From Sundance to the multiplex: Women directors are taking the spotlight

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Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Long before she directed the summer comedy The To Do List, Maggie Carey was a Division I soccer player at the University of Montana. That was back in the 1990s, when for the first time in her life, she had a female coach.

“It was really refreshing to see a woman in a leadership role and that kind of clicked with me – maybe there was something missing that I wasn’t aware of. And I think seven of the girls [I played with] went on to coach,” Carey says.

Now, as a film director, Carey finds herself at the helm in a profession also historically dominated by men. But like the sea change she witnessed playing soccer earlier in her life, Carey sees things opening up for women who want to get behind the camera.

“The next generation of [soccer] players,” she says, “they’re not going to even think twice about having a female coach. With access and filmmaking, girls who are in high school now aren’t going to think twice about [becoming directors] because they’re going to see women in those positions. It won’t be a barrier because they won’t know there was a barrier.”

Maggie Carey is one of a small group of up and coming female filmmakers in Hollywood who are starting to gain recognition for their work. But it is still a very small group.

The Sundance Institute recently released new findings that show only 4.4 percent of directors across the top 100 box office films each year from 2002 to 2012 were female. August isn’t likely to see more women cracking the box office top 10, but thanks in no small part to the Sundance Film Festival, which this year featured an equal number of male and female-directed films in its narrative competition, several movies written and directed by up-and-coming female directors are on their way to the big screen this month. Beyond Sundance, women are making strides in the independent film world overall. Carey’s script made the 2010 blacklist and was discovered during a table read at the Austin Film Festival. Of the 300 films featured at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, nearly one-third were directed by women. The South by Southwest Film Festival also included a significant number of female directors across its categories.

And many of those films aren’t just directed by women — they are about them as well.

“There are plenty of women directors, and then there are women directors who are trying to do something different with the experience of movie-going for women,” says Jill Soloway, an accomplished TV writer and director (Six Feet Under, How to Make it in America) whose first feature film, Afternoon Delight, opens Aug. 30. Soloway’s film focuses on a woman (Kathryn Hahn) who invites a stripper (Juno Temple) to live with her family.

Soloway says the studio system is simply not set up to help women create films from their perspective. “Men are really uncomfortable sitting in the body of a woman for two hours. Women know how to sit in the bodies of men for two hours because we’ve had to do it since we were kids, but it’s a rare thing to have a female protagonist.”

This summer has been a veritable desert for films about women. Vulture charted the phenomenon in early July, finding that only 32 percent of wide-release films in 2013 featured women in a starring role. Of the top box-office earners from mid-May through August so far, only two films – the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy buddy cop comedy The Heat and We’re the Millers (starring Jennifer Aniston as –you guessed it — a reformed stripper) feature a female lead.

“Women directors do considerably better at Sundance than they do in the mainstream studio industry,” Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam says. “I think they’re as ambitious as any directors to tell the stories that move them.” In documentary film, the disparity is much less – 41.1 percent of Sundance documentaries in 2012 were directed by women. Putnam notes that this could be due to the cost and sources of funding for those types of films. “Documentary budgets are a lot lower, as a whole. I also think the actual sources of money are different. It’s a different network of decision makers – it’s grants, sometimes it’s individuals. It’s certainly very hard work to raise the funds but it’s a different network of decision makers than in the mainstream of Hollywood.”

Lake Bell’s feature debut, In a World…  won Best Screenplay at Sundance. Bell, who has acted in various big studio films (What Happens in Vegas), says she hasn’t seen the same gap between male and female directors in the independent filmmaking world as in the studio system. She suggests that could be by choice.

“In the independent world I don’t think there’s much of a problem. It feels equal to me – it’s a non issue,” she admits. “In the studio system it is different, and I think that comes down somewhat to maybe female filmmakers prefer to have less cooks in the kitchen and more control over the content. The point is, I think maybe it just comes down to women are more picky.”

