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).

 

 

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