The Director’s Guild of America needs to adopt a distinct mandate in all diversity hiring efforts and negotiations with studios and signatories establishing women DGA members as a separate group from minority males.
Thirty-five years ago, six women directors (Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro. Victoria Hochberg, and Lynne Littman) courageously did so. They took a stand for all women directors that resulted in immense success.
Starting 1979, they founded the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, initiated a DGA-led class action lawsuit against the studios, and sparked the Guild’s diversity program for all women and ethnic minority male Guild members. In the ensuing ten years, from 1985 to 1995, their actions resulted in a skyrocketing of female director employment from .05% to 16%.
Yet here we are 20 year later– and the percentage of female director employment has sunk into stasis and decline.
This is unacceptable.
In contrast, thanks to the DGA diversity program that emerged out of the work of the “Original Six,” minority males have seen remarkable positive change in their employment numbers in the past two decades. Just since 2004, when Paris Barclay and Michael Apted created the “DGA Diversity Task Force,” minority male TV director employment has shot from single-digit lows to 17% in 2014.
According to the current US Census Bureau stats, minority males make up 17.9% of the US population, and today they direct upwards of 17% of episodic TV shows. Minority males have arrived. Their numbers, in terms of ratio, are no longer disparate from their population in our country.
Women of all ethnicities, however, have been left behind. Women make up 51% of the US population, are not a “minority,” and yet direct just 14% of TV (only 2% of those jobs go to women of color), and they helm less than 5% of studio features. Women director numbers are staggeringly disparate, in terms of ratio, from their population in our country.
This disparity in employment advancements between women and male minorities is due to the fact that women get buried under the general category of “Diversity.” Studios and signatories can fulfill diversity agreement obligations simply by hiring male ethnic minorities, and without hiring females at all.
In an effort to create a more fair system for women DGA members and to bring our industry into lawful compliance with the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title 7, ensuring equal employment opportunity, the Directors Guild of America needs to create a separate mandate for women.
The DGA National Board must vote to break women Guild members out as a distinct category in all DGA-studio and Guild signatory diversity agreements (such as Article 15 of the Basic Agreement and Article 19 of the FLTTA) as was originally done 35 years ago, before getting derailed through the flawed program of clumping minority men in with women.
Doing this would put the Directors Guild of America at the very forefront of dramatic positive change toward creating gender equity among women directors and their teams in our industry.
Doing this would mean the Directors Guild of American is taking a leadership role in fair gender employment opportunity in the United States, in compliance with the laws of our nation.
Doing this would distinguish the DGA as an organization far ahead of the curve in acknowledging the global relevance of balanced gender perspective in the media we export around the world— feature films and television that help make up the cultural voice of our whole civilization.
Now is the time to act to take this essential, long overdue step toward solving current rampant discrimination against women directors and their teams in U.S. media.
Five reasons women require their own distinct category:
1. Women and minorities are separated by the Guild in terms of statistics, but they are not separated in terms of hiring requirements by Guild signatories. Studios can fulfill diversity hiring requirements by hiring minority men only, and hiring no women at all— which happens all the time.
2. Placing the two terms (“women” and “minorities”) together is both confusing and deceptive because the term “women” represents women of all ethnicities which is a majority population, while the other contains a minority group of people of both genders.
3. The term “ethnic minority” is a deceptive term because differentiating minorities from Caucasians is complex and imprecise. It is a simple matter to categorize oneself as an ethnic minority just by saying you are one. This exacerbates the difficulty of seeking solutions to employment discrimination that women face, especially women of color.
4. Women of all ethnicities face very different and distinct challenges from those of ethnic minority men. Women’s issues require treatment and solutions that differ from those of men.
5. “Women of all ethnicities” are not a minority, they are a numerical majority and ought to be seeking employment parity with men of all ethnicities. This goal is a statistical impossibility if they are combined with men in diversity programs
In March of 2013, The DGA Executive Staff, in conjunction with the DGA National Board, announced a mandate that the DGA Women’s Steering Committee (WSC) draw up new By-Laws to govern their committee.
These By-Laws were to be debated in a WSC meeting the following month on April 6, 2013.
Since 1979, the DGA WSC had never been subject to By-Laws. Meetings ran according to Robert’s Rules of Order. The WSC had functioned for 35 years as an independent ad hoc group aimed at increasing employment opportunity for women directors and their teams.
WSC monthly meetings were held in the DGA National headquarters on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and the DGA funded several WSC events each year.
These events were proposed and voted on by the committee and, though they were held at the Guild, and produced in cooperation with the Guild staff, there was no legal requirement for the events to be in accordance with any Guild expectations.
The origins of the WSC were founded on political activism. The committees work resulted in the 1983 to 1985 DGA-led Title VII-based class action lawsuit against major Hollywood studios on behalf women and ethnic minority DGA members.
By the mid 1990’s, however, the committee settled into a quieter mode which no one paid much attention to.
During these later years, committee meetings were not highly-attended, and they were not frequented by high-profile women DGA members; activities were tame, and by 2004 women’s employment fell to lows that preceded the surge in numbers that followed the legal action of the early 1980s.
