Women Helmers in Media’s Brave New World

"Reed Hastings!  Help me out!"
“Reed Hastings!   Help me out!”

“TV in ten years is going to be 100% streamed.  On demand.  Internet Protocol. Based on computers and based on software.  The next generation won’t even know what live TV is— they live in an on-demand world.”
( The New Yorker – 2-3-14)


By Maria Giese

It’s not just the weather that’s changing these days—global media is on the verge of a seismic shift and, as we all know, change means opportunity.  This new media revolution could be the moment of opportunity women directors have been waiting for to seize a piece of the employment pie.

Les Moonves, CEO of CBS was recently quoted as saying:  “For 25 years, I’ve been hearing that Network television is dead.  We’re thriving like never before” (The New Yorker).  But truth be told, he’s a dying, old dog— and a misogynist one at that.  (Save your tears: Moonves will still get a hell of a lot richer before the game is over. He earned over sixty million dollars last year).

All of these moribund Network heads— male and female alike— of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW, and so on, whose paternalist sensibilities have been keeping women directors of all ethnicities buried for decades, are about to get swallowed whole by a new generation of media giants whose universal perspectives may just suggest a sea change in thinking about gender equity.

Will the old Hollywood TV networks, that have been in rampant violation of U.S. gender employment equity laws for decades, drag their biases against women helmers out the exit door with them when they go?  The emerging mavericks– Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos, and Susan Wojcicki– of America’s growing on-demand streaming media, like Netflix, Amazon, and Google, may be able unveil a promising new horizon for women in America’s most influential global export– media.

Netflix head, Reed Hastings, is practically a new species compared to Moonves or Sony’s Amy Pascal (a female studio head who has failed to hire a single women feature director in years).  Hastings is highly educated, an innovative thinker, and Peace Corp veteran who spends much of his time on philanthropic work for charter schools.  He could just become the model media executive for a new era of gender equity in the American entertainment industry.

What makes this possibility seem hopeful?  As the new forms of media come to power, statistics about female consumers become more important than ever.  Women today make up 51% of the population of the United States, control over 2 trillion dollars of American purchasing power, and 85% of household purchases.

In 2013, 503 billion dollars was spent on global advertising.  Seventy billion of it went to U.S. TV ads alone, and more and more of it is migrating toward digital streaming platforms.  Simple math and basic laws of good American entrepreneurship suggest that future global media success will rely in part on integrating women in accordance with their viewing numbers and purchasing power.

Getting the business model tuned just right for maximum profit will require not just creating more femme-themed content, but getting more women directors behind the camera to tell these stories from a female perspective so they resonate with women and girls around the world.  If a new world order in media is going to dominate human story-telling— a profession from which, right now in 2014, women are almost 100% excluded as creators– new media giants will limit their potential.

Right now, even though women enter and graduate from our nation’s film schools at a 50-50 ratio with men, they step onto a professional directing playing field that is at an almost vertical male-dominated tilt against women.  With women directors currently comprising just 4% of feature films and 12% of episodic TV, women’s stories are lacking authenticity.

Let’s take a quick look at just how women could ride the crest of this breaking wave into a future of parity on the emerging new playing field of global on-demand streaming media. This inevitably explosive media expansion will surely give rise to the need for considerably more content creation and could provide women with new opportunities to direct without taking work away from men.  Gender competition for such a lucrative and high-status employment resource as directing has always been one of the key barriers for women directors.

Among the new emerging giants– Netflix, Amazon, and Google– Netflix is just now shifting from its hybrid DVD distribution platform to financing and producing big-budget new series content that is released all at once for binge viewing.  Netflix recently coughed up $100 million for the first two seasons of the critically successful13-hour series “House of Cards” and Amazon is tentatively making its first series.

Google, not to be left behind, is adding professional-grade video programs to its platform.  YouTube is a platform of infinite channels and on-demand media has made it possible for new sources of financing as diverse as Microsoft, that is also producing original content.  In fact, YouTube allows the potential for every single viewer around the globe to become a content provider.  Right now the networks are lagging behind in this race, although Hulu has been created to withhold some of the business from emerging new competitors.

What this means for women is very significant.  There is sure to be a vast increase in content, but when the number of women directors is currently so low, one wonders: will the new executives begin to hire women directors?  Or will they follow in the misogynistic footsteps of their network predecessors, as was evidenced on “House of Cards” which employed zero women directors on the first 13 episodes.

Unfortunately, for myriad reasons—from conscious and unconscious discrimination against women directors among studio executives and show-runners to widespread feminist complacency during the massive economic boom— 1995 shadowed the beginning of a 20-year period of stasis for women director employment.

