Study finds women make strides in indie movies — but the gender gap persists

The indie film circuit is "slowly but surely making some strides, but they've got to keep pushing," one advocate for gender equity in entertainment said.
Imaghe: Mindy Kaling in Late Night
Mindy Kaling portrays Molly Patel, a TV writer, in "Late Night."Emily Aragones / Amazon Studios

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By Daniel Arkin

The number of women working as directors, writers, producers and editors on independent films reached all-time highs in the last year, according to new research published Tuesday — but men still outnumber women by 2 to 1 in behind-the-scenes roles on independent productions.

The report from the Center for Study of Women in Television and Film at the San Diego State University evaluated almost 1,000 feature films screened at 22 festivals between July 2018 and June 2019 — including "Late Night," starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, and the upcoming drama "The Farewell," starring Awkwafina.

The researchers found that women comprised almost one-third, or 32 percent, of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on independent films in the last year — a jump of 3 percent from 2017-18, according to a summary of the study's key findings.

The festivals highlighted in the study included high-profile cultural events such as the Sundance Film Festival, the SXSW Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as regional festivals in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Nashville, Tennessee; and Santa Barbara, California.

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"After many years of tracking stubbornly stagnant numbers, this year women achieved healthy gains in a number of key behind-the-scenes roles," Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, the executive director of the center, said in a statement accompanying the study.

And yet Lauzen added it was "important to note that women remain dramatically underrepresented, with independent films employing more than twice as many men as women in these roles." The study found that men made up some 68 percent of major creative principals in both narrative and documentary indie films.

Lauzen's center has previously found wide disparities in mainstream Hollywood, too. In a report published in January, for example, the center found that the number of female directors working on the 250 highest-grossing films declined in 2018, dipping from 11 percent in 2017 to 8 percent in 2018.

Melissa Silverstein, the founder of the organization Women and Hollywood, said the new study's findings were signs that the film industry was "slowly but surely making some strides, but they've got to keep pushing" toward gender equity in both the independent circuit and the traditional, studio-centric system.

Silverstein said she was struck by one of the study's other findings: For independent films with at least one female director, more female writers, editors and cinematographers were hired.

"If you want more women in your production, hire women to run it," she said. "It will transfer to more inclusion across the board."

Christine Vachon, an independent film veteran who has produced acclaimed dramas such as "Far from Heaven," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Carol," said equity in behind-the-camera jobs would require greater diversity at the companies that finance, greenlight and distribute movies.

"When you actually go to these companies and see who's deciding who gets to tell the stories, it's still mostly white men," Vachon said.