At this year’s Sundance Film Festival opening weekend, Gloria Allred, the famed women’s rights attorney, got on a snow-covered stage in Park City, Utah and declared “this entire year has been the winter of our discontent!” She was commemorating the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, but also the one-year anniversary of last year’s Women’s March, the year of #MeToo, and now the start of the year that, in Hollywood at least, will be known as the year of Time’s Up and other efforts for equality in the industry. She might’ve been quoting two male writers—John Steinbeck by way of William Shakespeare—but she was calling for a time when their narratives are no longer the presumed default.
That change, that culture shift, was all over this year’s Sundance film fest. Seeing Red, a documentary about Allred herself that premiered at the festival, served as a prominent symbol of that shift, but there were many others: movies about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, queer women sent to gay conversion camps, and a woman coming to terms with her own sexual abuse (adapted from a journal written by the director when she was 13 years old). And those were just a few of the many films by and about women at this year’s festival. In an industry where only eight of the 100 top-grossing movies of the last year were directed by women, the festival’s lineup this year is 37 percent the work of female helmers.
The fest also became home to scores of discussions about the roles of women in Hollywood, and the recalibration that comes with a new reality. “It’s an uncomfortable time,” actress Octavia Spencer said during the “Women Breaking Barriers” panel. “It’s uncomfortable, but we have to allow this process to happen. If you think that this is a female-versus-male movement, it’s not. Empowered women aren’t anti-male, we’re just empowered.”
After years of pronounced disparity in men’s and women’s directing and acting roles (and pay), Hollywood found itself under a brighter spotlight in 2017; reporting about alleged sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein—once the king of Sundance power moves—led to an outpouring of stories about sexual misconduct by powerful men in the industry. Those revelations turned into a reckoning in multiple industries, united under a resurgence of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement online, wherein many women came forward to share their own stories of harassment and assault. Women in Hollywood then united to start Time’s Up—a legal defense fund to combat harassment and inequality in the workplace.
That wave of activity makes many hopeful for serious, long-lasting change—especially in the entertainment world. “Sundance is a cultural phenomena and if it’s elevating not only women, but really making such a serious effort at diversity across the board, that will have an impact,” says Roberta Grossman, one of the directors of Seeing Allred. “It will ripple beyond this festival. I think that what’s happening now with the #MeToo movement, women and men in Hollywood are going to take this more seriously now. Not just sexual abuse but the opportunities for women filmmakers. I hope that things will really move forward—that there won’t just be a commission or two and a couple speeches at award shows.”
While on their face representation and harassment seem like distinct and even disparate issues, they’re part of a larger cycle. Sexual harassment and sexism in Hollywood has arguably kept female directors, cinematographers, and others from reaching their full potential. Same with unequal wages, lack of opportunities, and the dearth of funding for female-fronted projects. (During a post-screening Q&A for The Tale, director Jennifer Fox noted she spent years trying to get financing for her film about an adult woman coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse.)
The result is fewer movies—drivers of empathy for all forms of the human experience—told from a female perspective. In turn, there are fewer of those films in festivals and theaters, perpetuating an idea that no appetite exists for stories by and about women. (For rebuttal of which, please see Exhibits Wonder Woman and Girls Trip.) Two promising avenues to combat the cycle, then, are to identify and publicize harassment, the way Time’s Up is doing, and back movies made by women.
Bridging the chasm between words and action, however, will be the ultimate test of what long-term effects last week’s festival has. Getting female filmmakers and women’s stories into the festival is a start, but it’s even more important that those movies find wider distribution and become accessible to audiences outside of those few thousand who can afford a weeklong Utah vacation in mid-January every year.
Early signs are good. Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film about a young woman getting sent off to gay conversion camp, took home the US dramatic grand jury prize—essentially the festival’s top honor—and Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano took home the US dramatic special jury award for excellence in filmmaking for her post-apocalypse drama I Think We’re Alone Now. Beyond that, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale sold to HBO, and Leave No Trace, the latest from from director Debra Granik, who made Jennifer Lawrence a star with Winter’s Bone, went to Bleeker Street. The deals weren’t huge, but in a relatively anemic acquisitions year when power-player streaming services like Amazon and Netflix didn’t leave with any films they didn’t bring themselves, they’re about as good as can be expected.
Everything else, though, is open-ended. “We’ve had a lot of interest in our film and sensed a lot of interest about these other films about strong women, but ultimately the gatekeepers in this business are white men,” says Amy Adrion, director of Half the Picture, a film about the low numbers of female directors that has yet to find distribution. “Most of the reviewers, distributors, the production companies, agents—you still need to convince a man that the story is worth telling, has value, and will find an audience. That is the challenge.”
A challenge, and a long road ahead. Shifting an industry as entrenched as Hollywood was never going to be easy, and if/when it happens, it’ll take years, maybe decades. But the momentum is there. Asked about the future, Marta Kauffman, the Friends co-creator and producer of Seeing Allred is hopeful, but cautious. “We have a long way to go,” she says. “On the other hand, we’re never going back.”