In recent years since 2011, however, as a result of the long-term stasis in female director employment numbers, some women have made an attempt to return the committee to its more radical roots.
On March 2, 2013, the WSC hosted the first ever “DGA WSC Women Directors Summit.”
This Summit event seemed to alarm the Guild leadership which historically tends toward conservativism and have a demonstrated record of turning their backs on issues of civil rights and Title VII violations in Hollywood.
Therefore, immediately after the Summit was concluded, the Guild National Board announced a mandate to impose new By-Laws on the WSC. The Board provided specific suggestions as to how each of these By-Laws may be worded.
On the surface, this appeared to be an effort to strengthen the committee by bringing it under closer scrutiny and control of the Guild leadership. Under the surface, however, there appeared to be a darker intent.
Upon close reading, it became evident that the new By-Laws would weaken the WSC by moving it away from its original intent of political action for women in the US entertainment industry.
The new By-Laws appeared likely to curtail the members’ freedom of speech, as they created several obstacles to democratic process and leadership.
There were three particular By-Laws that, if accepted by the WSC, would effectively short-circuit the ability of the non-elected committee members to speak out freely on matters not desired by the Guild establishment.
Some women among the active membership believed it was critical that each new proposed By-Law be examined and discussed with these concerns in mind.
The first troubling By-Law would prohibit women members from running for co-chair seats unless they fulfilled the “Working in the Trade” rule. This rule meant that members who had not worked for at least 30 days in the past seven years would be henceforth disqualified from running for co-chair (leadership) seats in their own Guild.
Thirty days in seven years might seem a small number of employment days to fulfill. However, it represents one assignment on episodic television—the magic “one” that most women simply cannot break through to.
At the same time, the “Working in the Trade” rule was unfairly biased in favor of highly employed DGA women who were already well-represented by numerous other Guild, councils and boards, while silencing the under-employed membership– ironically, the very members for whom the committee was created in the first place.
In fact, most of the founding members of the WSC, “The Original Six,” would not have been able to run for co-chair positions themselves if this law had been in place at the time of founding.
It was thanks to these six directors that the percentage of female employment skyrocketed from .05% in 1985 to 16% in 1995– just ten years time.
Highly employed women and minorities should certainly be able to run for WSC co-chair seats, but under-employed women and minorities must not be disqualified from leadership roles simply because they are unemployed, particularly if a majority of the committee membership wants to elect them.
In accordance with the principles of democracy, if a majority of diversity committee members want to elect a DGA member in good standing who has not worked in recent years, it should be their democratic right to do so.
Furthermore, the current “Working in the Trade” rule fails to take into account the vagaries of feature film directors, who are much more likely not to have worked for years at a time. Most feature directors spend years in development on feature films which then only occasionally get produced.
By stigmatizing these hard-working directors with the stigmatizing stamp that they are “No Longer Working in The Trade” is more than unkind– it is career sabotage by the Guild.
Terrence Malick did not work for 20 years, from 1979 to 1999, and then went on to make one masterpiece after another. No one would every have said that Malick was no longer working in his trade just because of this lengthy lull in his career. Indeed, he was working on development the entire time!
The DGA WSC surely ought to include feature film directors among their co-chairs, as women feature directors are the most under-employed of all the categories in the DGA, constituting just 1.9% of the top grossing 100 studio films in 2013 and 2014.
1.9%! That means 98.1% of these top films are coming exclusively from a male perspective.
The second proposed by-law created a worrisome new approach to co-chair elections. For 30 years the WSC had conducted co-chair elections in the meeting room every two years.
In this way, the committee remained geared toward the DGA members who were actively involved and concerned about the under-employment of women.
The new By-Law opened the elections up to the entire female Guild membership regardless of whether they were involved with the committee or not. This had a potential upside and downside.
On the upside of course, this meant all 3,500 female members of the Guild could participate in electing the women who would represent them in the WSC.
This is very important as long as in the electoral process, the Guild maintains open communications between members such that candidates can educate the full female membership on all the issues at hand and explain nuances of Guild policy and the effects they may have on women. And most important, of course, so that candidates may introduce themselves to the full voting membership.
Unfortunately– and this contributes to the downside– the DGA does not make communication between members a simple matter. Therefore, cyber elections open to thousands of members could bring about the voting-in of members based on popularity and name recognition alone.
Furthermore, the Guild leadership could recommend favorite members who are willing to do the Guild’s bidding in return for support climbing the Guild political ladder and other favors, of which there are myriad possibilities.
This system could make it easy for candidates to get elected who have demonstrated little or no commitment to the primary purposes of the WSC.
Co-chairs of the WSC are elected to represent the whole female population of the DGA, and the majority of women in the DGA are profoundly underemployed and underrepresented. Therefore, they need to be led by peers who will give them much-needed voices both in the Guild and in the industry at large.
If the DGA would provide an appropriate platform from which women candidates could communicate their agendas to the entire female membership, the system could bring about positive results.
