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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10 Responses to DGA-Studio Directing Fellowships: Worth Your Time?

  1. Katy Jelski says:

    Maria,
    I was one of the recipients of the ABC-DGA Directing Fellowship in 2003-2004, and I received a directing assignment directly through the program. This then lead to a couple f years of employment (at the rate of one job per year, but still, it was a start). Granted, this was way back in the early-aughts, so the program was very different then (only THREE fellows accepted in that iteration!). But somehow I always remain off the list of directors who a) went through the program and, even more bafflingly, b) off the list of directors who actually GOT A JOB through the program! I have some quibbles with your assumptions about how-and-why certain people get jobs in TV. It is an extremely complex issue, and one which is not readily encompassed by the “they just don’t want to hire women” cliche. I would be willing to talk to you about my thoughts, if you would be interested. You could contact me at the email above.
    Yours,
    Katy Jelski

    • Editor says:

      Thank you, Katy, so much for reading and commenting. With my whole heart, my only aim is to try to make things better for women directors. I know there are exceptions– and I am glad you are among them, but in the broad spectrum, since 1995, the number of employed women directors has declined. Something is terribly wrong with the joint efforts of the DGA and the studios, and even Regina Render head of DGA diversity, concedes these fellowships have been disappointing at best. I want to change that for women now and in the future. I am so grateful for your openness to talk. Maybe you can help me add another perspective to make the article deeper and more truthful! I’ll e-mail you right away! Kindly, Maria

      Maria Giese
      310-678-9632
      aegisfilms@earthlink.net

  2. I transitioned from assistant director on an episodic series to director on that same series. This was before there were any diversity or shadowing programs in place. I had worked 4 seasons as a first assistant director on the series and then, after much lobbying, directing a few second units on the same series, and having prior film school training and a background of live TV directing (DGA) at several local stations — I also had to threaten to leave the show if I was not given a directing assignment — I finally received a directing assignment. The show turned out very well and I was given 2 episodes to direct on each of 3 more seasons. From my directing work on that show, I was given 2 episodes on another series at another studio (a former writer/producer from the original series now worked at another studio). Then another producer I had worked for many times as an assistant director gave me a directing opportunity on one of his series. It was 10 hours of directing altogether and then it dried up, stopped completely. The producers who had hired me were no longer working on series, had retired, or otherwise had become unavailable. I had an excellent, well-known agent who tried his best to get my tapes around and discuss me with episodic producers. The usual response he got was, “We hired a woman director once and she didn’t work out. No more women directors.” Change the gender and see how ridiculous it sounds. I lived with that career-killing sentence for a few years and then took matters into my own hands. I started optioning properties, scripts, articles, life stories, and began pitching them in an effort to create directing work for myself. One of them hit the mark. An indie feature script I had optioned was bought and I was attached as director and as one of the producers. The project was owned by the company that purchased it and they paid me a very low directing fee, never paid me any of my contractural fees as producer, and cheated me in a variety of other ways. But I got to direct a feature film. It sold immediately to the USA Network which, with some re-editing, was broadcast as one of their “original” movies for 4 years. It also received worldwide distribution in theatres and TV. I was hired to direct two more indie feature projects. I developed each of them with a screenwriter and producers for 1 1/2 to 2 years each and for different reasons, the projects were never produced. In one case, the producer who had hired me was fired and the small studio changed its mind about greenlighting the project. In another case, the production company was bought by a high-tech company and got out of the feature film business. After those experiences, a lot more pitching and developing of projects that went nowhere, I decided to try making digital video films of my own, on spec, and selling them. I started with documentaries. Over 7 years, I made 3 videos and each was distributed nationwide on public TV stations. So far, the only money I’ve made from them was from DVD sales, mostly educational. Only in 1 case, a short doc, have I broken even on the production and post production self-funding. So indie documentaries give you great creative control but it’s next to impossible to make a living that way. It’s best to have some other income to pay the bills when you make docs. The figures for women directing documentaries are very high because there is no money in it. Of course.

    The diversity programs described in your blog sound very disappointing. There are only a few positive stories to tell about women who began directing and then continued to direct for the studios and independents as their ongoing career. Hollywood’s culture is the last bastion of male chauvinism. And even IT is changing slowly. Very, very slowly — but it is changing. It has to. For many decades there were NO women directing in Hollywood. Now there are a few, all too few. It’s not a pretty picture for women directors anywhere you look. We have to keep trying, persisting, and eventually, things will get better. It may not even be in our lifetimes.

  3. Editor says:

    WOW! Thank you for that wonderful detailed sharing of you career. Talk about dogged determination! I feel certain that if you were male, with your persistence and evident talent and competence, you would likely have experienced tremendous success.

    It’s extraordinary how some of us just don’t give up. How we cobble together our careers however we can, following a dream our culture doesn’t seem to support. I have spent the past several years taking a special interest in discrimination against women in our industry because of my own story.

    After graduating at the top of my class at UCLA graduate film school, having won all the top awards, including a Spotlight and being a finalist for a Student Academy Award, and immediately getting signed at William Morris LA & UK, and writing a script for James Caan that was produced for $30 million, and writing and directing my own globally released feature for Capitol Films with Academy Award nominee Pete Postlethwaite and Sean Bean– After all this, I found myself unable to get hired.

    I was attached to 5 feature films over ten years, which I wrote or re-wrote and spent years developing only to have them snatched away and handed to male directors (and Canadian males especially) right after getting green-lit. Then mY old friend (the National Exec VP of the DGA and Exec Producer on Law & Order) FINALLY brought me in direct an episode of Law & Order: “You’ve done your magic again, Maria!” he said.