Today, in 2014, few TV executives or showrunners even consider hiring women helmers.  For this reason, the number of working women episodic TV directors today is on an ominous decline, down 4% since last year, from 16% to 12%.

As with any burgeoning new ecosystem, the first settlers to gain a foothold will gain a marked advantage.  In this light, fresh opportunities for women directors demand that they use their every resource to overcome the powerful forces of sexual discrimination that have kept women marginalized and excluded from the directing profession for decades.

Thanks to a large class-action lawsuit against three major studios in 1979 (led by the DGA on behalf of women directors from 1983 to 1985), when DGA women directed just .5% of TV episodes, that percentage shot up to 16% by 1995.  Coming in the wake of the the the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970’s, women had many reasons to believe that a new era of gender parity in Hollywood was upon them, but today that hope has not born out.

Got game?

On another front, although very nascent, we see the new dawn of interactive gaming—an exciting new platform for storytelling that hasn’t even begun to be probed by serious directors, but is certain to flourish.  To snub this new opportunity, as feature directors snubbed music videos until the 1980’s and commercials until the 1990’s, would be foolish for women, even if the stories presently comprise primarily male-oriented action.

Who the emerging leaders and decision-makers of new media will be is as yet uncharted territory, but the DGA Women Steering Committee could benefit women directors and their teams by presenting a symposium to meet the various representatives of the new media content creators in gaming— a world that is thus far completely untapped by women.

In conclusion, in fighting gender discrimination, women directors need to shift their targets from the old entrenched networks that are experiencing fractures in their foundations, to the erupting volcanoes that are certain to evolve into the new media mountains of the future.

These are the new partners the Directors Guild of America needs to focus on in future collective bargaining negotiations in order to be sure that diversity agreements are strengthened and complied with to include women directors– equally.

(The author is grateful to Ken Auletto for his inspiring article, “Outside the Box,” in The New Yorker – Feb 3, 2014).



The DGA/Studio Agreement – Feminist Analysis

"Well, maybe they'll do something for women in the next Negotiations in 2017"
“Well, maybe they’ll do something for women in the next Negotiations in 2017”

By Maria Giese

“Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay on Wednesday announced that the DGA membership has voted by an overwhelming margin to ratify the new collective bargaining agreements between the DGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers” (The Hollywood Reporter 1-8-14).

DGA President, Paris Barclay says that “This negotiation was about laying the groundwork to protect our future in a meaningful way,” but what new groundwork has been laid for the future of women directors?  None.  None at all.  Even though many women members of the DGA have been working tirelessly for two years to get the Guild to pay attention to the “criminal” under-representation of women directors in this round, this negotiation result shows definitively that the DGA could not care less about gender equity in our industry.

The primary failing of the new Agreement is that women remain buried within the category of general diversity.  Therefore, even if in the coming years the numbers of female director employment remain the same or even continue to decline, while those of male ethnic minority directors continue to make reasonable forward strides, the studios will still be able to have demonstrated successful adherence to the new Agreement.  Under this contract, the studios could do remarkably well by advancing only male ethnic minorities. There is no legal obligation for them to advance women in any way; the only legal requirement is that diversity hiring improves.  In order for the agreement to benefit women, it must specifically refer to women of all ethnicities as a separate class, in their own right.

The new Agreement states that “Each of the major television studios is now required to establish a formal Television Director Development Program no later than July 1, 2014 that is designed to expand opportunities for women and minority Directors in episodic television.”  It is good that they have agreed to a requirement that each studio must establish a TV directing program, but there is no stated criterion for how these programs will be implemented, nor how they will differ from previous programs that have failed to move the numbers in over two decades, nor are there stated goals or timetables to specific requirements necessary to ensure that the programs will be effective.

The Agreement also states that “for the first time, the establishment and adequacy of these programs, and the Employer’s existing annual meeting requirements to further these issues, are subject to arbitration.”  The inclusion of the words “annual” and “requirements” possibly suggests that some numerical goals are contemplated, but what they are or might be is absent, and more importantly, even if such goals are implemented, it is not explained how the Guild and the studios will specifically break-out women as a separate class.  If women are to be aided in this reach-out, then those numbers need to be measured specifically and tracked against stated goals.

The specific methods the Guild uses to make sure that Employers annually meet the proposed requirements will ultimately determine success in advancing diversity hiring. Therefore, it is critical to know what criterion will be employed in making sure that formal TV director development programs will be established.  Also, it is not stated howl the “adequacy” of these programs will be determined, nor under what conditions will the studios be subject to arbitration.

