At the Oscars on Sunday night,
Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette used her moment in the spotlight to speak out on the issue of
gender inequity. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and
equal rights for women in the United States of America!” she said. Though she was not speaking directly
about wage equality and equal
rights for women directors of film and television, Ms. Arquette’s points
are as applicable to the entertainment industry itself as they are to broader
American labor issues.
Much has been written
about the gender gap regarding women helmers in Hollywood, but little has been
offered in the way of solutions. Part of the problem is that the system is indeed rigged
against women filmmakers, since default hiring practices rely on looking at
qualifications from a very specific and antiquated point of view: “Who is her
agent?” and “What was her last job?” Women are predisposed to fail by these
criteria — they are often unrepresented and lack the resume employers are
seeking. These traditional questions, which aim to establish proof of talent,
in truth do little more than validate the fact that others have already vetted
If fresh voices and talents
are ever to fill the employment pipeline in equal numbers, the questions asked
by employers must change. Executives must develop their own evaluative criteria and instincts instead of following the pack. Over the years,
development executives have become sophisticated in the language of the writer. It’s time for studios and networks to trust their executives to evaluate potential
directors with more than a pre-ordained stamp of approval.
Some substantiating facts:
1) Very few female film and
TV directors have representation. Most
women directors, even the 1,200 DGA members with myriad professional credits,
simply do not have a proxy to advocate for them.
2) Defining prior
experience through a traditional lens shuts women out. Women filmmakers will
take any job they can get in order to learn and grow: public-service
announcements, music videos, webisodes. These jobs may not have hot stars or
big box-office results, but it’s a credit to their passion that they’ll take on any kind of work they can in order to exercise their skills. The
experience of accomplished assistant directors and script supervisors who have
supported decades of other directors’ work also warrants attention. These women
know the job, but have never been given an opportunity. Their experience on the
set should count.
We are accustomed to
thinking of a good director as an “auteur,” a filmmaker with a strong, distinctive style and practice. This is also often the core factor in hiring a
director. Yet an essential ingredient
in developing any artist’s unique voice is practice, and practice requires
opportunity. But opportunities are scarce for women. In fact, women directed only
4% of our industry’s studio films in 2014. Without the opportunity for
practice, the “auteur” theory rules out the vast majority of female filmmakers.
If the status quo is ever
to change, the entertainment industry must desire
change. Complacency has left our statistics at embarrassing levels, lower than
most other American industries. Isn’t Hollywood supposed to be a liberal and
Two specific shifts need to
occur in the hiring evaluation process in order for gender equity to occur. The
first is as simple as engaging in deep conversation with the potential
director. Does she have a vision for the project? Does she bring a unique and
well-formulated approach to the job? Do you leave the meeting with a strong
sense of her ability to lead a set? Was she inspiring? Does she have a strong
sense of the visual world, of performance, of story?
While conversation is
certainly not a foolproof method of evaluation, if more women were simply
brought in for discussion, hiring would improve. The Rooney Rule is a fine
example of this in action. When the NFL mandated that more minority coaches be interviewed, lo and behold, more African-American coaches were
hired! It’s as simple as that.
The second essential change
is reel evaluation. Those with the responsibility to hire must take a serious
look at any reel a director has available and evaluate it for what it is, not for what it might be lacking. It
doesn’t matter if her credits are older — talent doesn’t dry up, only opportunities
do. Perhaps that director spent a few years having children, or writing novels,
or sailing around the world. Does that make her a weaker director? Doesn’t that
make her a stronger director?
It also shouldn’t matter if her reel is comprised
of commercials, corporate videos, or television episodes in another language. Talent
and skill can be evidenced in so many ways. It is the responsibility of the
executives in charge to ask themselves, “Does this director demonstrate a level
of competence and artistry?” If the answer is “yes,” then that director
deserves further investigation.
A common hiring trap for
television directors in consideration for features is the expectation of pilot
credits as proof of being able to lead a vision. Episodic television credits
are often discounted because the perception is that the director was hired to execute an established style and therefore might not be able to create an
original vision from her own imagination.
But toiling in series television is
also perhaps the best training for professionalism, efficiency, and thinking on
one’s feet. It’s also a world that is more open to women and should be viewed
as the perfect pipeline for feature filmmakers. Just look at the 2015 DGA wins: four
out of ten categories were won by women! Give women opportunities, and they will
excel. Working in series television as a journeywoman director, learning and
adapting to different techniques, styles, personalities, and politics doesn’t diminish one’s ability to create a
distinctive voice. It prepares a director for the time when she will be given
her shot to create the world as she sees it.
If you are optimistic about
diversity, shadowing, and mentoring programs generating statistical change, think
again. The vast majority of these programs, including those created inside the
DGA itself, consider gender part of a larger diversity pool. But women make up
52% of the population. We are not a minority, and we represent every ethnicity
and sexual orientation under the sun.
If you’re an agent,
financier, actor, technician, or an executive at a studio or network, if you
are anyone in the position to hire directors or support the careers of women
directors – and you care about the role of women in our society and the voices
of women being elevated and heard in media – it is your ethical and moral imperative to
change the way you evaluate and hire. Stop relying on lists created by others. Talk
to women directors, look at their work, and then — if you see talent — push for
them. That’s all it takes.
Rachel Feldman is in development to direct “Ledbetter,” about fair-pay activist Lilly Ledbetter, produced by Burton Ritchie and Academy Award-winning
producer Cathy Schulman. “Ledbetter,” co-written with Adam Prince, was a 2014
winner of The Athena List. Rachel directs movies and episodic television and
was a recent Chair of the Directors Guild of America Women’s Steering
Nora Tillmanns is a third-year law student at the University of
California, Los Angeles. She will be joining Jones Day as an associate in the fall
of 2015. She is Rachel’s daughter.