From Sundance to Nowhere: Seeking Gender Parity in the Hollywood System
By Lacey Beattie
During the Sundance Film Festival’s 2019 season, 44% of the features screened were directed by women, and female filmmakers claimed all four Grand Jury Prizes: U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Documentary, World Cinema Documentary, and World Cinema Dramatic. Generating the closest numbers to gender parity in the festival’s history, it seemed like organizers were closer than ever in equally showcasing new, underrepresented voices—a far cry from the years prior when film festivals, both American and European, were spaces exclusively for highly-regarded, male auteurs and the white, male programmers who put them on the map. Yet, despite breakthroughs on the festival level, female filmmakers have never been able to command much respect from the conventional Hollywood system, and are overlooked in nearly every aspect, from directing major blockbusters to garnering award nominations. The latest Celluloid Ceiling report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, for example, states that women directed only 4% of the country’s top grossing films in 2018, which, coupled with the complete and utter exclusion of all female directors at the 2019 Oscars, reinforces a consistent narrative: Hollywood is still not an accessible place for female filmmakers to succeed.
Although the recent #MeToo and Times’s Up Movements prompted a resurgence of discussions regarding gender parity and representation, Hollywood’s dependence on genre formulas and a masculine power structure running the studio system leaves little freedom for women working outside feminine stereotypes. Contemporary female filmmakers that choose to work among what has been historically considered as masculine genres (e.g. horror, Westerns, thrillers, noir, action, and sci-fi) are now seeking representation and authorship in other exhibition sites within the film industry, particularly in the film festival circuit. Building off these initial ideas of male-female genres and female authorship within popular cinema, this project evaluates the “broken pipeline” that enables female filmmakers to find success and accolades at film festivals, but continuously face barriers to their filmmaking ventures in the conventional and commercialized Hollywood sphere.
My discussion will close with an analysis of director Karyn Kusama as a case study for a female filmmaker who has worked within the periphery, perhaps even in the shadows, of Hollywood, delivering critically-acclaimed films but never fully praised to the level of her male contemporaries due to her refusal to submit to traditional genre and gender expectations. From gritty boxing rings to horror and noir, Kusama rejects traditional storylines and instead gravitates towards the masculinized genres with complicated female protagonists, as is evident in her Sundance debut of boxing drama Girlfight (2000) and the recent, critically-acclaimed crime thriller Destroyer (2018). Though she has had many successes within the festival system and independent cinema, her encounters working in the studio system with the feminist horror film Jennifer’s Body (2009) and action flick Aeon Flux (2005) illustrate the failure of the pipeline to ascend some filmmakers, particularly women, from their wins at the Sundance Film Festival to become Hollywood household names.