Sundance 2019: Women Filmmakers Crash Through the Celluloid Ceiling. The Key Takeaway by Peter Broderick

by Peter Broderick, Paradigm Consulting.

The most important change at Sundance this year was the unprecedented success of women.

  • US Dramatic Competition included nine films directed or co-directed by women and eight films directed or co-directed by men.
  • This was a remarkable change from the consistent selection in each of the previous four years of eleven films directed by men and five directed by women.
  • This year’s percentages: 53% women/ 41% people of color/ 18% who identify as LGBTQIA+

US Documentary Competition included ten films directed or co-directed by men and eight films directed or co-directed by women. 44% women/ 22% people of color/ 5% LGBTQIA+

Other categories at this year’s Sundance had lower percentages of women.  Midnight included eight male directors and two female directors, which probably reflects the lack of parity among indie directors making genre films.

Overall women directed 39% of the dramatic and documentary features in all sections of the Festival.

Comparison With Cannes

These numbers contrast with those of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, which included three films directed by women in its twenty-one film main competition section, equaling 14%. The contrast with Hollywood was even starker, where in 2018 women directed 4% of the 100 highest grossing films, down from 8% in 2017.

The impact of films by women far outstripped their numbers. Audiences, critics, juries, and buyers all responded enthusiastically. All four Sundance Grand Jury prizes were won by films directed or co-directed by women. Of the five Audience Awards winners, three were directed or co-directed by women.

Thirteen of the twenty-three Sundance award-winning films were directed or co-directed by women. Eight were directed by one or more people of color.

Critics Survey

Critics gave their highest praise to films directed by women. In IndieWire’s Critics Survey of 102 journalists:

  • Four of the top five features were directed by women
  • Two of the top five docs were directed by women
  • Four of the five best feature directors were women

Distributors most avidly pursued films by and about women. Women directed five of the seven films that sold for the highest prices:

  • BLINDED BY THE LIGHT ($15m)
  • LATE NIGHT ($13m)
  • KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE ($10m)
  • THE FAREWELL ($6m)
  • HONEY BOY ($5m)

A sixth film focuses on a central female character: BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON ($14m)

AOC Skyped in at Sundance

Hottest Documentary

The hottest documentary at Sundance was KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE. Directed by Rachel Lears, it spotlights Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other women who also ran for Congress in 2018. I attended the rousing world premiere. AOC Skyped in from DC and received a standing ovation.

  • Following the Festival, the film won Sundance’s top Audience Award — the Festival Favorite Award.
  • The next day the story broke that KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE had been acquired by Netflix for $10 million.
  • appears to be the highest price ever paid for a documentary at any festival.

Oscar Nominations

Just before Sundance, the Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary Feature were announced. All five films were produced or co-produced by women, two were directed or co-directed by women, and there were no white, male directors among the nominees.


About Peter Broderick

This post is excerpted from Peter’s Distribution Bulletin (February 21, 2019) which focused on his Sundance Takeaways.

Peter is President of Paradigm Consulting, which helps filmmakers and media companies develop strategies to maximize distribution, audience, and revenues.

In addition to advising on sales and marketing, Paradigm Consulting specializes in state-of-the-art distribution techniques—including innovative theatrical service deals, hybrid video strategies (mixing retail and direct sales online), and new approaches to global distribution.

Peter Broderick has written articles for Scientific AmericanThe New York Times, and The Economist.

His seminal article, “Maximizing Distribution,” has been reprinted in publications around the world. His reports, “Welcome to the New World of Distribution” and “Declaration of Independence” are concise guides to the latest distribution strategies.

Read Peter’s reports and subscribe to his Distribution Bulletin at www.peterbroderick.com.


More of my coverage of Sundance and the Single Doc Economy

  • Read about and listen to my Sundance podcast with Peter Broderick (February 6, 2019)