must be inclusive of the full range of storytelling voices. As a proven artist pipeline, the American independent film sector is one place where opportunities exist to create change. Sundance Institute, whose mission is to discover, develop, and champion independent storytellers, is thus in a strategic position to make significant impact.

Our ground breaking research over the last three years revealed key barriers and opportunities for women filmmakers. These form the core of Women at Sundance programs:

  • Direct Artist Support - Fellowships, Career Sustainability, Resource Map
  • Education, Networking, and Community - Sundance Film Festival, Public Programs
  • Financing and Negotiation - Catalyst Women, Financing and Strategy Intensive
  • Field-wide Leadership & Systemic Change - Groundbreaking Research, ReFrame, Allied Organizations

Direct Artist Support

Fellowship Program

Women at Sundance offers a robust year-long fellowship that includes mentorship, professional coaching made possible by The Harnisch Foundation in partnership with Renee Freedman & Co, travel grants to the Sundance Film Festival to participate in curated activities, entree into branded and episodic content, and bespoke year-round support. Women at Sundance Fellows are a diverse group of six emerging and mid-career narrative and documentary directors and producers, and have included women from Ava Duvernay, Marielle Heller, Jennifer Phang and Gabrielle Nadig to Lyric Cabral, Cristina Ibarra and Jessica Devaney.

Fellows are selected from a pool of recent alumnae from Sundance Institute’s acclaimed programs, including the Feature Film Program, Documentary Film Program, Native American and Indigenous Film Program, and Sundance Film Festival. The Women at Sundance Fellowship is by invitation only.

Meet the 2017 Women at Sundance Fellows
Meet the 2016 Women at Sundance Fellows
Meet the 2015 Women at Sundance Fellows

Career Sustainability

Women at Sundance consistently seeks out and collaborates with corporate partners to generate career opportunities for Sundance filmmakers. In 2013 we teamed up with Dove to commission a short film from an independent female filmmaker for their “redefining beauty” campaign. The resulting piece, “Selfie,” made by Academy-Award winning documentary director Cynthia Wade, was presented at the Women at Sundance Brunch during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and has attracted more than 5.6 million views on YouTube.

In 2016, Women at Sundance partnered with Refinery29 to recommend emerging and mid-career female filmmakers for their inaugural ShatterBox Anthology, a 12-part commissioned series of female-helmed short films. We’re proud to say that 10 out of the 12 Shatterbox shorts were made by Sundance alumnae directors and producers, and the other two by actors Gaby Sidibe and Chloe Sevigny who both launched their careers at Sundance.

Resource Map

In an effort to provide U.S.-based female filmmakers a comprehensive view of available support, we created a Resource Map surveying more than 200 programs from over 60 organizations that serve female filmmakers. The result is a user-friendly searchable database of programs, events, workshops and services -- an information storehouse where female media artists can tap into resources and opportunities.


Education, Networking, and Community

Women At The Sundance Film Festival

At the annual Women at Sundance Brunch, a community of 400 artists, industry, opinion makers, activists and supporters gather to celebrate Festival films made by women and to take stock of both accomplishments and the work yet to be done. In 2015 the Brunch featured an electric dialogue between Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, moderated by Pat Mitchell. In 2016, we hosted a lively centerpiece conversation about working in Hollywood between Donna Langley, Chair of Universal Pictures, and Elizabeth Banks, with closing remarks by producer Effie Brown. Most recently, in 2017, Kerry Washington and producer Kimberly Steward took the stage!

We also program panels in the offscreen section of the Sundance Film Festival. An incredible moment during the 2015 Festival featured storytellers Lena Dunham (Girls), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project, The Office), Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black, Weeds), and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live), in the sold-out “Power of Story” panel moderated by the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum. Sundance Institute’s short piece, “She is a Best Director,” showcases these highlights.

Financing and Negotiation

Catalyst Women

Together, Sundance Institute and The Harnisch Foundation are launching Catalyst Women, a groundbreaking new program offering creative investors the opportunity to directly support women-led projects seeking financing. We are joining forces to combat one of the major obstacles to gender parity in independent film: a lack of access to capital among women filmmakers.

The inaugural Catalyst Women will take place May 4–5 in New York City. The goal? To connect film financiers dedicated to women artists with highly anticipated Sundance Institute–supported feature and documentary projects. The day-and-a-half program will include project presentations, meetings with filmmaking teams, and seminars to educate attendees about independent film.

We hope you’ll join us for this one-of-a-kind program to help build gender parity in filmmaking and bring these vital women’s voices to audiences everywhere.

To participate in this event as a creative investor or to learn more about the Catalyst and Women at Sundance communities, contact Becca Keating, assistant director of individual giving, at becca_keating@sundance.org or 310-360-1981. Filmmaker submissions are now closed.

Financing and Strategy Intensive

Every spring, Women at Sundance and Women In Film Los Angeles present a Financing and Strategy Intensive designed to educate a large group of female filmmakers in all aspects of seeking, securing, and managing funding for their films. Women at Sundance fellows as well as a curated group of artists from Sundance Institute, Women In Film, and Allied Organizations are invited to attend. The goal is to draw on resources both within and beyond the film industry to equip filmmakers with the expertise and confidence to seek out, negotiate, structure, and close financial deals. Financing and Strategy Intensives are presented in Los Angeles and New York (alternating by year).

Last year’s Intensive, held April 25th at Morgan Stanley’s Headquarters in New York, was more interactive than ever. We invited the producer-director teams behind 40 carefully selected projects – each directed by a woman – to participate. Our goal was to help them formulate stronger pitch presentations and actionable, strategic steps to advance their front-burner projects.