Unfortunately, the Guild has historically proved to be a secretive organization, and has demonstrated a history of managing elections from within the high-level administrative staff and member leaders.
It is the under-employed women members who must rely on the diversity committees that were formed specifically to advocate for their particular set of challenges and needs.
For this reason, many women WSC members were concerned that the DGA leadership would individually request “deputized” women members to run for co-chair seats in order to control the goings on in the committee.
Finally, the third proposed by-law put the two aforementioned by-laws together, and then delivered absolute control to the newly elected co-chairs. This law was the most damaging of all to the strength and effectiveness of the WSC:
BY-LAW: “The co-chairs shall set the agenda for each meeting. The co-chairs may also table any motion made at any regular meeting of the WSC by a simple majority of co-chairs present.”
Clearly, this By-Law could easily function as a powerful silencing mechanism, making it difficult or impossible for women to raise issues that could be controversial, no matter how just or right they may be.
The DGA is a craft guild organized over 75 years ago to provide directors and their teams a voice in their struggles with the larger, often oppressive entertainment industry.
The Guild claims to support a strong tradition of free and open dialogue for its members and expresses an abhorrence of any attempt to abridge that openness.
The WSC By-Laws meeting, as designed by the DGA leadership was anything but democratic. The Guild used strong-arm tactics for force the By-Laws through with virtually no compromises at all.
When women DGA members fought back against these new By-Laws, the Guild leadership brought in the second-in-power Guild boss, Bryan Unger (Associate National Executive Director/Western Executive Director), to Chair the final meeting.
Women’s demands to have a female DGA member chair the meeting were vetoed outright by the top Guild brass.
In the meeting itself, which took place on April 6, 2013 at the DGA National headquarters on Sunset Boulevard, women were threatened by the presence of a powerful union boss running the whole meeting.
Male Guild security guards were stationed both inside and outside the conference room where the meeting took place, and a burly male time-keeper remained close to Byran Unger throughout the meeting.
The vote was to be by secret ballot, but the 40 or so women participants were instructed to sign their names on the backs of their sealed envelopes.
Even women who had been strongly vocal in their opposition to the new By-Laws threw in their towels, intimidated into voting for the By-Laws with barely a change to the wording of any of them.
The DGA National Board ratified the new By-Laws just days later.
It is important to note that when debating the particular By-Law that gave the co-chairs power to appoint the subcommittee chairs and all participants on the committee, it was pointed out that this could lead to limiting diverse voices on the subcommittees if co-chair used the By-Law to prevent anyone from participating on the subcommittees.
The four subcommittees are critically important to the functioning of the WSC. These subcommittees include “Proposals,” “Communications,” “Laws & Elections,” and “Events.” The subcommittees are where the real work gets done for women Guild members.
Co-chair Millicent Shelton stated in the meeting that no one would be prevented from participating on the subcommittees.
“Why would we do that?” she asked. “You women are being paranoid.”
In September 2015, however, the DGA-WSC co-chairs did precisely that; this month, when the subcommittee chairs and participants were announced, and they were indeed hand-picked.
The women who were activists for women directors in the Guild and who had asked to be included as both chairs and participants were squarely excluded, contrary to the good faith verbal agreement made during the April 2013 By-Laws meeting.
By pushing these By-laws through the electoral process by force, as was done, the diverse and varied voices among DGA women were effectively silenced, eliminating the very reason for the existence of the women’s committee.
It is never too late to right a wrong. When the DGA imposed these discriminatory new By-Laws on the DGA WSC, it hobbled the women who were fighting the hardest for women’s rights in US media.
Forcing in these By-Laws has erased many years of hard work women directors have done to fight for equal employment opportunity in Hollywood.
The DGA and its new president, Paris Barclay, must be called upon to rectify this policy error. It is the primary duty of the Guild to protect the economic and creative rights of its membership.
Therefore, it follows that it is the duty of the Guild to protect the independence of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee and the democratic freedom of all women’s voices in the Guild.
In 1976 the California Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights determined that women were literally excluded as creators and directors of media content in the United States of America. The Commission stated that the primary block to female director employment is that the U.S. Film and TV industry uses Lists to hire employees, and this makes it very difficult to enforce equal opportunity employment.
Over 30 years later—in 2014—the ACLU is calling attention to the continuing rampant discrimination faced by female directors stating that “Gender disparities in film and TV directing are striking and have not improved over the last 30 years.” DGA, studio, and agency Directors Lists stand at the heart of the problem.
Today, one of the key systems the DGA and studios rely upon attempt to mitigate gender discrimination and increase female hires is Lists. A system not dissimilar from those the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights blamed for equal employment opportunity inaction in 1976. The keeping of Lists of eligible women by the DGA may be central to Hollywood’s chronic failure to comply with Title VII.
It is stated on the official DGA website www.dga.org: “The DGA maintains a contact list of experienced women and minority directors to make it easier for producers making hiring decisions. The list can be obtained by any production company by contacting the DGA.”
