PARK CITY, Utah — For the first time, the Sundance Film Festival could do a boy-girl, boy-girl seating arrangement of directors in its U.S. dramatic competition — and not run out of girls.
The festival has 50-50 parity — eight women, eight men — among the 16 films in the competition, a record that female filmmakers consider to be a hopeful sign they are making progress toward equal time with males.
"It just feels like justice. Like, OK, this is the way it's supposed to be. This reflects the population of the earth. There's no reason why there shouldn't be as many women making movies as men," said Lynn Shelton, a Sundance regular whose film "Touchy Feely," starring Rosemarie DeWitt as a massage therapist suddenly averse to touching people, is playing in the dramatic competition. "But I'm also waiting for the day when I'm not treated as an oddity as a woman. I'm just treated as another filmmaker."
Other dramatic entries directed by women include Liz W. Garcia's "The Lifeguard," starring Kristen Bell as a lifeguard who enters a risky relationship with a teen; Stacie Passon's "Concussion," a midlife-crisis tale starring Robin Weigert; Francesca Gregorini's "Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes," with Jessica Biel and Kaya Scodelario in the story of a troubled teen; and Jerusha Hess' "Austenland," featuring Keri Russell as a woman searching for her own Jane Austen-style perfect man.
Sarah Polley has been coming to Sundance with short films and features since 2000 and has seen a steady rise in the presence of women.
"I feel like there's been a seismic shift since I had my first short film at Sundance when I was 20 and now going back today at 34," said Polley, who returns this time with "Stories We Tell," a documentary examining the secret life of her late mother — and just who Polley's real father is. "My first time at Sundance, I spent the whole time just trying to find other female filmmakers. Now you see there's been huge progress."
This year's lineup is not an all-out celebration, though, as women continue to worry about career longevity and whether they can extend their gains in low-budget independent films to big-money Hollywood productions — work that goes predominantly to men.
Equal time at Sundance today does not necessarily mean those women will have a smoother time finding backers for future films, said Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film, which promotes work by female filmmakers.
"One would hope that those women would go on to get agents and representation and be put up for jobs to lead to their next movie," Schulman said. "My guess is it won't be that simple."
The Sundance lineup bears out that guess. Only three of 18 entries were directed by women in the festival's dramatic premieres section, which tend to feature higher-profile casts and more-established filmmakers. One of those is a six-hour TV series co-directed by Jane Campion, one of only four women ever nominated for best director at the Academy Awards, for 1993's "The Piano."
Women have been doing well for years in Sundance's short-film programs and documentary lineups. Like the U.S. dramatic competition, the U.S. documentary competition is an even split, with half of the 16 films directed or co-directed by women.
Yet the premiere section is a sign that women still are a long way from equal opportunity in higher-end independent filmmaking. And when it comes to studio films, only a handful of women have made steady inroads as directors.
"Someone was joking with me, 'oh, you've had four films at Sundance.' But is anybody going to hire me to do a Hollywood movie?" said Lucy Walker, a documentary filmmaker whose dangers-of-snowboarding chronicle "The Crash Reel" premieres at the festival.
Walker has a dramatic film in the works and wonders about the prospects for her and other women in Hollywood, where movie budgets dwarf the shoestring financing with which indie directors often have to make do.
"Who is going to be promoted to get the next film and get to have a full career and get paid?" Walker said. "This next generation of women, I really hope that a lot of them will be."
On Monday, Women in Film and Sundance organizers plan to release the results of a study tracing how well female filmmakers have fared in the last decade after showing films at the festival.
Women have made promising directing debuts at past festivals only to drop out of sight, unable to get a second project off the ground.
"We have not run into women who have intentionally stopped after their first film with no desire to make another," Schulman said. "So if they want to make them, we have to be there to support them."
Like Kathryn Bigelow — the only woman to earn the directing Oscar, for her 2009 best-picture winner "The Hurt Locker" — many female filmmakers are uneasy with stories focusing on the gender of whoever's behind the camera.
They just want the issue to go away so they can go about their work with the same opportunities to tell their stories as men have.
"In terms of the female presence at Sundance, I'm proud to be a part of that story," said Lake Bell, who stars in her feature directing debut "In a World..." in Sundance's drama competition. "There's another part of me that's excited for the time it's not a story, that it would just be the normal thing, and people didn't have to talk about it.
"Any of us, female or male, are just excited to be at Sundance. It's a big deal for every single person."