Field-Wide Leadership and Systemic Change


Together with Women In Film LA, we commissioned groundbreaking research in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with Dr. Stacy Smith and her team at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Before this project, an analysis of gender composition among content creators from the independent film sector had never been undertaken. The study looks at 11 years of the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Labs, analyzing more than 30,000 points of data and dozens of deep-dive qualitative interviews.

We believe that by learning more about how women are faring in the independent film world, and by opening our own data at Sundance Institute for this study, we gain powerful insights into ways to positively affect progress. Our research has led to a groundswell of media coverage about gender equality in entertainment and was cited in the ACLU and EEOC investigations on gender discrimination in Hollywood.

Just below are thumbnail sketches of the research; but this is only the beginning of what we’ve learned. Click here to read the studies in full.

  • Research Phase 1

    From 2002-2013 17.1% of directors of U.S. Narrative films at the Sundance Film Festival were female and 29.4% (2002-2012) of U.S. Narrative producers were women. Working in a male dominated industry, women must navigate gendered financial barriers and exclusionary hiring practices as they pursue movie making. These obstacles result in only 4.2% of all directors being female across the 100 top films from 2002 to 2013.
  • Research Phase 2

    Female-directed films brought to the Sundance Lab were just as likely to finish as male-directed films. Further, 81.3% of all finished films went on to play at one of the top 10 festivals worldwide with no differences by gender. With the support that comes through the Sundance Labs and the ensuing continuum of Sundance support, female directors were just as likely as their male counterparts to succeed. In other words, support matters. When asked about the qualities of a successful narrative director, industry experts named twice as many traditionally masculine characteristics as feminine. This tendency to “think director, think male” is a form of occupational stereotyping that may bias who is considered for open directing assignments.
  • Research Phase 3

    From 2002 to 2014, 25.5% of U.S. Dramatic Competition directors at the Sundance Film Festival were women. Though the data tells us that women are interested in genres favored by Hollywood, female filmmakers encounter significant obstacles as they attempt to move from independent to more commercial filmmaking, and face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies, and ambitions. Just 4.1% of the 100 top-grossing films (2002-2014) are made by female directors. A view of a gendered marketplace limits the perception of women’s career potential. Industry leaders may hold an implicit association between females and less commercial stories. Following this, buyers and sellers may perceive that women lack the ambition or competence to direct the larger, commercial properties that open doors or create later opportunities, setting up an impenetrable obstacle for many female directors.

After three years of groundbreaking research, the question can progress from “Why are female directors missing behind the camera in top films?’ to “What can be done to create change?” The growing sense of urgency around this question required an industry-wide response. To meet this challenge, in October 2015, we gathered 50 male and female decision-makers from studios, networks, agencies, production and distribution companies, as well as creative, philanthropic, guild and academic stakeholders, to help design a strategy that would last. These decision-makers signed on as Ambassadors, and together we launched ReFrame, a multi-partner effort to cultivate gender parity at every level of the film, TV, and media industry.

ReFrame's unique strategy is its peer-to-peer approach. All members of the 50-person ReFrame launch team will act as ReFrame Ambassadors and personally lead catalyzing meetings with their peers, other Hollywood top executives at studios, networks, agencies and independent financing entities. To transform the face of media, ReFrame Ambassadors will introduce programs and collaborative practices designed by the group to address the key levers in the media ecosystem. Initial programs include (1) a customized Culture Change Toolkit to provide resources, best practices and training to create cultures that yield more balanced hiring, (2) a field-wide Sponsor/Protégé Program identifying and providing high-level endorsement for top women directors poised to advance their careers, and (3) accreditation for gender inclusiveness in the form of a ReFrame Stamp certification. Learn more about ReFrame and hear from our Ambassadors in The Hollywood Reporter.


Allied Organizations

Women at Sundance partners closely with Women In Film LA as well as other key organizations dedicated to gender equity in media. These organizations convene intermittently to discuss progress, inspire new ideas and plan future collaborations.

  • AFI Conservatory
  • Alliance for Women Film Composers
  • Alliance of Women Directors
  • Athena Film Festival
  • Chapman University
  • Chicken & Egg Pictures
  • Creative Capital
  • Film Fatales
  • Film Independent
  • Fledgling Fund
  • Ford Foundation
  • FUSION Film Festival at NYU
  • Gamechanger Films
  • Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
  • IFP
  • Impact Partners
  • International Documentary Association
  • iWe
  • Loreen Arbus Foundation
  • Loyola Marymount University
  • New York Women in Film & Television
  • Norlien Foundation
  • Paley Center for Media
  • Producers Guild of America
  • Reel Image Inc.
  • San Francisco Film Society
  • Stony Brook Southampton Graduate Arts
  • Tangerine Films
  • The Harnisch Foundation
  • Time Warner Foundation
  • Tribeca Film Institute
  • UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
  • USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
  • USC School of Cinematic Arts
  • Women & Hollywood
  • Women in Film & Video, Washington DC
  • Women Make Movies
  • Women Moving Millions
  • Women's Media Center
  • Writers Guild of America


Women at Sundance is made possible by leadership support from The Harnisch Foundation and Refinery29.

Additional support is provided by LUNA® Bar, BMW, Kering, Barbara Bridges, Cristina Ljungberg, The Jacquelyn & Gregory Zehner Foundation, Susan Bay Nimoy, Abigail Disney and Pierre Hauser, Ann Lovell, Visionary Women, Gruber Family Foundation, Ruth Mutch, Women In Film Los Angeles, Vimeo, Sam Slater and Paul Bernon (Burn Later Productions), Mark and Melanie Greenberg, Lorna Auerbach (Chasca Films, LLC), Tom Warne, and Claire Best.

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