Who are the women directors on these Lists? Who in the Guild is responsible for choosing which women appear on which lists? What is the criterion for inclusion on the Lists? How do the DGA Lists keep from illegally advantaging some women Guild members over others? And, most important of all, are the LISTS to blame for the fact that female director employment has remained static for decades?
There are over 1,200 women DGA members in the Director category, yet approximately 1,000 of them (or over 83%) have been chronically unemployed for at least the past five years. The number of employed women has never exceeded 16% of the overall TV directing workforce, and today comprises about 14%— a 2% drop since 1996, 18 years ago.
In 2004, former DGA president Michael Apted established the DGA Diversity Task Force with current DGA president Paris Barclay. It is a committee comprised mostly of DGA women and ethnic minority director members. Committee members are chosen by the Guild’s president to interface with studio execs and episodic TV producers and show-runners to help facilitate studio compliance with DGA-studio diversity agreements.
One must naturally question just how much of a conflict of interest exists when episodic TV directors of diversity are charged with negotiating diversity hires at the very studios at which they are actively seeking open directing assignments. Whatever the case, in the ten years the “Force” has been active, the percentage of female director employment in episodic TV has declined.
Chairs of the DGA Diversity Task Force must work closely with the DGA Diversity department. Barclay has been leading the Task Force since 2004, a time during which female director employment has declined, and ethnic minority male director employment has steadily climbed to its current all time high of 17%.
Lesli Linka Glatter joined Barclay as co-chair from 2010 to 2013, and returned again more recently. According to the May 2015 DGA Annual Member’s Meeting, Barclay has appointed new co-chairs to the “Force”: Todd Holland and Bethany Rooney.
Rooney is one of our industry’s most highly-employed women TV directors, yet she has staunchly opposed political action in the DGA Women’s Steering Committee since she was asked by the Guild leadership become active in the committee last year. Rooney was also elected last year to co-chair the WSC along with Millicent Shelton and Liz Ryan.
Therefore, the pool of women directors whose names appear on DGA TV Directors Lists is influenced by DGA directors who are already in the pool themselves (another conflict of interest). The DGA diversity department is responsible for creating and submitting the Lists upon request to producers and show runners who want to hire more women, but according to Diversity staffers, these lists are “individualized” for each submission.
When DGA Diversity is asked for a List of eligible diversity directors from a producer or show-runner, it’s individual to each case (meaning the names on each list are hand-picked, subject to partiality and favoritism). One diversity administrator told me that “usually those who request a List have specific stipulations, so the Guild diversity takes their master List of ‘eligible directors’ and then produces an individual List according to the stipulations set forth by the person who made the request.”
Former DGA head of diversity, Regina Render, told the DGA Women’s Steering Committee in 2013 that for directors to appear on the List, they must have worked within the past 18 months. Therefore, the default setting for selecting individual directors for the Lists is how recently one has worked, excluding the vast majority of women directors who are chronically underemployed even if they have impressive resumes.
For example, a diversity administrator told me that in recent months one company requested a List of African American directors, so DGA Diversity sent them a list of African American director members who had worked in the past 18 months. They called back and said they wanted more names, so Diversity sent them African American members who had directed in the past 3 to 5 years. Still they requested even more names, so again they were sent all the African American members who had directed in the past 10 years.
Unfortunately, no matter how well-intended the Guild Diversity staffers may be, they are working with a system that is fundamentally broken. The List keeps women who have not worked recently shut out, and that results in producing a small, static pool of diversity director members that advantages a few and prohibits expansion of the pool itself.
It’s important to note that Lists can be illegal— a union may not disseminate Lists if they benefit some members and disadvantage others. The DGA Lists do exactly that. Due in large part to these Lists, just 27 individual women (that’s 2.25% of women out of 1,200 eligible female DGA members) directed 45% of all TV episodes that hired women in the past 5 years. That means 1,173 women were not allowed to compete fairly for these jobs.
Overall, just 4% of DGA women directed 81% of all TV episodes helmed by women from 2009 to July 2014. And if you’re on the List, you are likely to stay on the List. If you are not on the List, you are all but shut-out of TV directing. The List is not merit-based. In fact, it is demonstrable that the women who appear on the lists are no more talented, gifted, or even accomplished than many of the other 1,200 women DGA directors.
These are lucrative jobs, and perhaps a single hire can result in a woman director qualifying for the best health and pension plans the industry has to offer, plans that can cover her whole family. The Guild claims that it is not involved in getting its members jobs, but in fact the DGA Lists are proof that it is fully integral to the decisions about who among women directors works and who does not.
The system is patently unfair, and arguably illegal, yet no one seems to know how else to deal with the problem of rampant Title VII violations in Hollywood— America’s liberal entertainment industry has the worst record of discrimination against women of any industry in the United States, including the military and coal mining.
The way studios deal with this problem is by having the DGA deal with it– and the member-run Directors Guild may be relying on a flawed system the allows for individual self-advancement by those in power. In any case, the Lists present a glaring situation of conflict-of-interest by those in leadership positions to which the DGA National Board appears to turn a blind eye.
