DGA-Studio Directing Fellowships: Worth Your Time?

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“Consider yourself lucky to be able to watch!”

By Maria Giese

Starting a career directing film and television often begins with a conundrum: one cannot qualify to direct until one has directed, yet how can one direct without first becoming qualified? Leaping over this logistical divide is often accomplished with the intervention of a mentor, when a more experienced director or a TV executive takes an interest in a young talent.

Over the years, the DGA diversity program has experimented with a variety of mentorship efforts to help its women and minority members—with mixed results. Unfortunately, the recent mentorship programs initiated as joint efforts between the DGA and the studios have been widely acknowledged to be failures. Even though the Disney/ABC-DGA Directing Program, launched in 2001, boasts “one of the longest-running programs of its kind in the entertainment industry,” completion of the program by the selected fellows has resulted in relatively few actual directing jobs for its participants.

Equally disappointing results have emerged from those who have completed the HBO-DGA Television Directing Fellowship Program. Why do the DGA-studio directing fellowships deliver such mediocre results? Before attempting to answer that question, let’s examine why mentoring programs in general have had such a long history of success.

Throughout the ages, young people have gained apprenticeships from skilled or experienced people to learn a trade or enter a wide variety of professions from the arts to banking. When we analyze the success of mentorships throughout history, what emerges as a key-contributing factor is the presence of reciprocity and mutual benefit. In this light, we may begin to understand one reason for the overall failure of the DGA-studio diversity fellowships. For while these programs are intended to engender mentorships between young talent and experienced directors and/or executives, and hopefully result in jobs, they actually only serve to provide mutual benefit between the DGA and the studios, not the women and minorities who participate in the programs.

One women recipient of the ABC/DGA Fellowship, who was already an accomplished director, spoke of her experience: “The DGA-ABC fellowship was a complete waste of time. Constantly, they told us we should network with each other! What? ‘Cause the other fellows would help us! What? Don’t we all have plenty of friends in the business? And aren’t we here so YOU, the people at ABC, can help us?

“Then, on the sets, they stare at you like you’re a homeless person or a spy or a freak. The Executives running the program and the ones in current don’t want the shows to hire the people in the (fellowship) program. They are not interested in actually getting the fellows put on shows. They are more worried about maintaining their jobs than they are interested in getting someone an episode to direct.”

From the standpoint of studio employees who must tolerate these unwanted shadows (and often treat them with resentment), the selected fellows are little more than a nuisance who provide no opportunity for reciprocity at all. Since the relationship is not mutual, the reluctantly participating executives and directors often seem to look upon the fellows with derision. In general, only if an observing director is actually assigned to an upcoming show that season, or in the near future, will the observer be treated with respect. DGA-studio diversity fellowships not only provide no guarantee that a participant will get to direct an episode of TV after completion of the program, there is not even a promise that one will get to observe a show during the program.

As the ABC-DGA Fellowship stipulates upfront: “A stipend of $950.00 per week when actively shadowing, will be paid. The duration of the individual’s participation is at the discretion of ABC executives, executive producers and/or episodic directors. And the HBO-DGA Fellowship states similarly: “Fellows will be employees of HBO on a non-exclusive basis and will be paid approximately $50,000 for up to one year, anticipated, but not guaranteed (depending upon the number of weeks worked and hours per week), to work on a television series to be determined by HBO pursuant to an employment contract.”

Salaries of $950 per week or $50,000 for the year-long fellowship may be very tempting to an unemployed applicant, but she should know that, as these “actively shadowing” periods are “at the discretion” and are “anticipated, but not guaranteed,” they almost never add up to much pay at all for any of the fellows. As one ABC-DGA fellow comments: “When I got in, they chose 15 of us for the program. The idea was to send the list (of fellows) to all the shows and let the shows decide which one of us they would invite to shadow. But the shows didn’t come forward. When ABC realized that very few of us had a chance to shadow, they extended it for another year. I got one shadowing opportunity in 18 months, and managed to arrange for another shadowing assignment on my own when the program was about to end and nothing was coming in. The stipend was $950 a week for the weeks you were shadowing—for 2 to 3 weeks, if you were lucky.”

Even though the fellowship programs have little to offer their participants, they are highly competitive. The application process is rigorous, involving notarized applications, an essay, several letters of recommendation, a director’s reel, and an interview for the finalists before a panel of DGA and studio executives. Although applicants do not need to be DGA members, the requirement of a director’s reel indicates that previous experience is required. In fact, many of the directors who become fellows have already put in numerous hours observing on prime time TV shows. Many of them have completed film school, and directed shorts or even feature films, yet after completing the program, they still do not get assigned to an episode of TV.