Furthermore, the previous Agreements have stated that the studios must use “good faith efforts” to hire more women DGA members, yet this term is known to be flacid, and is partly responsible for the extraordinary decline of female director employment in the past two decades, a period which, by all accounts, should have seen a marked increase in employment gender equity among directors in Hollywood.   The DGA Women’s Steering Committtee’s Proposals Subcommittee had previously requested that the Guild negotiate a stronger term to replace “good faith efforts,” such as “best efforts.”  They pointed out that the term, “good faith efforts” is not strong enough as arbitration of violations can only occur if there is “smoking gun” evidence of discrimination, which is rare and requires individual women to risk “blacklisting” if they complain.

Unfortunately, the term was not changed, but was only amplified with a new term, “work diligently.”  So, the studios must use “good faith efforts” and “work diligently” to increase the employment of DGA women.  However, the term “work diligently” has no specific legal meaning and is open to interpretation by the courts, should a women be bold enough to bring suit.  This leaves the burden of proof in the hands of individual women which, of course, has failed thus far to support women in increasing their employment numbers.  This merely perpetuates the broad problem that current industry-wide, institutionalized discrimination against women directors will continue to be reduced to individual ad hoc grievances that are only burdensome in rare cases that there is ample smoking gun evidence, such as e-mails.

Let us hope that with hard work and constant application some progress might result for diversity hiring overall, but as with “good faith efforts” the new Agreement sets forth no legal requirement for progress for women.  In effect, with this new Agreement we continue to rely on the good will of studio executives to effect any increase in hiring of women DGA members.  In a best case scenario, therefore, we must spend three more years watching closely to see if the studios actually deliver on these agreements, and that our Guild does not merely continue to pay lip service to oversight, but actually enforces them if they are able and have the will to do so.

Going forward, women directors must be vigilant regarding the effectiveness of the new agreements; we must be prepared to provide evidence if the results turn out to be disappointing. We must see to it that that the DGA truly holds the studios’ feet to the fire in fulfilling their new purported obligations.  No matter what, women must now redouble their efforts to initiate a new set of proposals to submit for the 2017 collective bargaining negotiations.  This expense of lost time is something we women directors can ill-afford.

11 Ways the DGA Sabotages Women Directors

At the Center of the Web of Discrimination Against Women Directors
The DGA is the Spider at the Center of the Web of Discrimination Against Women Directors

By Maria Giese

  1. In 1985 the DGA was disqualified from leading the class action lawsuit it had filed against three major Hollywood studios on behalf of women DGA members.  Even though judge Pamela Rymer ruled that the women had a valid case, order she had to disqualify the DGA as leading the class because, illness in her view, treatment the Guild discriminates against women as much as the studios do.
  1. After being disqualified from the suit, the DGA made agreements with the studios to hire more women (FLTTA Article 19 & BA Article 15), but it never acted on most aspects of the agreements, resulting in decades of stasis and decline in the number of employed women directors.
  1. Even though industry compliance of U.S. equal rights laws should be overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice and the EEOC, in the 1980’s the Directors Guild of America became the primary organization charged with overseeing lawful studio compliance of DGA-studio agreements to hire more women.  Extraordinarily, in two decades the numbers have not moved, except down a little.  As employment numbers among women directors continue to worsen, evidence mounts that the DGA is not capable of commanding this duty that has such broad political and cultural impact– globally.
  1. In 2004, DGA president, Michael Apted, initiated the DGA Diversity Task Force to oversee studio compliance of Guild-studio agreements to hire more women directors.  The two co-chairs and the entire membership of the “Force” were comprised of working directors who were actively seeking open-assignment directing jobs at the very studios they were supposed to be policing.  This “conflict of interest” resulted in unprecedented career success for some committee members, but from 2004 to present, the number of employed women directors actually declined.
  1. The DGA has still failed to provide the women of the DGA with comprehensive statistics relating to female director employment from 1979 to present in feature films and episodic TV even though the Guild has completed the study and the request for these statistics came through official channels in the DGA-WSC involving a motion that won majority vote and was approved by the Guild almost 2 years ago.
  1. In 2012, when several members of the WSC Events Subcommittee won unanimous vote approval for a day-long DGA SUMMIT for women directors, the WSC co-chairs, the DGA Diversity Department & the Guild leadership all actively tried to stop it.  Finally, on March 2, 2013, the DGA Women of Action Summit became the most important day for women DGA members in 30 years. The event was not covered in the broad media or industry trade magazines.
  1. The DGA claimed to have included a comprehensive proposal created by DGA women members in the 2014 DGA-studio collective bargaining negotiations, which only take place once every three years.  The results of the 2014 negotiations relating to women are as follows: “Diversity – Each of the major television studios has agreed to maintain or establish a Television Director Development Program designed to expand opportunities for directors in episodic television with an emphasis on increasing diversity.  Establishment of Industry-Wide Joint Diversity Action Committee which will meet at least once every four months.”  In other words, no change for women
  1. The DGA continues to refuse to publish articles in the “DGA Quarterly” relating to discrimination against women directors in our industry, choosing instead to occasionally celebrate and promote individual women directors.  Prior to 2011, when some women Guild members commenced efforts to create change, almost no images of women directors ever appeared in the publication, with the exception of photographs of actresses handing awards to male directors
  1. The DGA maintains a secret short-list of highly employed women directors that they submit to producers and show-runners seeking to hire more women directors.  As stated on the www.dga.org website:  “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.”  If a female DGA TV director has not worked for more than 16 months, she is not included on this list.  This list unfairly advantages a tiny pool of highly employed women directors, while further marginalizing other women directors.  This policy encourages tokenism, maintains the status quo of under-representation of women directors, and is divisive to women in the Guild.
  1. The DGA further institutionalized discrimination against women in the Guild by mandating a “Working in the Trade” requirement, disqualifying women who have had difficulty getting work in preceding years from running for elected co-chairs seats on the “Women’s Steering Committee” which was specifically created in 1979 to help under-employed women directors.
  1. The Guild continues to promote diversity events and programs (celebrations, networking & fellowships) that have been proven ineffective for decades, without making any changes to their basic structures.