    After about 1,000 hours of observing on “LA Law,” “Crime & Punishment” & “Law & Order” in NY, and sitting in on post at Universal for weeks, he unapologetically gave my episode to his stepson — who had no MFA from film school, did not have an agent, had directed no feature film– in short could in no way have been regarded as being remotely as qualified as I was. Today, that stepson is one of the most highly-employed TV directors in Hollywood and a leader in the Guild.

    So all these years later, having continued to work every day developing new scripts, producing my own multi-award-winning indie feature on a shoestring budget for which I was completely unpaid (“Hunger” – Amazon.com 2011), I began to realize that perhaps it wasn’t my fault. And I started writing about it, because no one else was doing that. And I discovered that there are hundreds of other women just like me, who try so hard, and who blame themselves for their lack of success.

    I want to stop this FINALLY! This visible and invisible discrimination that hurts women and girls so much everywhere– around the world. And I learned it was unlawful, this level of employment disparity in our industry. And I learned that the male power structure is using a few highly-employed women directors to act as their deputies, to keep us from speaking out credibly. That’s the point of this whole website– to make sure the next generation of women doesn’t have to experience this humiliation, this disappointment, and this terrible waste of gift and talent.

    I thank you so much, Judith, for reading and commenting. Please keep in touch. Maria

  4. Matia Karrell says:

    Maria:

    I agree with Katy Jelski this is a very complex issue. I have shadowed on many shows but the best experience was with the John Wells Program. In brief: I was paid very well for one season to learn the show and get to know cast and crew. After my term was done I was given an episode to direct. The feeling I had was that everyone wanted me to do well and, as a result, the episode did prove successful. Jessica Yu and Rosemary Rodriguez, who also went through this same program, have successful careers that in some part is due to the Wells Program. Having directed one episode in the last season and having an ineffective agent at the time it was difficult to translate this into another show.

    Later, I applied to the ABC/DGA shadowing program. Ironically, it was my West Wing episode that got me into the program. In my year, I was with two other men who had only made short films. My academy-nominated short film was hardly, if ever, mentioned. Perhaps the thought there was to keep us on an equal footing experience-wise. And, perhaps, this is where they faltered– while pushing me forward they held me back.

    If the John Wells Program can be held as the gold standard then this is the model we might use: not go through the networks but through the producers who have shows on the air. That through their production company, and with an incentive from DGA , they can be encouraged to offer a program that could lead to a directing assignment.

    By the way, it has occurred to me to First AD a television show so that I might have a chance at directing one.

    Yours,
    Matia Karrell

  5. Editor says:

    Hi Matia,

    Thank you! And congratulations on your episodes and on your Academy Award nomination! I am fascinated with the John Wells Program which I do not know much about. I will research that programs for a short article. Perhaps in part thanks to the work we women have been doing in the DGA-WSC these past two years, the Guild is now ramping up the directing fellowship programs with many more studios: CBS, ABC, HBO, ADTP, and (in progress) Warners– and this was among my primary reasons for publishing this article.

    In my opinion, it is absolutely critical that these programs in their new incarnations GUARANTEE at least a certain percentage of slots to the participating fellows. The problem with “observing stints” without everyone knowing the fellow is very likely to be directing an upcoming episode, is that they can be humiliating experiences which make (particularly) women vulnerable to the executives in charge of hiring.

    I remember one women mentee candidate wrote to me that she was sent by her agent to be interviewed to “shadow” on a prime time TV show. She went in, showed her reel, and spoke. When she later called her agent to ask how it had gone, the agent told her that the executive flatly told him: “Don’t ever again send me someone I wouldn’t want to f–k.”

    The anecdote is probably not that surprising to any women in this industry, but it points very clearly to the fact that mentorships (and shadowing stints) often only succeed because of reciprocity. If a women director has nothing to exchange except unproven talent, the likelihood of achieving her aim of actually landing a TV directing job is made quite difficult.

    I believe that the Guild and the studios need to openly accept the overall failure of these programs where women are concerned, and make appropriate changes immediately– for this upcoming season– if they don’t want experience more failure.

    Continued failure to increase employment for women directors (which has famously been a laughing matter for most execs who don’t really want to succumb to any “forced hiring” of directors), will now have very powerful legal entities watching their actions closely as they move forward.

    The fact that Hollywood players often arrogantly believe they can operate outside the jurisdiction of United States laws protecting equal employment (like Title 7) are wrong, and the secret is out.

    Again, many kind thanks, Matia. I’ll keep in touch…. Maria

  6. Matia Karrell says:

    Again , I urge WSC to consider going through production companies instead of the networks. The production companies could have their own application process and, as a result , will be much more invested in the Director’s shadowing outcome.

  7. Editor says:

    That’s a great recommendation. I’ll pass it along…

  8. Maria, Thanks for your supportive response to my post. Hearing your story was equally horrible, frustrating, and so completely unfair. It tends to make one quite a cynic. And then reading your response to Matia’s post was horrifying. Thanks for your good efforts at seeking change through this blog and your work with the WSC at the DGA. However, I’ve been going to Women’s Steering Committee meetings for 35 years now and, alas, very little changes.

    • Editor says:

      Thanks, Judith– It’s so true that nothing seems to change. When I first started going to WSC meetings 2 years ago, I could see why. Individual members were using the group as a platform for personal gain. I immediately thought: this is the DGA! The most powerful union in our industry. The Women’s Steering Committee should be the most powerful organization representing women directors in the world. We should be spearheading global change for women directors everywhere– starting with our own industry. In fact, numerically, many, many other countries are serving women directors better than we. That’s shameful. So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do: create that transformation in the WSC. A lot of people in the Guild (both male and female) were threatened by it, but little by little that seems to be changing. If we can get everyone to start thinking really BIG, I think we can really can do something historic. I hope so! Very best, Maria

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