WASHINGTON – When the Sundance Film Festival announced in late November the 16 dramatic features that would compete for its top award in 2013, it did something that few other companies or festivals in its industry manage to achieve: It managed to reach gender parity, with eight of those films directed by women.
This was particularly notable given that in 2012, only three of the 16 entries were directed by women. Sundance seemed to have figured out that not only was a diversity of perspectives something its attendees wanted, but – contrary to the claims that are constantly made in the entertainment industry that it’s hard to find women to staff TV writing rooms or to direct features – it was relatively easy to find those new perspectives if you decided to go looking for them.
But it isn’t just the number of women in competition who matter: It’s who’s sitting at the judges’ table. And in 2013, Sundance has fewer women at the judges’ table than it did in 2012.
In 2012, women were the majority of the judges in the documentary category, outnumbering men three to two. The 2012 U.S. dramatic competition had three men and two women on the panel, but in 2013, when many movies by and about women will be competing, the jury assessing them will be made up of four men and just one woman. The only category in 2013 in which more women will be judging the entries than men is in the World Cinema Dramatic Jury.
This is not to say that women will automatically favor work by other women, or about other women, or that explores domestic stories rather than movies about policy dilemmas or conflicts – nor should they. I can easily see Kathryn Bigelow or Angelina Jolie, who is set to direct her second war film, throwing their ballots behind hard-nosed combat pictures.
But when juries select movies, they’re signaling not just which movies are good but what kind of stories are important. These are signals that can affect what kinds of movies are deemed viable – or even canonical – in the future.
Wanting diverse perspectives participating in that decision is important not just because it affects the outcome of one competition or one year’s worth of movies.
Recently, the National Film Registry inducted 25 new films, but just three of them – A League of Their Own, Samsara and The Matrix – were directed by women, and the latter was co-directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski. Of the members of the National Film Preservation Board, which oversees the National Film Registry, 17 are men and just four are women.
It’s an important reminder that if we want parity at the movies and in our sense of which movies are considered important, we can’t just champion a small number of female auteurs for their work behind the camera – we have to fight for the importance of what women in the seats like to watch, too.