Paradoxically, these fellowships are very prestigious. Fellowship applicants are usually very excited when they learn they have been selected as finalists, and they are often over-the-moon when they find out they have been selected as fellows. They get their photos taken with members of the DGA diversity staff and participating studio executives, but it is not until the end of the fellowship period that the complete disappointment sinks in. The fellows have made the DGA look good and the studios look good, but for them, more often than not, the year or two of commitment has resulted in nothing more than a farce and a preposterous waste of time. One women DGA member who completed the program, and did not get a show, noted that the only fellow she knows of who did get a directing assignment was someone who was already employed on the show: “…an actor who did an arc (a multiple episode role) on the show anyway, and had been a dorm-mate of one of the executive producers. He never showed up for any of our gatherings.”

It is broadly acknowledged in the world of episodic directing that many shows are directed by cast and crew members, some of whom have never directed before in their lives, and are often not already members of the DGA. Episodic television is a producer-driven form of media that benefits from uniformity of vision from episode-to-episode. Therefore, a unique directorial approach is precisely what producers do not want. The production crew of an episodic TV show usually runs like a well-oiled machine, and it is propitious to hire from within.

From the point of view of the producers, the best choices to helm each show fall to those who are most familiar with the show: the producers themselves. Writers, editors, and script supervisors also make natural choices for the position of director, and of course, on a long-running show, nearly every star will make a demand to direct at some point or another. TV director mentorship programs designed for women is to be successful, it needs to include a policy of guaranteeing the mentee a directing assignment on a show after the observation period is completed.

The promise of a job is essential to maintaining the self-respect of the shadowing mentee, as well as the respectful treatment by other employees on the show who are guiding her in.  Since the fellowship application process is so rigorous and competitive, one can safely make the assumption that anyone who at last receives the prestigious position would likely be adequately qualified to helm a show at the conclusion of the program.  TV directing jobs are highly coveted and highly paid. They must be well paid as most directors only get a few gigs a year. The executives and show-runners who hand out the directing jobs know what valuable prizes they hold.

Therefore, they give the few available slots to individuals who will provide some special benefit, either to the show or to them personally.  Sometimes it is beneficial to hire a nephew or a step-son; perhaps a girlfriend or boyfriend would like to try their hand; a loyal crew member certainly deserves a shot after years of dedicated work. For producers, handing out directing positions on their show may help maintain good will and mutual benefit in any arena of their lives. Why bother with a mentee they hardly know?

In the final analysis, one wonders what directing jobs could remain for the female fellow and DGA member who has done her time over many years building a great foundation to prepare herself to direct.  From any standpoint, what currency does the women director have to trade? Talent, competence and skill as a director? How can one know whether she possesses these requisite skills until she has had the opportunity to direct an episode? If her previous work, as demonstrated on her director’s reel is not enough to assure a producer or show-runner of her ability, only the act of directing will suffice.

In the long run, the DGA diversity fellowship programs do not help women DGA members at all. In fact, an argument may be made that they affect women adversely by diverting their energy and wasting their time. It is certainly unproductive to women directors that their guild wastes precious resources allotted to programs intended to help increase employment for women on large-scale, long-term fellowship programs that are undeniably ineffective.

The DGA Diversity Program continues to promote these prestigious studio directing fellowships as progressive joint efforts forged by the guild and the studios to remedy the under-employment of its women and minority members. ABC and HBO, from their sides, continue to call the programs a success. And indeed, the programs are a wonderful boon to the maintenance of reciprocal good will between the DGA and the studios. But do they help increase employment opportunities for women DGA members? They do not.

Herein lies the very heart of the problem of the under-representation of women directors in America, and thus globally. If the primary negotiating entity for directors in the U.S. film industry is not demanding parity standards for women directors, then they are acting in complicity with the studios to maintain discriminatory policies that prevent a shift toward parity. In such a case, women directors have little hope of changing the status quo.

The DGA points its finger at the studios, and the studios point their fingers at the DGA. While America’s films studios and other producing entities that actually hire directors are primarily responsible for the under-employment of women, the organization that must initiate crucial change is the one that represents the rights of directors: the Directors Guild of America.

 

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