Do DGA Lists result in producing a small, static pool of unfairly advantaged women directors and effectively keep others shut out? Are the Lists in part responsible for the decades-long stasis of female episodic TV directing employment? If so, the DGA Lists are the killing chokehold that perpetuates the chronic exclusion of women the directing profession.
Exclusionary Lists feed into Title VII violations against women directors in Hollywood making the entertainment industry number one in gender employment inequity in the United States.
What if you’re the majority, but still the minority?
Women make up nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population and 40 percent of the workforce, but comprise just 13.7 percent of the director members of the Directors Guild. They direct just 14 percent of TV, less than 10 percent of all features, and less than 5 percent of studio features.
“Directing is the final frontier. It’s the one area where women have made no real inroads.” That was producer Gale Ann Hurd (“The Terminator” “Armageddon,” “The Walking Dead”) from a January 1999 New York Times article, which cited statistics from 1998 that are nearly identical to ones of today.
So why haven’t women made inroads in more than 16 years?
“I’d thought we would be done asking these questions by now,” says Martha Coolidge, the DGA’s first female president who began her career in the 1970s. She has some 50 directing credits, with her first hit being “Valley Girl” from 1983.
There is no simple explanation why job numbers for women directors remain abysmal. Numerous studies, however, confirm that there has been no significant progress since the 1990s. Even stats from the DGA, who some members see as being part of the problem, paint a bleak picture.
DGA President Paris Barclay has called upon employers to take responsibility for improving their hiring practices, but why should studios and large production companies do anything if there is no real pressure to do so?
You can look at the lack of women in directors’ chairs as a systemic problem– a combination of sexism and the Hollywood power system. More people in and out of the entertainment industry are beginning to see it as a civil rights problem, however.
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union began collecting accounts of discrimination from female directors (https://www.aclu.org/secure/my-story-woman-director). “We’re gathering the stories basically to bring a human dimension to the cold and dark statistics we see every year,” says Melissa Goodman, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU.
“We are finding that real barriers do exist,” noted Goodman, adding: “It’s important for people to understand that it’s not just a practical problem, but a legal problem as well. Under state and federal laws, it is illegal for employers to engage in gender discrimination, and these laws apply to studios, networks and production companies that employ directors. That’s why were interested in the problem.”
The rub in talking about discrimination against women directors is that it often gets lumped with (and then lost beneath) diversity solutions for ethnic minority men. Today Guild signatories can fulfill their diversity obligations by hiring male ethnic minority members, says Maria Giese, a feature film director who has been fighting for change through the DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee.
In a study released by the Guild last September on the 2013-2014 TV season, it found that 17 percent of the episodes were directed by ethnic minority men. That actually is not bad, given that minority males are an estimated 17.9 percent of the population. (Like in the U.S. Census, DGA members self identify.)
Women, however, who make up 51 percent of the population, directed just 14 percent (12 percent Caucasians, 2 percent women of color). White males helmed the rest– 86 percent. That is indicative of male dominance in “the industry.”
In feature films, it is much worse for female directors. Last year, only 8 percent of the 250 top-grossing-movies were helmed by women. And women direct less than 5 percent of studio features. So, it’s almost no surprise that Ava DuVernay didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominated “Selma.” It wasn’t like the odds were in her favor.
IT’S A MALE NARRATIVE
“The Academy insists its only criterion is excellence,” says Giese. “But with a membership that is 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, what chance is there for other versions of ‘excellence’ to be appreciated?”
Giese is one of those directors who have been pushing for the Guild to take more action in trying to get women hired. “Hollywood, for all its outspoken liberalism, is an industry that has consistently kept women shut out,” she says.
Making films and TV shows is a collaborative effort. Producers, screenwriters and actors have input, but a director is often the most important element. The best ones are called auteurs– authors of the films. So it isn’t surprising that the stories are overwhelmingly about men.
A study released last month by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that females comprised a mere 12 percent of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014, down from 15 percent last year and 16 percent from 2002.
What the world is getting onscreen “reflects a mostly male point of view,” says Giese. It also reflects the bias in Hollywood.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Last September, there was a 35th Anniversary Celebration event for the six founding members of the DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee. “These were the brave women who called out the numbers,” says feature director Maria Burton, the co-chair of The Alliance of Women Directors for six years. “It was called a celebration, but it really felt depressing because of the lack of progress.”
In 1979, less than 1 percent of directors were women. After that, statistics improved, but the numbers have never been above the teens. “Even if (our numbers) had gone up one percentage point a year, they should be at 35 percent today,” says Burton, whose Five Sisters Productions make features and documentaries.
Coolidge, who headed the DGA from 2002-03, says until the late 1990s they were being deceived about the numbers. She says successful women DGA directors like herself, Mimi Leder, Randa Mitchell and Betty Thomas couldn’t understand why they weren’t “really getting any choices or many offers.”
So they began looking at the TV numbers because it was easier verify the contracts. When they found out how bad things were, the DGA put out press releases naming shows that didn’t hire women directors, trying to shame them, and sent representatives to meet with the networks.
