A Brief History of Women DGA Directors: The Past 30 Years

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Edited by Maria Giese

UCLA’s “Center for the Study of Women” published “Liberating Hollywood: Thirty Years of Women Directors” by Maya Montañez Smukler, Ph.d. which chronicles the past 30-year history of women directors in the DGA and their courageous struggle to convince the Guild to help change their dismal employment numbers. 

In 1983, the DGA launched a class-action lawsuit on their behalf against three major studios.  This action was essential to moving the percentage of women director employment from less than 1% in 1985 to 16% in 1995.

The following excerpted article involved dozens of hours of interviews with the very women directors who spearheaded the extraordinary change in gender employment ratios that came in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. 

Unfortunately, momentum slowed and after 1995 the ratio of female director employment went into stasis.  Today, less than 5% of feature films and only 12% of television episodes are directed by women.

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“LIBERATING HOLLYWOOD: THIRTY YEARS OF WOMEN DIRECTORS”

by Maya Montañez Smukler, Ph.d.

“The 1970s was a crucial decade for women directors working in Hollywood as it marked a period of significant increase in their employment statistics compared to previous decades. Between the early 1930s up until the late 1960s, there was never more than one woman making commercially oriented movies in Hollywood or within the independent film communities adjacent to the studio system.

By the late 1960s and increasingly—ever so gradually—throughout the 1970s the number of women directing feature films grew.  Between 1966 and 1980 there were an estimated fifteen women who had made feature films targeting commercial audiences, either within the studio system or as independent filmmakers.

Throughout the 1970s the feminist movement impacted the entertainment industry in various ways influencing Hollywood’s own political consciousness-raising. On-screen the women’s movement and its objective of female autonomy were represented by characterizations and narrative themes in several kinds of movies including critically acclaimed studio films (most directed by men) such as Klute (1971, dir. Alan J. Pakula), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, dir. Martin Scorsese) and Unmarried Woman (1978, dir. Paul Mazursky).

Off-screen, myriad female industry employees formed various kinds of networking organizations. For instance, Women in Film, a non-political association created by established women in the industry, was formed in 1973; and in 1974 the American Film Institute, a mainstream conservatory for a new generation of filmmakers, still run by an old-guard Hollywood patriarchy, founded the Directing Workshop for Women, a hands-on program that trained individual women to become film and television directors.

Several professional guilds, such as the Directors Guild of America (DGA), Screen Writers Guild (SAG), and Writers Guild of America (WGA), were  significant in projecting the influences of the feminist movement in the United States on the film and television industries during this period by involvement with sexual and racial discrimination within equal employment debates.

Advocating for their female constituents both the WGA and SAG each formed their own Women’s Committees in 1972. From 1974 to 1976, both guilds compiled statistical surveys that explicitly documented the disfranchisement of their women members; often linking the data to a specific studio, network and in several cases individual television shows. These efforts were spearheaded by the two organizations’ individual Women’s Committees, which the press reported on widely.

The WGA addressed the low numbers of women writers working in film and television, and SAG called for improved roles for actresses. More reticent than its colleagues in matters of public activism, the DGA was late to the era’s feminist awareness not making a concerted effort to address the low employment numbers of its female directors until the very end of the 1970s.

While the DGA was slow to organize within its membership ranks around issues of employment discrimination, ultimately the Guild’s involvement extended beyond just press coverage and into the court of law.

At the end of the decade, in 1979, the DGA Women’s Committee was formed. Original members of the Committee were Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Janet Davidson, Joelle Dobrow, Cheryl Downey, Pat Eyerman, Dolores Feraro, Anne Goodall, Nancy Heydorn, Victoria Hochberg, Ann Kindbery, Valeria Kircher, Flora Lang, Lynne Litman, Lisa Rich, Susan Smitman, Leslie Waldman.  Composed of award-winning television, documentary, and feature-film directors, the group was formed because of mounting frustration with their inability to get hired within the industry.

Determined to assess their current employment status, the Committee was granted permission from the Guild to examine decades of employment records of studios, networks, and leading independent production companies. Between 1949 and 1979, according to the Committee’s findings, 7,332 feature films were made and released by major distributors. Fourteen—0.19 percent–were directed by women.

These statistics were given to the media to draw attention to tangible evidence of sexism within the industry and to show specific percentages of women hired (or not hired at all in some cases) at individual companies, studios, and television shows.

