Women at Sundance

About Women at Sundance

At a time when women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, just 4.2 percent 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 offered unprecedented support to women artists, including groundbreaking women like Euzhan Palcy, Barbara Kopple, Allison Anders, and many more at our earliest labs and Festival.

Our dedicated Women at Sundance program began as a partnership with Women In Film Los Angeles in 2012. Together, we commissioned groundbreaking research with Dr. Stacy Smith and her team at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to better understand the key barriers and opportunities for women filmmakers.

Guided by these findings over the years, Women at Sundance has strengthened the artist pipeline, supported women creators to cultivate career sustainability, catalyzed the growth of women-dominated networks, and established a firm awareness among decision-makers and gatekeepers in the industry about the deficit of women behind the camera in independent film and beyond.

Women at Sundance continues to discover, spotlight, and forge ways for women to succeed as storytellers who shape our cultural landscape.


Artist Support

  • Starting in 2012, Women at Sundance offered a robust and bespoke yearlong fellowship for six mid-career women directors and producers looking to forge paths toward career sustainability. Alumnae include a diverse group of talented women, including Janicza Bravo, Ava DuVernay, Rebecca Green, Marielle Heller, Gabrielle Nadig, Jennifer Phang, Lyric R. Cabral, Jessica Devaney, Ramona Diaz, Cristina Ibarra, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, and Lana Wilson.

    In 2018, we expanded the highly impactful model of the Women at Sundance Fellowship in order to build a larger inclusion-focused and intersectional Momentum Fellowship. This fellowship maintains six women fellows, but it also encompasses mid-career artists from other select underrepresented communities (artists identifying as nonbinary or transgender, artists of color, and artists with disabilities). Our goal is to support proven mid-career filmmakers to navigate the challenges and goals that each have identified for themselves to level up in their careers.

    The fellowship includes industry mentorship, professional coaching offered by Renee Freedman & Company supported by The Harnisch Foundation, an artist-sustainability grant, travel to the Sundance Film Festival to participate in curated activities, and bespoke year-round support. Participation in the Momentum Fellowship is by invitation only.

    Meet the 2018 Women at Sundance Fellows
    Meet the 2017 Women at Sundance Fellows
    Meet the 2016 Women at Sundance Fellows
    Meet the 2015 Women at Sundance Fellows

  • Women at Sundance consistently seeks out and collaborates with corporate partners to generate career opportunities for Sundance Institute alumnae 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 Institute alumnae directors and producers, and the other two by actors Gabby Sidibe and Chloë Sevigny, who both launched their careers at previous Sundance Film Festivals. We continue to recommend independent women artists each year for this exciting opportunity.

  • Our research revealed that the most frequent barrier cited by independent women filmmakers was lack of knowledge around and access to film financing. Every spring, Women at Sundance and Women In Film Los Angeles present a Financing and Strategy Intensive designed to help women filmmakers representing 15–20 fiction and nonfiction projects hone their confidence and presentation skills; craft stronger pitches; formulate actionable, strategic steps to meaningfully advance and fund their projects; and interface with potential financiers and partners. A curated group of artists from Sundance Institute programs and Women In Film’s membership are invited to attend. Financing and Strategy Intensives are presented in Los Angeles and New York (alternating by year). Our next annual intensive will take place April 2020 in Los Angeles

  • Together, Sundance Institute and The Harnisch Foundation launched Catalyst Women, a groundbreaking new program offering creative investors the opportunity to directly support women-led projects seeking financing. We have joined 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 took place May 4–5, 2017, 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, which took us from HBO headquarters in Bryant Park to Bloomberg Philanthropies on the upper east side, exposed creative investors to the world of independent storytelling through film presentations, case studies, panels, deep-dive roundtables, and artist spotlights.

Women at the Sundance Film Festival

  • At the annual Women at Sundance Celebration, a community of eight hundred artists, industry members, opinion makers, activists, and supporters gather to celebrate Festival films made by women and to take stock of both the accomplishments and the work yet to be done. Each year, the event features a lively program; past participants have included Tessa Thompson, Abigail Disney, Kerry Washington, Kimberly Steward, Stacy Smith, Donna Langley, Elizabeth Banks, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin. This year, the program featured short performances and talks by key female creators, talent, and subjects drawn from films premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Gurinder Chadha, Zora Howard, Tayarisha Poe, Dr. Ruth, Nanfu Wang, and Jessica Williams all took the stage to riff on the idea of "risk."

  • 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.