The DGA still lists shows with the worst records of hiring women and minority directors, but as Coolidge notes, “It hasn’t gotten better. It fact it’s gotten worst.”
A MEN’S CLUB
In the early years of Hollywood, many more women worked as directors. Then as movie directing became more glamorous and lucrative, women were pushed aside to make room for more men. The mid-century introduced an era of machismo. There were stories of the casting couch and abuse of power. Those days continue, though less publicly, and their residual effects are powerful.
The obstacles women encounter trying to get directing jobs are the same ones many women face in other professions, except they are up against a very entrenched fraternity. Many of the female directors I have talked to over the years told me that men tend to be more comfortable working with other men. They are also more likely to help each other out.
Even if a man wants to help a woman, he may think twice about it. Lexi Alexander, an Oscar-nominated director, says that not long ago a producer tried to help her secure a directing job on a TV show. “He told me, ‘I can only push so far because people will immediately think I’m sleeping with you.’”
A 2014 Harvard Business Review study found that people who have mentors are more successful than those who don’t, but it also found fewer women do. A 2010 Center for Talent Innovation study said that nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions are wary of one-on-one contact with junior female employees because they might be suspected of having an affair. Given Hollywood’s history, that worry is compounded.
As for women helping other women, recently ousted Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal has drawn attention forhelping perpetuate the exclusion of women directors. As one of the few high-ranking women studio executives, Sony produced very few films helmed by women during her reign, and they were not of the big-budget variety.
On the other hand, she hired McG to direct “Charlie’s Angels,” with only music video credits to his name, and Marc Webb to reboot the “Spider-Man” franchise after making the low-budget indie hit “(500) Days of Summer.” You don’t see any Cinderella stories like that for women, though.
GHETTOIZATION OF WOMEN
Since most women rarely get big-budget gigs, they often go the indie or documentary route. “Instead of going around asking for permission or millions of dollars, grab a camera, try stuff out and keep submitting to the festivals,” advises Lynn Shelton, director of Laggies.
More and more women are trying it, but that just re-enforces the idea that female directors are only interested in small relationship movies and increases the competition for the few jobs they are considered for.
“When you have the raise the money yourself,” says Burton, “the stories tend to be small because that’s all you can afford.” That doesn’t mean women don’t want to direct big-budget films with superheroes,” she adds.
Coolidge says she didn’t get into the movie business because she wanted to make small films. She wanted to be David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia, “I wanted to make epics.” But getting the right material is important for a director to be successful, she observes, and “women are too often only offered material men don’t want to touch.”
Valentine’s Day weekend, may have proven that spectacularly. “Fifty Shades of Grey” made $94 million at the box-office, the biggest opening by a female director ever. It was directed by helmed by British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, known more for her still photography. Her only other feature, the 2010 “Nowhere Boy,” made a whopping $1.5 million at the North American box office.
The success of “Fifty Shades” will likely be pointed at by some in the industry as indicating things are better for women directors, but its success will only skew the continuing dismal numbers. As Giese said, “the decision to hire a women on Fifty Shades was strategic. The execs hoped to get around the sexualization of male dominance by have a women direct it.”
Becoming a Hollywood director is difficult enough. A number of men have used their stardom to get into the director’s chair, think Robert Redford, Mel Gibson or George Clooney. And so have women like Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Penny Marshall, Katie Holmes, Barbra Streisand– and Jodie Foster who is now preparing to direct a movie, “Money Monster,” with Clooney.
Giese says, “If you take the female pop stars, movie stars, and centi-millionaire celebrities out of the studio feature directing pool, there really are about zero female helmers in Hollywood making studio films.” The reality is there are far fewer jobs for women to compete for than even the statistics indicate. No one is denying the star-directors talents, but would they have gotten the jobs, if they came up through the ranks?
Every year is supposed to be the year of women at the Sundance Film Festival, which spotlights independent films. The trade magazine Variety did such a story this year and interviewed Sony Pictures Classics male co-presidents, Tom Bernard and Michael Barker.
Indeed, the festival under the Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam is consciously try to raise the profile of women directors. This year about one-third of the films in the American dramatic competition were from women. It seems like progress, and it may be, but an analysis I made of films that were bought at the festival doesn’t seem all that positive.
As of January 31, of the 34 films sold, 23 were by male directors and three co-directed by a man and a woman, meaning approximately 72 percent of the direction was by men. Only four feature films sold were from women directors, while 18 were by male directors.
Women directors are careful about not sounding like whiners. “Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t,” jokes Alexander, a former martial-arts world champion, who calls herself “the anti-chick flick” director.
Lisa Cholodenko, who has seen success recently with HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” and NBC’s “The Slap,” says she gets the question “Are things getting better for women directors” a lot. “I’m not the spokesperson or sociologist or any of that,” she says. “It is hard work being a director, but I think we’ll see over time more and more women doing it.”