November 10, 2013

Dear Michael Apted & Steven Soderbergh,

American women directors are grateful that you have accepted your appointments to co-chair the current DGA Feature Film and Television Negotiations Committee and DGA Creative Rights Committee, respectively.

You are each internationally beloved and admired filmmakers who have made inspiring feminist films including “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Erin Brockovich” about marginalized women who have been courageous in speaking out for justice.

The DGA is the primary organization in the United States charged with oversight of studio compliance of entertainment industry agreements to hire more women in accordance with Title VII and U.S. equal employment laws.

As such, we urge you to address the ongoing unlawful under-representation of women DGA directors in the collective bargaining negotiations currently taking place until December 2013.

As champions of women and women’s issues, both in your films and throughout your careers— if not you, then who— will help remedy our nation’s unjust employment ratios among American women directors.

We count on you to wield your influence where it is needed now more than ever, in support of employment equity in the industry that creates America’s most culturally influential global export–media.

Yours sincerely,

Women Directors in Hollywood



Women Directors: March in Burkas

Edited by Maria Giese

2013 DGA-WSC Women of Action Summit: Roundtables Recommendation #24: American women directors should protest industry discrimination by trying everything, decease even “marching in burkas”!


Read more about the Summit



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


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.



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.

DGA Women: Memory Lane is Heartbreaking

Edited by Maria Giese


The following excerpted article, written by Nancy Mills for “The LA Times”  in 1986, puts into perspective the struggle of women directors in Hollywood during the past 30 years.

Though Michael Franklin (then Executive Director of the DGA), lamented in 1986 that little had changed in the year following the 1983-1985 DGA discrimination lawsuit against three major studios, the next 10 years would see a steep rise in the employment of women directors from less than 1% to 16% in 1995.

Unfortunately, in the nearly 20 years from 1995 to 2013, those numbers have sadly fallen– less than 5% women directing feature films and just 12% to 14% women directing episodic TV.

We women at “Women Directors: Navigating the Boys’ Club” hope that this glance back down memory lane will encourage a revival of new action toward getting women directors back on the path toward equality.


By Nancy Mills – The Los Angeles Times – November 17, 1986

“In 1980, statistics gathered by six women members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) confirmed (…) that in the past 30 years, women had directed fewer than 1% of all major feature films and prime-time television. Specifically: Of 7,332 pictures, women directed 14; of 65,500 hours of television programming, women directed 115 hours.

Along with those bleak figures, the DGA Women’s Committee also presented to entertainment industry power brokers a detailed affirmative-action proposal for getting more women “tracked into the main talent pool of working directors.” The years since have seen lawsuits, networking, seminars, studies and conferences dedicated to increasing access for women into the prestigious guild…

…There are definitely more women directors at work today than ever before–on major projects in film and television. Women directors are an emerging minority. At the same time, conversations on the subject throughout the industry tend toward a good news/bad news pattern. Some sample observations:

“Those women who are working, by and large, seem to be doing reasonably well,” acknowledged Eileen Carhart, who along with Michealene Cristini and Thompson O’Sullivan co-chairs the DGA Women’s Steering Committee. “But there are not enough women working.”

