Women film composers organize, advocate for change in an unequal industry

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Members of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, gathered for a meeting in 2016 AWFC

An increasing amount of advocacy is being directed towards bringing work and recognition to women film composers. Traditionally, the field has been heavily dominated by men. Can it change?

As composer Heather McIntosh told me, "that sense of community and desire to lift one another up is palpable. I know the state of the world is pretty wacko right now. I'm not trying to sound tone-deaf to that. I am truly inspired daily by all the talent I am lucky enough to be around, and I think we'll see some good things come out of all of this."

Along with a growing number, Heather is a member of the Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC), an organization founded in 2014 by Lolita Ritmanis, Laura Karpman, Miriam Cutler, and Chandler Poling (son of Minnesota music legend Chan Poling). The organization was developed with a clear mission to address the disparity between women and men composers.

"The AWFC advocates for the inclusion of women composers within industry events; supports filmmakers, game developers and studios in their inclusion of women composers; and educates, mentors and inspires emerging women composers," said the organization's president Lolita Ritmanis. "We are seeing great results, and are very excited about breaking the glass ceiling and eliminating the need for any of these types of discussions so that we all can concentrate on our art, our music, and our livelihood."

Their mission was born out of necessity. While a number of composers, including Sofia Hultquist, told me that "the opportunities have become more regular" for a combination of reasons, the gap remains wide: currently, only 3% scores for films in wide release are written by women.

In creating a safe space to connect as well as support and further educate, the AWFC along with organizations like the female:pressure and the UK-based Women in Music are working to better the world at large through a focus on women in music.

As Morgan Kibby put it, "unfortunately I think Sheryl Sandberg said it best, when she said that while men are promoted based on potential, women get a leg up based on past accomplishments. That has to change. How are we supposed to get our foot in the door, if they won't even show us where it is?"

It's not just a matter of the door. As Variety highlighted last year, one must keep in mind that "no female composer has been nominated for an original-score Oscar in the past 15 years, and only four women have been nominated in the entire 81-year history of the category."

How can change happen? "The impact that the Alliance could have is so important and needed," said Hultquist, "and I'm constantly commending and thanking the composers behind it for not only paving the way, but trying to create an environment where we ladies can find each other, and learn and grow. For younger female composers, having these organizations will hopefully motivate them and show them that there are women in fields like film scoring. The more role models and support systems the better."

Karpman said, "I think we are making people aware that there has been an issue, and we are constantly pushing for inclusion for women on concerts, panels and advocating for women composers. There are new opportunities...I think that studios are becoming more aware of the gender inequality in Hollywood, and there are new initiatives beginning that I believe will incorporate women composers. This is very exciting. I think there is an awareness, and there is a discussion going on that is truly significant."

Since its inception, AWFC has made great strides — but "there's a difference between taking a meeting with a woman, and hiring her" wrote Morgan Kibby in an e-mail. "That needs to happen more, but I tend to feel optimistic that it will."

"There are certainly more [opportunities] than there have been," said Hultquist, "but the fact that we still have to label a composer as 'female' shows we have a bit of a way to go. The fact that people are starting to be able to picture a woman composing, rather than the typical 'Mozart sitting at his desk' imagery from times past, is huge."

"Any time a group of people can galvanize to expand each other's horizons and opportunities it is always invaluable," continued Kibby. "If anything, organizations like Women in Film and the Alliance create a connection to other women who have done this longer than I have, and those women have graciously made themselves available for advice, for support and for community. I think both organizations have really taken on the mantle of mentorship and that is important when you're trying to get your foot in the door. And when you galvanize, people have a harder time ignoring us and our creative voices."

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker, and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.