This could be interpreted to mean that women aren’t doing the work because it is so difficult, rather than because they are shut out. As Giese notes, “It does seem that most women directors who are currently getting work tend to be optimistic about women directors, or they are fearful of speaking out and risking their tenuous grip on a chair in the boys club.”
Burton, who is trying to do a film on the women who tested to be Mercury astronauts in the early 1960s, says the good news is that there are statistics now to show the inequity, because “no matter how you slice and dice it, through all the years, through all the genres, in front and behind the camera, women are vastly underrepresented.”
Coolidge sees compensation as a major issue that has to be addressed. “When women are hired, that’s usually because they will work harder and accept less pay than men,” she says.
Giese wants to see the DGA-studio Collective Bargaining Agreements changed. ”It needs to include a double-mandate system to address the specific needs of women of all ethnicities, separate from male ethnic minorities,” she says.
While things may be incrementally better for female directors, some worry that it will be decades before they are on equal footing as men and in the meantime many talented female filmmakers will not get a chance to change the narrative.
We will probably know in 20 years if the past few years of feminist activism among women directors in Hollywood proves to have been a real turning point in Hollywood for women. If it is, expect some fireworks.
The 2015 Oscars was utterly ordinary in many ways: one was that a woman did not win Best Director. Not one was nominated. Even though the Academy thought Ava Duvernay was a good enough director to make “Selma” worthy of a Best Film nomination, they did not think that made her deserving of getting a shot at Best Director.
In a groundbreaking article in last month’s The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that Hollywood studios’ “refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”
Dargis breaks ground because it’s the first time ever the mainstream media has put the spotlight on Hollywood’s exclusion of women directors in terms of Title VII violations, that could make a class action lawsuit viable.
As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker last week in support of Dargis: “Calling attention to (women’s) work as often and as vigorously as possible is all the more important because the cinematic roadsides are strewn with the wreckage of major artistic careers of independent female filmmakers of the past half century.”
“Selma” wasn’t the only feature film directed by a woman in 2014, but among the hundreds of eligible narrative films, it was one of only a handful. Jen McGowan’s “Kelly & Cal” was another, and it stands as an example for exactly why female helmers are so crucial to providing our culture with a balanced vision of the world.
“Kelly & Cal” is the story of Kelly (Juliette Lewis), a former member of an underground girl band, who finds herself trapped in American suburbia with a newborn baby that seems alien to her and a corporate husband who was an artist when they married.
The film traverses the thematic territory of films like Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Stepford Wives” (simultaneously male fantasies and female nightmares), yet it delivers a perspective that is completely new. That’s because so few films are directed by women and often, those that are, attempt to emulate the masculine worldview we have all become so inured to.
McGowan subtly, but unrelentingly cranks up the suspense in this tension-filled drama the point of explosion. It is wrenching to watch Kelly torn apart by her internal battle between staying true to her wild nature, and accepting defeat— to be conquered by the “grownup” demands of American middle-class social convention.
McGowan’s sympathetic portrayal of a young woman who disregards motherhood makes “Kelly & Cal” revisionist feminist cinema, since traditionally such a character would be vilified. Unfortunately, as confirmation of Hollywood’s resistance to female helmed films, though the film was released theatrically, its non-existent marketing campaign leaves it unable to reach an audience that could embrace it.
U.S. media is undeniably America’s most influential global export. Feature films contribute greatly to the collective cultural voice of our civilization, but as demonstrated by the nominees for the 2015 Oscars, the only voices the world gets to hear from Hollywood are those of men—mostly white.
As neatly put in The Guardian last month: “Every nominated best director, screenwriter, screenplay adaptor and original score composer is a white man (…) All but one of the best picture nominations are about how hard it is being an entitled, genius white man.”
Today social media is full of comments protesting this striking confirmation of Hollywood’s refusal to embrace diversity, and in response, members of the establishment step in to explain. They insist that the reason the Oscars seem so racist and sexist is because of the Academy’s primary need to protect “excellence.”
As one Facebook member wrote: “The only function of the Oscars is to honor excellence in performance or craft. It is not its function to be purposely balanced by race, gender, age, experience, number of previous nominations, or any other political correctness. Nor is it to be influenced by the subject matter or the contents of the script. The only criterion must remain excellence.”
Noble words, but with an Academy membership that is 94% Caucasian and 77% male, what chance is their for other versions of “excellence” to be appreciated? This concept of excellence sounds a little like fascist art. Abstract art wouldn’t have had a chance if the art world hadn’t included visionaries who could place value on something they had never seen before.
Opinions vary as to whether talent knows no color or sex, but if you have only one distinct group financing, producing, promoting and judging cinematic works, then there is very little chance of finding out. When we look for so-called excellence, too often we are looking for ever-more elaborate replicas of the same thing over and over again.
In America today, with such scant room for diversity of perspective and vision, we will never know what we might be missing. Why not see what other people have to say, besides all these white guys? How unfortunate to miss out on the myriad ways women of all ethnicities perceive the world. America deserves greater democracy in its cinematic arts.