  • Last year, 241 projects from 49 countries premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Of those, we were excited to announce that 47 percent, or 113, of all films and projects were directed or created by one or more women. In celebration of these vital women’s voices, see here for a guide to all women-directed media that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. From the halls of a Satanic Temple, to a labyrinth of honeycombs, to the set of a tempestuous soap opera, these premieres presented characters, ideas, and worlds you’d never want to miss! And check back here in December for a guide to women-helmed film, TV, and more showing at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Field-Wide Leadership and Systemic Change

  • Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers

    Together with Women In Film Los Angeles, 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 examines 11 years of the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute 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 effect 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 to 2013, 17.1 percent of directors of U.S. narrative films at the Sundance Film Festival were female; from 2002 to 2012, 29.4 percent of producers of U.S. Narrative films were female. Working in a male-dominated industry, women must navigate gendered financial barriers and exclusionary hiring practices as they pursue filmmaking. These obstacles result in only 4.2 percent of all directors being female across the one hundred top films from 2002 to 2013.
    • Research Phase 2

      Female-directed films brought to Sundance Institute labs were just as likely to be finished as male-directed films. Further, 81.3 percent 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 Institute labs and the ensuing continuum of Institute 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 percent 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 they face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies, and ambitions. 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.

    Race and Gender Analysis of Sundance Submissions and Acceptances
    In 2019, we deepened and expanded our work with Dr. Stacy L. Smith at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative by conducting an in-depth analysis of inclusion metrics across all artist programs at the Institute and the Sundance Film Festival over the past three years (submissions and acceptances). The analysis revealed that 28 percent of feature-length and episodic projects submitted to the 2017 and 2018 Sundance Film Festivals had at least one woman director, as did 34.1 percent of shorts. Of feature films and episodic content accepted in 2017 and 2018, 35 percent had a woman director, as did 51.4 percent of short films! Examining submissions and acceptances reveals how interested women and people of color are in debuting their independent work at the Festival. See here for the full study.

  • Founded and led by Women In Film and Sundance Institute, ReFrame is a nonprofit organization that employs a unique strategy, a peer-to-peer approach, in which ReFrame Ambassadors engage with senior industry decision makers at over 50 partner companies to implement ReFrame programs. The initiative’s goals are to provide research, support, and a practical framework that can be used by partner companies to mitigate bias during the creative decision-making and hiring process, celebrate successes, and measure progress toward a more gender-representative industry on all levels. ReFrame consists of three core programs:


    • ReFrame Production Roadmap and Culture Change Toolkit

      ReFrame developed a production roadmap to mitigate bias and yield more balanced hiring of women from all backgrounds in film, TV, and media. The roadmap builds on existing diversity programs and provides tools, practices, and training tailored to entertainment executives and creative teams in order to address systemic barriers at each stage of the creative and financing pipeline. Check out the Production Roadmap.
    • ReFrame Stamp

      The ReFrame Stamp celebrates studios, networks, agencies, and creatives that have demonstrated measurable progress toward female-driven content. The Stamp is publicly awarded to projects based on defined criteria and serves as the gold standard for quality programming and the advancement of gender parity in film, TV, and media. Read more about our ReFrame Stamp criteria and our feature film and television awardees.
    • ReFrame Rise Directors Program

      In June 2019, we launched ReFrame Rise, an industry-wide, comprehensive, and multidimensional two-year sponsorship that identifies and provides high-level endorsement and support for eight top-notch female directors who are poised to lead studio features and television projects. Future programs will include sponsorship of women in a myriad of creative positions. Read more about our inaugural class of ReFrame Rise directors.
    • Learn more about ReFrame here.

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Resources

  • In 2015, Women at Sundance and Women In Film Los Angeles launched the Women’s Resource Map, a user-friendly online database compiling the programs, events, workshops, and services available to U.S.-based women filmmakers. Upon launch in 2015, the Women’s Resource Map attracted over 12,000 viewers to the site in one month, proving its necessity in the field.

    In 2019, we updated the map to include resources for artists from a broader array of underrepresented communities (currently including artists who identify as women, people of color, LGBTQ+, trans and nonbinary, and artists with disabilities). Whether you’re looking for funding, mentorship, a lab to support your current project, or a chance to connect with like-minded artists, make the most of the Inclusion Resource Map as your go-to guide!

    Check out the Inclusion Resource Map!

    The inclusion resource map is a living document and only scratches the surface of the multitude of resources currently serving artists from underrepresented communities. In the spirit of partnership, we welcome and encourage suggestions for additional resources to feature on the map. Please reach out to inclusion@sundance.org to recommend a resource.

  • With Four Decades, we spotlight remarkable women directors who premiered their work at the Sundance Film Festival over its 34-year history. Looking back to celebrate these groundbreaking storytellers reframes and expands the dominant narrative typically recounted about American independent film. Every season we will highlight two films per decade—each of which premiered in either U.S. Documentary or Dramatic Competition. Read about these inspiring women filmmakers here.

Support

Women at Sundance is made possible by leadership support from CBS Corporation, The Harnisch Foundation, and Refinery29. Additional support is provided by Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Kimberly Steward, Paul and Katy Drake Bettner, Barbara Bridges, Abigail Disney and Pierre Hauser —Like a River Fund, Rhianon Jones, Suzanne Lerner, Cristina Ljungberg, Susan Bay Nimoy, Brenda Robinson, Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, Jenifer and Jeffrey Westphal, Ann Lovell, Mercer, MAJORITY, The Female Quotient, Visionary Women, Gruber Family Foundation, Pat Mitchell and Scott Seydel, The Jacquelyn & Gregory Zehner Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Support