For years, women fought to work behind the camera, especially in the television world, while the Hollywood system balked. But this fall, there’s real evidence that change is coming, thanks to the industry embracing a simple two-step process:
1) You acknowledge the problem.
2) You do something about it.
By “doing something about it,” that very specifically means giving women a real chance to prove themselves behind the camera. Because every time they get it, it leads to additional opportunities.
This year, FX dug into this issue unlike perhaps any other network on television, courtesy of what network president John Landgraf called “a good, swift, well-deserved kick in the butt” from Variety’s Maureen Ryan. The TV critic last year broke down the demographics for directors working in TV and found that 88 percent of FX Networks episodes last season were directed by white men.
“In my view, the state of affairs described by Mo represented a failure of leadership on my part as well as on our part as an industry,” Landgraf told reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour last month. “I immediately set out to correct that error. I wrote a letter to all of the FX Networks showrunners — those who actually make the hiring decisions for episodic television directors — asking for their help. And I am truly heartened that they all responded very positively.”
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Thanks to the FX team’s efforts, 51 percent of the directors booked for the 2016-2017 FX season are female or diverse, and 11 percent are first-time episodic television directors. According to Landgraf, “They’ve done a fantastic job of upholding the extraordinary quality of work we’ve come to expect from our FX shows and those who run them.”
Another collection of shows that have been dedicated to inclusivity behind the camera is, believe it or not, the DC TV universe spearheaded by executive producer Greg Berlanti. The showrunners behind “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and “Supergirl” have all tackled this issue, with producer Marc Guggenheim announcing at this year’s TCA press tour that 50 percent of the directors on “Arrow” this upcoming Season 5 will be diverse, and that the other DC shows are equally committed to the cause.
“It’s a huge priority for all the shows, and for us as a company,” producer Sarah Schechter added.
Berlanti noted that in seeking out women directors, he ran into unexpected complications that led to women saying no. “We do most of our shows are out of town, and there are a lot of female directors who are actually not just the breadwinner in their house, but they’re also having to go home and take care of their kids,” he said. “So you’re going to offer them an opportunity out of town for two or three weeks, and it’s challenging for them.”
That meant the team had to stay committed to the cause and keep making offers. “On ‘Legends,’ I think we offered something like 20 women to direct that we got passes on. But we still kept our numbers up by just asking the 22nd, and the 23rd, and the 24th,” Berlanti said.
Of course, no show has provided opportunities to female directors like the new OWN drama “Queen Sugar,” co-created by “Selma” director Ava DuVernay. In a recent conference call promoting the show’s premiere, Duvernay credited OWN founder/media goddess Oprah Winfrey with giving her the freedom to make some history: Hiring an all-female slate of directors for the show’s first season.
How did DuVernay find this line-up, which included established indie directors like So Yong Kim, Tanya Hamilton and Kat Candler? “I chose them because they’re just filmmakers who I knew were dope, basically — it was a dopeness scale that I rated people on.”
But her motivations had a strategic angle as well. “These were women like my Sundance buddies, people who I had been on the circuit with. I mean, all of these women have directed before… but all but two of them had never directed episodic television,” she said. “They all made film, feature films, yet this industry would not allow them to direct episodic. They all tried, they all took the meetings, they all put their foot in the door. You’ve had feature films debuting at Berlin, Venice, South by Southwest, Sundance, and you can’t get an episode of TV? That’s how [each episode] works if you’re a lady. And so it’s just ridiculous.”
“So my hope was twofold,” she added. “One, to have dope directors on the show directing with me. And two, was to just give them that first episode so that they could be off and running, because I know how it works. Shonda [Rhimes] gave me an episode of ‘Scandal’ and after that just offers came piling in. I was like, whoa; I could just direct television for a career and pay my mortgage. And so, I knew if these women could get one episode of television, that they would be off and running. And that’s exactly what happened.”
This “catch-22” of director hiring is one that Greg Berlanti also addressed at the TCA press tour, remarking that because they’ve been pushing to increase behind-the-scenes diversity in recent years, they’ve been able to create real ongoing change. “One of the rewarding things is that this year, in particular, a lot of the individuals that we’ve worked with over the past couple of years are booked and are doing other shows,” he said.
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“Queen Sugar’s” alumni are definitely keeping busy. DuVernay disclosed that many of the directors who worked on Season 1 have already found future gigs — Victoria Mahoney has booked episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “American Crime,” Tina Mabry will work on Justin Simien’s Netflix adaptation of “Dear White People” and Salli Richardson-Whitfield will direct an episode of “Underground” Season 2.
“Everybody, every studio, called me about these ladies, [asking] who was good? I was like, they’re all good. They’re like, but which one do we hire? I was like, hire them all,” DuVernay said. “The ‘Queen Sugar’ director is in demand. I’m excited by that. Next season we’re going to have a whole new slate of ladies and hopefully, ‘Queen Sugar’ will be a place where an industry that doesn’t want to pay attention to the talent of women that’s right in front of them can take the shortcut and look at the directors who direct ‘Queen Sugar’ every season.”
Because it’s only recently that there has been real effort made on this score, the industry is just now beginning to understand the benefits of increasing the number of women behind the camera. One show that benefitted from a woman’s touch was the upcoming TNT drama “Good Behavior,” starring “Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery as a troubled con artist who quickly gets in over her head. The pilot was directed by Charlotte Sieling, who previously helmed shows like “The Killing.” Dockery told IndieWire that the style Sieling created was “very, very filmic.”
“[On the set], she said that the genre of the show is ‘poetic noir,'” Dockery said. “And [creator Chad Hodge] said ‘What’s that?’ and she said ‘I don’t know — we’ll find out.'”
Dockery had worked with women directors before on “Downton Abbey,” but for “Good Behavior” she felt it was “essential” that the director be a woman. “It is so female driven — not just because I play the female lead. There’s a femininity about the show, there’s something that Charlotte really tapped into. We have male directors who totally get it. But for the pilot, having a woman with me was just incredible.”
It’s change that matters, if only because it represents movement towards actually representing the world we live in. As “Supergirl” executive producer Ali Adler cracked last month: “Women are not the minority. We’re actually the majority. Just don’t tell anyone.”