What will it take for women to achieve gender equality in the film industry? This question, particularly as it pertains to film financing, was on the minds and lips of some of the newest award-winning female filmmakers in the industry recently.
On Monday, April 9th, the Sundance Institute and Women In Film (WIF) co-hosted a panel entitled Demystifying Film Financing: Two Case Studies. The panel’s objective was to address the obstacles faced by female filmmakers, especially those of financing. The panel was split into two halves, the first focusing on Unrest, an award-winning documentary directed by Jennifer Brea, and the second on Mudbound, an Academy Award-nominated historical drama directed by Dee Rees. Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Caroline Libresco and WIF president Cathy Schulman moderated the discussion.
The Sundance Institute, founded by Pratt Institute graduate Robert Redford, has made incredible strides in supporting female filmmakers. Through its Women of Sundance program, the Sundance Institute has been able to partially overcome the huge gender gap that women in the film industry face. Over the past ten years, 4.2% of top grossing directors in the United States have been female, while 25% of Sundance Film Festival directors have been female. This group is striving to bring this number up to 50%, and hoping to impact Hollywood statistics as well.
As part of Women at Sundance’s efforts to get more women into film, it offers a year-long fellowship including mentorship and professional coaching. The Harnisch Foundation, in partnership with Renee Freedman & Co, provides grant funding for fellowship participants to travel to Sundance Film Festival and participate in all the activities. Prior Women at Sundance Fellows have included Ava Duvernay, Jennifer Phang, Lyric Cabral, Cristina Ibarra and Jessica Devaney.
Brea’s film Unrest documents the struggles of chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease she lives with. Because of her deep awareness of the difficulties experienced by those with her condition, she found herself with a huge drive to create the film. “I knew this film needed to [exist] and I never faltered in my faith in that,” Brea told the audience. Brea’s commitment to creating allowed her to get the opportunity to bring her vision to life. “It’s about finding people in the world who vibrate for [your] film,” she explained.
Among its many honors and awards, Unrest has also been approved for continuing education credits for medical providers. This speaks to the film’s ability to capture not only popular attention, but also the specialized attention of medical professionals who can use the documentary to help inform and improve their work.
For Mudbound director Dee Rees, creating that film became possible because of the outreach of her producer, Cassian Elwes. Mudbound was the first time Rees had been offered the opportunity to create a film by a producer. Rees’ experience suggests another important lesson for women seeking entry into the film industry: if you can’t sell your film idea confidently, find a partner who can. Such efforts lead to great achievements in film, as Mudbound‘s Director of Photography Rachel Morrison became the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar Award for Best Cinematography.
Both Brea and Rees emphasized the importance of having unshakeable confidence in the value of your work, so that the powers-that-be see you as an equal competitor. Ultimately, members of the panel also expressed their shared belief in the community value of women producing art. Female filmmakers are some of the most the most zealous and dedicated creators, and this helps them hang on to their dreams in an industry that stacks the odds against them. Alysa Nahmias, producer of Unrest, comments, “It’s really important to keep in mind that it’s not personal. The more you experience the rejections and then you get somebody who is interested, you start to see that the project doesn’t depend on any one ask.”
Women at Sundance receives leadership support from The Harnisch Foundation and Refinery29, and additional support from these donors. Women in Film has support from corporate sponsors, foundations, and individual donors listed here.
Editor’s Note: The Harnisch Foundation and the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation are lead sponsors for Philanthropy Women.