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New USC study follows women who direct short films

Male and female directors are put on opposite paths as their careers progress, the study’s author says.

by USC Annenberg public affairs staff
Film still from "Balsa Wood" from the writer director, Dominique Lecchi. (Photo/Courtesy of LUNAFEST)

For female film directors, making a short film may be both the launch and pinnacle of their careers, according to a new USC study.

The study was conducted by Professor Stacy Smith and her Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, with the support of the Lunafest film festival. The research examined the prevalence of female directors across more than 3,200 short and mid-length films screened at 10 top film festivals worldwide. It also assessed the occupational paths and career impediments of female directors.

As a counterpoint to mainstream content, Lunafest is a yearlong traveling film festival of award-winning short films by, for and about women.

Short films represent a first foray into entertainment creation for many filmmakers. The findings of this study reveal that women represent 32 percent of directors of short and mid-length films overall at 10 worldwide festivals. However, breaking the findings down by genre demonstrated that women are only 28 percent of directors of narrative shorts. In comparison, other research reports from Smith and the Directors Guild of America reveal that women directed 18 percent of independent feature films at one festival across 13 years, 16 percent of television episodes in the 2014-15 season and just 4.1 percent of top-grossing movies in the same time frame.

These findings demonstrate that female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers soon after making a short film.

Stacy Smith

“These findings demonstrate that female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers soon after making a short film,” said Smith, author of the study and founding director of the initiative. “Male and female directors are put on opposite paths as their careers progress. For males, opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.”

Other genres

Female directors are better represented — but not equal to their male counterparts — in other film genres. Thirty-one percent of directors in animated films and 37 percent of directors of documentary shorts were female. The study also shows that there has been no significant change in these percentages over the last five years.

“This study offers the best data on female interest in directing outside of information from film schools,” Smith said. “These findings also raise questions about how many female directors are attempting to enter the industry via educational programs or other paths.”

The career impediments facing female directors are also explored in the study. Twenty-eight female directors were interviewed about occupational obstacles. Sixty-four percent reported that balancing the demands of work and family life created career barriers; 61 percent stated that financial challenges are a factor. Almost one-third (29 percent) of women also indicated that generating interest or finance for films about females or underrepresented groups and female-oriented subject matter was a barrier to career progress.

“The obstacles women face help explain the drop-off in female participation from short film to feature content,” Smith said. “Women do not start out on equal footing with their male peers, and as barriers creep in, women fall out.”

Film fest facts

The researchers also evaluated the content of 115 short films screened at the Lunafest film festival and compared the findings to Smith’s research on the 100 top-grossing films of 2014.

Girls and women appear in 63 percent of the speaking roles in Lunafest shorts, and 81 percent of the lead or co-lead roles were held by females. Lunafest content provides a sharp contrast to the 28.1 percent of speaking characters and 21 percent of leads or co-leads who are female in the top-grossing films of 2014.

Lunafest shorts also feature more characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups than top-grossing films. A full 37 percent of lead or co-lead roles and 38 percent of speaking characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups in short films. In the top-grossing films of 2014, underrepresented characters were 26.9 percent of all speaking characters and 17 percent of all leads or co-leads.

“When the barriers to creating films are lower, we see more diversity. Not only are there more speaking roles for female characters in Lunafest content, but for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups as well,” Smith said. “Despite the epidemic of invisibility in top-grossing films, the Lunafest short films reveal that diversity is possible in front of the camera, particularly with diversity of voices behind the scenes.”

The study will be released Oct. 8 at the 15th annual Lunafest film festival launch in San Francisco. The event marks the beginning of the festival’s yearlong run in more than 175 cities.

Over the past 15 years, Lunafest has received more than 10,000 short film submissions and had female-directed films viewed by more than 300,000 people across the United States. To date, Lunafest has raised more than $3 million for women’s organizations.

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