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

  • 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 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 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.

  • In 2015, Women at Sundance and Women In Film LA 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. 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, LGBQ+, trans and nonbinary, and artists with disabilities). Upon launch in 2015, the Resource Map attracted over 12,000 viewers to the site in one month, proving its necessity in the field. 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.

Education, Networking, and Community

  • At the annual Women at Sundance Celebration, a community of 600 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. 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 Festival. Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio Cortez ( via Skype), 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.

  • 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 Narrative Competition. Read about these inspiring women filmmakers here.

Financing and Negotiation

  • 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 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.

  • 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).

    In 2017, we held our fifth annual Intensive at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. Over two days, 24 women-driven projects participated in a three-part process: a pitching workshop, a financing strategy clinic, and one-on-one meetings with potential financiers and partners. Our goal was to help women filmmakers actively seeking financing formulate stronger pitch presentations and actionable, strategic steps to advance their 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, Women In Film and Sundance Institute have come together with over 50 Hollywood leaders and influencers, including studio heads, agency partners, senior network executives, and talent and guild representatives, to further gender parity at every level in film, TV, and media. This effort is called ReFrame.

    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.


  • 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.
    • SFFILM
    • 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 CBS Corporation, The Harnisch Foundation, and Refinery29. Additional support is provided by Kimberly Steward, Paul and Katy Drake Bettner, Barbara Bridges, Abigail Disney and Pierre Hauser—Like a River Fund, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Cristina Ljungberg, Susan Bay Nimoy, Brenda Robinson, Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, Jenifer and Jeffrey Westphal, Ann Lovell, Mercer, MAJORITY, Vanessa and Rafaela Evans - Red Butterfly Foundation, The Female Quotient, Visionary Women, Gruber Family Foundation, Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation, and an anonymous donor.