Where are the Girl-Wonders? Everywhere—But Who Noticed?
Since the late 1990s, Gas Food Lodging filmmaker Allison Anders frequently lamented the pitiful media attention around women directors. “There are no girl-wonders, especially in this business,” she told BOMB Magazine in 1994. “But men all think they’re the next boy-wonder.”
In the wake of bombshell reports on gender pay inequity and the #TimesUp movement, the media and entertainment industries are now certainly well aware of the “boy wonder syndrome,” as it’s been called. But bias is still glaringly with us, sometimes in subtle ways.
Not only were no women directors nominated for Oscars this year, as has been widely reported, but more surprisingly, even at this year’s Sundance, when a predominance of female-directed projects broke out with the biggest films at the festival, few people seemed to take specific notice of this new wave of commercial “wonder-women” filmmakers.
If last year’s Sundance saw female directors sweep all of the Festival’s big awards, this year’s event offered perhaps an even more powerful counter-narrative to an industry that’s obsessed with dollar signs: Companies betting big money on female-directed films.
Check out the numbers: Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light was acquired by New Line for nearly $15 million; Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night was nabbed by Amazon for $13 million; Rachel Lears’ documentary Knock Down the House broke records for the biggest documentary purchase in the Festival’s history when Netflix ponied up $10 million; Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was bought by A24 for $6 million; Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy was grabbed by Amazon for upwards of $5 million. And in the first worldwide festival acquisition from Apple, the company paid $4 million for worldwide rights to Minhal Baig’s Hala.
And yet, there have been very few spotlights on this new crop of female-lead breakouts. To be fair, there has been some coverage: Brett Lang’s Variety story “5 Key Takeaways from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival” had “Female Directors Soar” listed at #3; Ganatra has gotten some heat, in Vanity Fair, for example (“Meet Nisha Ganatra, Director of Mindy Kaling’s Sundance Hit Late Night”); and Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang singled out the work of Jennifer Kent, Joanna Hogg, Chinonye Chukwu, and Lulu Wang in his piece: “Bold, brutal visions; Four female filmmakers blaze trails with their powerful tales.”
But the industry trade coverage largely failed to see the potential seismic shift going on here. A lot of Sundance media coverage focused on Amazon, not their filmmakers. Or in some cases, it was the actors that received top billing, whether it was “Awkwafina’s The Farewell” or “Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy,” as if their directors didn’t exist.
“While the ratio of female directors was talked about going into the festival,” says Kindred Spirit founder Anita Gou, producer of The Farewell and Honey Boy, “there was also a separate conversation after the festival about how it felt like the market came back alive, with distribution deals for films that have strong commercial appeal. But I think these two conversations need to be tied together,” she argues. “It’s completely thanks to these women, and being brave with their personal stories. So yes, I think that’s an area that can be emphasized more.”
Compare this year to 2016: In the weeks after Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the filmmaker was called “revolutionary” (Daily Beast), a “wunderkind” (MTV) and was named Breakthrough Director of the Year by CinemaCon, formerly known as ShoWest (an organization, by the way, which has celebrated only two woman directors in its 42-year history: Helen Hunt’s “Breakthrough” honors in 2008 and Niki Caro’s “International Filmmaker of the Year Award” in 2004.) How come this year’s Sundance breakouts don’t get superlative adjectives like “hottest new director” (a la Damien Chazelle or Quentin Tarantino)?
Veteran film publicist Shannon Treusch, who worked on both Late Night and The Farewell at Sundance, acknowledges there hasn’t been any “hot director” stories since the films actually premiered. But Treusch doesn’t blame sexism. “I feel like the press really wants to champion women right now,” she says, “but everybody is so busy moving on from Sundance, to the Oscars, to Berlin, and to SXSW, I think it’s just a lack of time and energy.”
However, Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood and Artistic Director of the Athena Film Festival, explains it is still difficult for women to penetrate the “auteur or wunderkind” narrative “because men are judged on their potential and women are judged on their experience,” she says. “People easily can imagine men being geniuses because they have seen the payoffs down the road with these male directors’ careers. Very few women have been able to have this type of longevity.”
This may finally be changing—particularly as this Sundance’s filmmakers continue to gain momentum with the releases of their films and upcoming new projects. Ganatra, reportedly, is negotiations to direct Flora Greeson’s L.A. music scene dramedy Covers for Universal and Working Title, and “everyone is chasing Lulu [Wang],” according to producer Gou. And with the recent launch of TIME’S UP and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge, which asks gatekeepers to commit to a project with a female director within the next 18 months, we should see an increase in the industry’s focus on commercially-oriented women-centered films.
But it’s still going to take time. “The more that we can put together movies in the right way and hold people accountable, the more the gender dynamics will continue to shift,” says Christine D’Souza Gelb, a Partner at Endeavor Content. For instance, on Hala, Endeavor and Overbook Entertainment had an inclusion rider—which mandated the hiring of women for various department head positions and 75% of critical below-the-line roles. “This is giving women and other underrepresented groups more opportunities to gain experience so they will have an easier time hopefully booking the next film or TV show.”
And then we may arrive at entirely new place in the conversation. As D’Souza Gelb adds, “What we’re all trying to do is not just say these are female filmmakers; it’s just that they’re amazing filmmakers.”