The media produced in Hollywood and glorified at the Oscars, with its apparent yen for a gilded Aryan phallus and its vulgar display of sycophancy toward the cult of celebrity, is a powerful tool capable of affecting the way people in every part of the world act and treat one another.
Why do we allow this fortress of secrecy, this bastion of sexism and racism, to function as the grand architect of our nation’s projected ethos when we don’t agree with it? If we are to live in a world that honors freedom and equality, balanced gender perspective must emerge from our media content.
Hollywood, the world’s most prolific producer of entertainment, should stand as a leader in equality of expression among the sexes. Unfortunately, America’s entertainment industry is one of the worst in the world in terms of including female voices. And Hollywood has the worst record among all U.S. industries in terms of Title VII violations.
Richard Brody ends his article with the words: “female filmmakers of this generation have to build their careers on the basis of a virtual heritage of their own creation, because the industry—and critics—failed the generations that preceded them.”
Maria Giese (www.mariagiese.com) directed the feature films “When Saturday Comes” (starring Sean Bean and Academy Award-nominee Pete Postlethwaite) and “Hunger,” based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner, Knut Hamsun. Educated at Wellesley College and UCLA Graduate School of Film and Television, she is a member of the Alliance of Women Directors (http://allianceofwomendirectors.org), theDirectors Guild of America and currently serves as the Women’s DGA Director Category Rep. Check out her activist/agitator web forum: www.womendirectorsinhollywood.com
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The MPAA chairman Chas Hartman called the heads of the six major studios to an intimate dinner Thursday night to discuss new changes the U.S. entertainment industry must face in the digital age. Under the shroud of darkness, the head of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and leaders from Disney, Universal, Paramount, Fox, Sony and Warner Bros. made a key decision to establish wide-spread 12-step recovery programs for women directors, a source said.
The primary revelation to emerge from the recent North Korean Sony hacking scandal was that women directors are unlawfully shut out from the directing profession, and women across the board from stars to staffers receive lower pay than men in equivalent jobs. For the first time in 93 years, studio heads agreed unanimously with the MPAA to fund an unprecedented new effort to help support women in overcoming their compulsions to direct film and television.
In a major move, Hartman and Sony Pictures CEO Tom Layton teamed up to spearhead the development of hundreds of new 12-step recovery centers in Los Angeles and across the nation dedicated to serving the specific needs of women who believe for various reasons that, according to Title VII, they share the right to contribute their voices to America’s entertainment industry. The content produced by Hollywood studios is our nation’s most influential global export and some women argue that, as 51% of the U.S. population, the female perspective matters.
Layton spoke resolutely, saying “It’s long past the time we studio leaders step up to the plate and provide decent support to American women who need to recover from their grandiose obsession to compete with men in a field they are naturally ill-equipped to handle.”
Hartman followed with a pledge to dedicate millions of dollars per year to building and staffing 12-step recovery centers for women directors, as well as opening thousands of public spaces to self-run meetings for women based on the time-tested model of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Disney chairman Jim Sandborn articulated the magnitude of the problem by explaining how thousands of women DGA members and non-member directors alike have been driven to destitution, homelessness, and despair through humoring decades-long illusory hopes of directing studio features.
“There will always be a place for a small percentage of women directors willing to work for free in documentaries and the indie sector and we applaud that,” he said, “but outside of a handful of millionairess pop and movie stars, there really is no room for women in studio features.”
Hartman stated that he was grateful to have found a solution to the “woman problem” since recent threats of a class action lawsuit on behalf of female directors had begun to strain studio legal departments whose resources are already stretched thin fighting serious looming concerns such as hacking and piracy which could cut deeply into the pocketbooks of industry leaders and players.
Hartman was pleased to announce that he fully expects to receive additional support from newcomer digital players like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, as well as indie studios Weinstein Company, Lionsgate, and Relativity which have also succeeded in keeping women directors shut out for decades. Hartman assured studios that he may lower the million dollar annual fee each studio pays to the MPAA for lobbying in Washington, since additional players will now contribute as well.
“None of these players,” said Hartman, “is interested in hiring women directors, so the problem will just keep growing unless we help women adjust to reality.” The new 12-step program for women directors will be headquartered in Washington DC where the MPAA has long been based, just yards from the White House, and in close proximity to lobbyists, congressmen, and the executive office.
Warner Bros head Colin Hajiwa weighed in with a personal anecdote about several women whose lives he said had been ruined by their aspirations to direct. “They say it’s one day at a time for them. The compulsion to direct is triggered so often and so unexpectedly— just reading a few pages of Murasaki or short story by Mishima might set them off. They need sponsors, a fellowship, and meetings to attend when the temptations to create cinema grow too strong.”
Tom Laytom agreed with an uncharacteristic burst of emotion: “I see so many of them, even in my own family, just playing with their children or hearing a song—anything could trigger the rash compulsion to make a film. It’s irresponsible not to provide a resource so these women may submit to a higher power and recognize that for them directing is simply not the will of God or Hollywood.”
Disclaimer: This parody is not based on real events. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. And no animals were hurt during writing.