Want To See More Women At The Oscars? It Starts At Sundance

It all begins with the short film...

When the 2015 Academy Awards nominations were announced on January 15, a hefty dose of outrage followed -- because not only were people of color snubbed in nearly every category, but women were left out of everything minus Best Actress and Best Supporting. No female writers, producers, or directors (including Ava DuVernay, director of Best Picture nominee "Selma") were honored by the Academy.

So, why did this happen, and what can be done to change things for the better? The answer isn't black and white, but MTV News sat down with LunaFest (a short film program dedicated to promoting women in cinema) program manager Suzy Starke German -- who also served as publicist for Lucasfilm for 11 years -- as well as Luna brand director Jenny Berrien at the Sundance Film Festival to find out how everyday people can help talented women in film get the recognition they deserve. And the first step, according to German, is to teach these women some business acumen.

Ava DuVernay by Getty

"If you actually look at the stats from film schools, those [films] actually are about fifty percent male, fifty percent women," she said. "We’re having some equality in the film school area, but once they get out of film school and finish their short films, that’s when they’re reaching some barriers. What we’re realizing in talking to a lot of directors is they focus so much on the art part, which you need to, but they have to realize a lot of the business skills that you need, because it is a business... female directors have to have some business acumen to be able to talk the talk, especially to financiers."

However, even business acumen might not help them get their films to the big screen, since the major studios tend to back projects that they know will make money -- projects like superhero movies, and action franchises -- rather than movies made for, by, and about women. That's why German and Berrien think LunaFest, which has featured 8-10 female-directed short films every year over the past 15 years, is so important.

Michelle MacLaren by Getty

One graduate of the festival, Jen McGowan, was discovered by a film distributor on the LunaFest website and had her first movie, "Kelly & Cal," fully financed. But even then, despite positive reviews, the distributor decided to put their marketing dollars into a bigger movie... And McGowan's film struggled in a limited release. It's a sad story, but definitely not an anomaly: DuVernay also struggled to get her first feature financed, even after she won the Best Director Prize at Sundance in 2012. And "Selma," according to German, likely suffered due to the staggering (77 percent) maleness of Oscar voters.

"The Academy is very male-dominated and white-dominated, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that, for most of the categories at the Academy Awards, it’s only the members within that category [voting]," German explained. "So only the directors branch votes for best director... And in the director’s category, it is so few women, and so few people even under 50. It’s old-school."

This is undoubtedly depressing news for young women hoping to get their start in movies, but there is hope. From events like LunaFest, to mentorship programs like the ones at Sundance Institute, there are resources out there for women who need help getting their voices heard in a predominantly male, old-school industry. And according to Berrien, some celebrities are stepping up to make a major difference.


"Some of the A-list actors are actually putting in their contracts that it’s required that you hire a more representative, diverse population on their films," Berrien said. "It’s amazing. Like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, apparently."

"Actors do have so much influence, because they’re celebrities," German added. "They are what can sell a film... It would make a huge difference, and they’re in that position of power to say, ‘Hey, I’ll only do that if…'"

And of course, there are some female directors who have broken through the Marvel and DC-happy boys club, like upcoming "Wonder Woman" helmer Michelle MacLaren. But still, "Wonder Woman" is as close to a surefire bet as studios can get, and German points out that, "original ideas and stories are not getting greenlit and financed" nearly as much as superhero and action films, which tend to skew male, audience-wise.


That's why we, as viewers, have to put in an effort to see the types of films featured in LunaFest, and the smaller, limited-release and OnDemand films made by women. Because dollars are what matter: If we spend enough of them, female-directed films will have a much better shot at making it to wider release.

"You vote with your dollars," Berrien explained. "Go see the short films, go see the more independent films."

Because as awesome as it is to have your film do well on iTunes or Netflix, it doesn't bring the prestige (or the payment) that comes with having your film at the local AMC. And that's what these talented female directors -- and we, as viewers -- deserve.

"Working on the 'Star Wars' franchise for all those years, there aren’t many bigger fans than Star Wars fans," German concluded. "To actually be there at the screenings, you thought you were going to start levitating with the energy in that room. People were collectively so excited. You get that when there’s 100 people surrounding you and experiencing the movie. You experience that in the theaters, that energy. You just want everyone to be able to feel that, and you don’t get that enough in your little room. But it’s a start."

It is a start -- and with mentors like LunaFest and the Sundance Institute, as well as an effort by moviegoers to support women in film, we'll be seeing MacLaren, DuVernay, and more at the Oscars in no time.