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April 29, 2009

Shattering the Celluloid Ceiling

First Look Films See Surge of Women In Top Slots

By By Jimmy Kelly

A longtime criticism of Hollywood is that there are relatively few females in top creative positions, but as the entries in the recently concluded First Look festival demonstrated, women are smashing the celluloid ceiling in a big way.

Shot from Viola: Traveling Rooms of a Little Giant, written and directed by Shih-Ting Hung, M.F.A. Animation, '07.
The event, which took place from April 1 to April 7, featured a total of 35 titles, of which 23 were produced, 15 were directed and 12 were written by women. (Many films had women in two or three of these categories, and women were also significantly represented in sound, cinematography and editing.) What’s more, this year's festival also had three titles that won prestigious student academy awards, and of that total, two were directed by women. 

The number of women filmmakers succeeding at this year's First Look has been a source of pride for many at SCA who make the festival possible. Larry Auerbach, associate dean of Student Industry Relations, which hosts First Look, introduced the festival's screening of Forrest Gump on April 3 by paying special mention to the record-setting numbers and earning strong applause from the packed crowd in Norris Theatre. Auerbach isn't the only one excited about the increase in female-helmed productions at SCA, with projections that this year's numbers represent much more than a short-lived phenomenon.

"The increasing number of women enrolled in the program and taking active part in the industry is hopefully not a passing trend," said Sandrine Cassidy, director of Festivals and Distribution for SCA, including First Look, "but the beginning of their strong involvement and recognition in filmmaking, as well as art in general."

One of the most notable standouts at First Look, female or male, was Shih-Ting Hung, M.F.A. Animation '07. Hung's thesis project, Viola: The Travelling Rooms of a Little Giant, was an instant headliner at the festival, having already captured top honors for experimental film at the Student Academy Awards back in June. Viola follows its title character from childhood onward through a series of dreamlike rooms, each capturing a different time of her life.

"It was wonderful putting visions into practice," said Hung. "I loved it and enjoyed it completely. I am excited about telling stories and communicating with the audience emotionally."

Another woman of SCA whose passion for film was shared at First Look was Melanie McGraw, M.F.A. Production '07. Pitstop, written and directed by McGraw, was also honored at last June's Student Academy Awards with a third-place finish for achievement in narrative film. The film depicts the story of a young girl who is accidently left behind at a desert gas station while on a family road trip as she struggles to find herself as well as a way home.

"I was temporarily living in Utah when I finally had the courage, at the age of 30, to admit that more than anything I wanted to make films," said McGraw. "I decided to take my chances, move to LA, and try to get into USC's M.F.A. program. I had no idea at the time just how much that decision, and my time at USC, would change my life."

The director/writer was amazed by the resources available to her as a filmmaker upon coming to SCA and praised her all-female Pitstop producing team as she worked to make the most of her time on campus. McGraw also cited another group of women when discussing how her career has taken so many steps forward in such a short amount of time.

"I hadn’t anticipated the extent of the exposure going to SCA would afford me and my work, in terms of access to the film industry and having my work get noticed by influential industry players," said McGraw. “Sandrine Cassidy, Allison Melanson, Bonnie Chi, and Torrie Rosenzweig have worked tirelessly in counseling me about how to achieve my professional goals and navigate the industry as a whole.”

The staff at Student Industry Relations not only advised McGraw on her career, they also helped make her First Look experience possible. Now, after First Look and all the hard work that came with the experience, McGraw is reaping the rewards.

"I’d do it again in a heartbeat.