On June 18, 1980, as a consequence of the DGA Women’s Committee’s actions in publicly addressing industry sexism thirty-two executives from prominent production companies, television networks and film studios agreed to meet with more than one hundred members of the DGA Women’s Committee.

Industry representatives included Barry Diller, chairman of the board and CEO, Paramount; Ned Tanen, president, Universal Pictures; Frank Wells, president and co-CEO, Warner Bros.; Steve Bochco, MTM’s Hill Street Blues; James Brooks, executive producer, John Charles Walters Productions; and programming representatives from ABC, CBS, and NBC.

The Committee introduced affirmative-action quota recommendations for studios and networks: for every thirteen television episodes contracted, producers were requested to hire at least one woman director.  However, eight months later, discussions between the two sides had fallen apart.

Aljean Harmetz, writing for the New York Times in February of 1981, reported that “according to the guild’s complaint, each employer ‘unilaterally withdrew’ from a voluntary affirmative-action program.’” Each side staunchly opposed the others’ stance on affirmative-action quotas.

Michael Franklin, executive director of the Guild at the time, explained that: ‘the DGA was forced into the suit because of Columbia’s [and Warner Bros.] refusal to negotiate…based on a system of numerical goals and timetables.’

In response, Columbia released a press release stating that ‘despite [the studios] expressed willingness to continue  negotiations…the Guild refused to…unless Columbia acquiesced in imposing quotas as to the numbers of women and members of minority groups to hired.’

While the DGA used statistical evidence documenting the low number of women and minorities actually hired by the studios to justify their demands for the usage of such programs, both film companies held the Guild responsible for those low numbers.

Warner Bros. and Columbia cited culpability in the DGA contract which set certain provisions that controlled the hiring process supposedly making it difficult for the studios to access female and minority job candidates.

As a result of this impasse, in 1983 the DGA filed a class-action lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleging discriminatory hiring practices towards women and racial minorities: against Warner Bros. on July 25 and against Columbia Pictures on December 21.

In 1985, Judge Pamela Rymer ruled in favor of Columbia and Warner Bros., and effectively against the DGA.  She stated that the Guild was partially responsible for the small amount of women and minority film and television directors hired due to the way in which the organization’s contract perpetuated the ‘old boys’ club’ and ‘word of mouth’ hiring practices by stipulating that directors could choose their Assistant Directors and Unit Production Managers.

Although technically a failure, the DGA lawsuit against Columbia and Warner Bros. was significant regarding women directors in two ways. Primarily, that it was the first time that the DGA, an influential and reputable organization, had taken legal action on behalf of their female membership. Never had such attention been drawn to female directors within the industry.

Furthermore, it was an uncharacteristic gesture made by an industry organization that was not known for taking overt political positions informed by potentially controversial issues such as feminism, sexism and racism. As DGA member Lynne Littman said in the press before the case was lost:

‘The important thing about the action the guild is taking now is that it is being taken by the whole guild, not by the women’s committee. The guild is not a notoriously radical organization, and their support for us is a major advance.’

Second, speculation as to why the DGA would take such a drastic action as filing a class action suit against two major studios without precedent set in the Guild’s history suggests an effort at self-protection.

In a recent interview with me, retired DGA member Barbara Peeters, who belonged to the Women’s Committee during the 1980s and at the time of these legal battles, suggested that the Guild made those aggressive demands of the film companies in an effort to prevent their female members from accusing them of similar acts of gender discrimination.

The Guild preferred to sue the studios rather than be sued for sexism by its own associates. Ten years after the filing of the suit, Michael Franklin described the impact of the case on the Guild in a positive light:

‘Prior to 1978, the Guild had an image of a gentlemen’s club. It didn’t make waves. The lawsuit improved the Guild’s status because the industry recognized that not only did the DGA represent important creative elements within the industry, but it was a strong force for the positive improvement of society as well!’

Three decades later, accepting her Oscar last year, Kathryn Bigelow described to the audience how “this was the moment of a lifetime.” This statement is surely true for any filmmaker winning their first Academy Award. The hope for many, and no doubt the founders of the DGA Women’s Committee in 1979, is that it wouldn’t take so many lifetimes to arrive at such a moment.”

Read the entire article:  www.csw.ucla.edu

Maya Montañez Smukler, Ph.d., UCLA Cinema and Media Studies.  She is co-editor-in-chief of Mediascape, UCLA’s on-line media studies journal, and has been a part-time faculty member of the New School University’s Film and Media Studies department since 2002.

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