Putnam agrees that while a female director’s goal might not be to make the next superhero movie, the bigger concern is that even after a first movie’s success, women are having more trouble securing funding for future projects. “We actually saw a drop off,” she says of the study’s findings. “As budgets increased, the presence of women decreased.”

While Sundance doesn’t look at the content of films in terms of gender, Putnam says the festival’s goal is to reflect stories, like Bell’s and Soloway’s, that represent society as a whole. “I’m not sure the ecosystem has evolved to an entirely healthy place for women directors,” Putnam says. “But we certainly see signs of a great direction and certainly having 50/50 women in the narrative competition at Sundance this past year was I think a terrific thing.”

While the female perspective does set these types of films apart from the rest of the summer movie fare, the women behind the lens aren’t aiming to be great female filmmakers – they are simply aiming to be great filmmakers.

In a World… tells the story of a young woman (played by Bell herself) trying to make it in a man’s world, competing with her father for a major voiceover role. It has been described as a “female empowerment” comedy – something Bell is hesitant to embrace. “Carol [Bell’s character] and this sort of gentle feminism that’s going on in the voiceover industry feels archaic, but it exists in many different factions. That said, I never want to preach because I don’t like to be preached to. In the movie I try to have a sense of humor, even around messages I might want to make,” Bell explains.

One of the lighter films at Sundance last year was the Jane Austen-themed comedy Austenland, from director Jerusha Hess (out Aug. 16). Hess worked on the popular male-driven comedies Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre with her husband, Jared Hess, before making her own film. But Austenland is decidedly a chick flick. So what was different about making this film? “I had to watch how many fart jokes I put in my movie!” Hess jokes. “But I think I went into it with the same attitude.”

But some bodily function jokes work in films about women, like in the case of Carey’s The To Do List, which came out July 26 and stars Parks and Recreation’s resident deadpanner Aubrey Plaza. It sends the shocking message: Guess what? Teenage girls have sex and they talk about sex – in great detail.

This is hardly a new concept given TV shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls or films like the raunchy Bachelorette, which was released on iTunes and VOD and built an audience by word-of-mouth.

But when it comes to theatrical distribution, focusing on details – like inside jokes for 30-to-40-year-old women– turn these films into “niche” movies, limiting their value. Most moviegoers are adolescent males, so it’s no surprise that these movies don’t get the same attention as the latest shoot ‘em up action flick. As a result, technology like VOD and iTunes is enabling more of these types of films to hit the mainstream.

Soloway says this may be a permanent change. “I think the notion of the multiplex, the gathering space may be something we have to give up on,” she says. “I don’t know, I really don’t know if that’s going to be a place for women to watch movies about women. You can call it a six-hour movie or it’s six episodes of [a] show that has distribution. All of that Internet money is now coming for Hollywood.”

But it’s still an uphill battle.

“I talked to so many men, I walked into room after room after room of men who got to sit around and discuss whether they thought this movie was something that would appeal to women,” Soloway says.

Carey, who is married to SNL star Bill Hader (he also stars in The To Do List), got noticed with her web series, The Jeannie Tate Show, and adds that the ability to create and distribute your own content can only be a good thing for women. “What I love is there’s this sense in the film world in general — and I think YouTube and technology are a big part of this – now you can own your own editing system. A camera is not as expensive. In my case I posted comedy videos and they did well and that parlayed into getting an agent and being able to show my script to more people.”

Carey cites Amy Poehler and Upright Citizens Brigade (where Carey got her start) as inspiration. “You see Poehler who’s been on SNL and Parks and Rec,” she says, “and produces a lot of stuff and creates her own content – you don’t question that you can do it. “

Soloway agrees the tide may be turning – and fast. “There are so many women who are aching to make their own content, who want so badly to be understood for being who they are. I feel like there’s an incredible revolution going on for women.”

Austenland opens Aug. 16 and Afternoon Delight opens August 30. In a World… and The To Do List are currently playing in theaters.


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