–“I remember the (1980) meeting when those women revealed those embarrassing, shameful statistics,” producer Norman Lear reflected. “But then everybody went back to work, and I never saw any evidence of improvement.”

–“On balance, I’m satisfied that since our efforts commenced in 1978, progress has been made by women in gaining employment as directors,” said Michael Franklin, executive director of the DGA. “I am disappointed that our litigation a few years ago on behalf of women and minorities was not successful, but it, too, played a part in moving forward our goals for equal employment opportunities for women.”

–“The average person is no longer opposed to women directors,” said DGA President Gilbert Cates. “Ten years ago, the majority of studio executives questioned the ability of a woman to direct a film. Today, you’d have to dig deep in the barrel to find a fool to say that. That attitude has been put to rest.

“But the numbers are still disappointing. There’s no doubt that in relation to population, the number of women directing is very low. But I’m pleased to say that the awareness of the work of women directors is very high.”

–‘Women are now going on to direct second and third features,” noted Eileen Carhart of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee.

“That’s different, even from the early 1980s. But it’s misleading to extend that same kind of positive growth to all the women working or not working in this industry.”

The last six years undeniably have seen a lot of consciousness-raising in the entertainment industry, and conversations on the subject of women’s access tend to center around questions of socialization of attitudes as well as power structures.

Just wanting to direct isn’t enough, insists Richard Donner (“Superman,” “Ladyhawke,” “Goonies”). “In the past, I’m sure women directors were kept down,” he says while directing a helicopter scene in the upcoming “Lethal Weapon,” a buddy-buddy cop picture starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

“Twenty years ago it was brutal for all minorities. But over the last 10 years, if people wanted to direct, they did it. So many people sit back with the excuse, ‘I’m not working because I’m black or I’m Italian or I’m a woman.’ My feeling is there’s been the desire but maybe not the energy put in by women.”

“Directing has always been kind of a boy’s club, like most things in America,” Ned Tanen, president of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, believes. “I don’t perceive this problem as being about this business. It’s a subtext of American culture: ‘You raise the kids, you take care of the house, dear. I’ll go out and kill the bear.’

“It’s as if this is the Middle Ages or the period of the suffragettes. I keep thinking we don’t talk about these things anymore. And when we start talking about them, I say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re still playing this game.’ ”

Tanen’s view of women directing in Hollywood: “Earlier, there physically weren’t that many women remotely equipped to direct because they hadn’t been allowed to get into that position. But now the lid is off. It certainly is here. We’re really trying.”

But old attitudes die hard. Directing has been traditionally regarded as a man’s job, complete with boots, riding whip and bullhorn. “The kind of strength needed to direct has nothing to do with brute force,” Norman Lear emphasizes. “It has to do with strength of character. A deeper voice does not a director make.”

Lear talks in terms of individuals, rather than male/female–an approach women welcome. They object to being lumped together as representatives of their gender. “When it’s a woman, they move it into a generalization,” complains Phyllis Geller, a top KCET executive and a former president of Women in Film (a group of professional women who work in the film and television industries).

“Women have to do twice as well to achieve the same thing. We do give each other a bad name if we don’t do good work. If one woman causes trouble, the next five will have problems.”

In some industries, lawsuits have been successful in improving women’s positions. But many consider the entertainment industry to be unique. “A corporate mentality will respond to affirmative action, but a creative mentality won’t,” suggests Deborah Aal, president of the Leonard Goldberg Co.

Dawn Steel, president of production at Paramount, dismisses the thought of lawsuits. “It’s about talent, not lawsuits,” she says. “I don’t want to be in the position where I thought I got the job because I was a woman. No other woman wants to be in that position either.”

The DGA did try litigation. After the 1980 statistics were made public, the DGA encouraged production companies to adopt voluntary affirmative-action programs. It also attempted, unsuccessfully, to get producers to agree to having one out of every 13 TV episodes directed by a woman.

In 1983, when it was felt that little progress had been made, the DGA filed class-action lawsuits against Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, alleging discrimination in the companies’ hiring of women and ethnic minorities represented by the guild.

In August, 1985, the cases were dismissed. In brief, Judge Pamela Rymer ruled on counter-claims filed by the two studios. The studios argued that the DGA contract gives directors the right to select the first assistant director, and the first assistant the right to select the second assistant.”

WD/NBC is grateful to Nancy Mills and the LA Times. Drawings by Daniel Dejean.