Artist Spotlight, Inspiration

How the the Alliance for Women Film Composers Is Changing Hollywood


It’s no secret that Hollywood is a place where women too frequently don’t get the same treatment as men. Actresses still get paid less than their male co-stars, women directors are rarely trusted with the keys to huge franchises, and cinematographers called on to shoot films are predominantly men. But there’s one filmmaking profession where women are so overlooked they’re often believed to not exist in the field at all: film music. Just ask Lesley Barber, the composer behind Manchester by the Sea (in theaters this Friday), who recalls being asked to do a video interview and then, when she showed up, was assumed to be the PR rep handling the composer. Or ask Laura Karpman, who currently composes for the TV show Underground and says she’s attended more than one function where it was immediately assumed she was a producer, not a composer.

One organization (that both women belong to) has been working on rectifying that: The Alliance for Women Film Composers, founded in 2014 by Miriam Cutler (The Hunting Ground), Lolita Ritmanis (Justice League), and Laura Karpman herself (who, until recently, was also its president). Beyond long-existing systemic oversight, two specific events inspired the AWFC’s creation. The first was a luncheon for women film composers, hosted in 2013 by Doreen Ringer-Ross (VP of Film and TV at BMI), which led to a group photo of the more than 30 attendees finding its way onto Facebook. It’s there that Karpman says something wonderful happened: it went viral in the composer community, because it showed something few seem to see. “People say there aren’t any women composers, and there we all were.”

Film composer Laura Karpman
Film composer Laura Karpman

The second seed that grew into the AWFC was a study by Dr. Martha Lauzen, head of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, which found that only 2 percent of the top 250 box-office films of 2013 had scores composed by women. It was a discouragingly low number (“I didn’t realize how few of us had done studio films. It was sort of shocking,” says Barber), but it was a number nonetheless that Karpman believed an organization could leverage for change. “Numbers are just a fantastic tool,” she says, “and with those tools, you can go out and say, ‘Hey, look.’”

Campaigning for Change

“Hey, look” is an apt summation of what became the driving force behind the AWFC’s creation: drawing attention to women composers. The philosophy, as Karpman puts it, was: “We exist; we exist in numbers; and what can we do to make ourselves more visible to the community, and available for work?”

In the last three years, the AWFC has answered that by campaigning for inclusion in panels, articles, and industry events; setting up an online directory featuring over 130 women film composers; and organizing high-profile events that celebrate the work of women. One such event was “The Women Who Score: Soundtracks Live,” a concert featuring a 55-piece orchestra performing the music of more than 20 women composers. Intended to celebrate work too many overlook, it was also meant to act like a calling card — to demonstrate the work that makes them worth hiring.

WGN’s Underground features Karpman’s compositions

Sure enough, it worked. Several of the composers involved got calls afterward with job leads, says Karpman. Barber was one of them. “One of the larger studios that heard my music there that night thought that my piece had just the exact tone they were looking for, for a film coming up, and we’re in touch,” she explains. That matters because it is often difficult to be considered for studio films, she says. “When directors are looking for composers for studio films, they get a list with ten guys’ names who are all 42, who are all white, and who all come from similar backgrounds.”

Film composer Lesley Barber with Manchester by the Sea; director, Kenneth Lonergan
Film composer Lesley Barber with Manchester by the Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

The concert’s success, and the work it generated, didn’t just illustrate the importance of promoting visibility for the AWFC’s current members, but also that of inspiring future ones — like the 13-year-old aspiring composer whose dad brought her up to the stage after the show, and was invited backstage to meet everyone. Karpman stresses how important it is for young girls (and even other women composers) to see other women composing. “If you only see men doing it, either consciously or unconsciously, you think, ‘Well, it’s not open,’” she says. “Part of what happens is when they actually see women doing it, when they have that exposure, they feel like they can, too.” Barber echoes the importance of that: “To see images of us conducting, those images have to be out there.”

The Road Ahead

There’s still an uphill battle to be fought (only three of the 112 original scores included in last year’s Oscar race were composed by women), but those images are starting to have an impact. Both Barber and Karpman say they’re seeing encouraging signs of change — especially in 2016. The fourth Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Lab, which offers workshops and creative exercises, was 50 percent women this year. Six women composers were admitted to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science; what’s more, Karpman herself was elected Governor of the music branch (as a result, she’s recently stepped down as AWFC’s President). Changes like that are not to be underestimated. “When that kind of political and representational body says there’s an issue and invites more women, that sends out a really good message,” says Karpman.

It also signals to her a greater desire for change and progress. “What we’ve been able to do in three years is remarkable, and it’s because everybody’s ready,” says Karpman. “I don’t want to discount what we’ve done, but everybody is ready for this galvanization. I think there’s an openness now that I haven’t seen for a long time.”

Of course, the AWFC’s work is far from done. It has goals to organize membership meetings, networking events, mentorship programs, and more. But as for its ultimate goal, Karpman is quick to answer: “We want to be huge in five years, and gone in ten,” she says.

All images courtesy of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.