There are many actresses, female directors, and showrunners doing incredible creative work behind and in front of the camera, and it’s been fun to celebrate their work with end of 2018 lists, but this piece isn’t about them. This article is about women who are changing the world of filmmaking for the better, by making the industry a more creative, diverse, and positive place to make films and TV.
Find out more about some of the year’s biggest change-makers below.
Free the Bid Founder Alma Har’el
One of the biggest challenges for female directors is career sustainability, which means financial stability, which for many of their male counterpart means making good money shooting commercials. After winning awards for her documentaries, director Alma Har’el tried to find commercial work, only to discover that the commercial world was even more closed off than Hollywood. In 2016, women directed less than 7 percent of commercials and made up less than 3 percent of the creative directors at ad agencies. In looking at the advertising world, Har’el saw the same cultural problems that exist in other industries, but thought that pinpointing and targeting the problem could potentially be easier.
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Every commercial made is legally required to go through a “triple bid” process of hiring their production teams. When an ad agency is hired by a brand to come up with a campaign, it must go out to three directors who interpret the outline of the campaign and pitch their approaches, while their production companies put together a budget. Har’el started her online database Free the Bid with the idea that if she could get agencies and brands to pledge that one of every three bids came from a female director, there was a chance of eventually breaking the cycle. In just two years, Free the Bid has made an enormous impact, with dozens of major agencies and huge brands (including Levi’s and Coca-Cola) signing the pledge. Already, there’s been a 400% increase in female-directed commercials.
Casting Director Allison Jones
When Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang were developing “Master of None,” they needed a female comedic performer to be part of Ansari’s group of friends on the show, potentially someone who could become a love interest. When casting director Allison Jones took a sharp lefthand turn and brought in Lena Waithe, it opened up the show’s possibilities for the creators in so many ways, which culminated in the Emmy award-winning episode about Waithe coming out to her family: “Thanksgiving,” which, in turn, has opened the door for Waithe blossom into a powerful producer-writer in her own right.
It’s one of countless examples of how casting directors are on the front line of Hollywood’s move toward inclusion, but Jones’ talent (and that of her stable of casting associates), goes far beyond finding diverse talent. Dating back to her early collaborations with Judd Apatow to this year with “Eighth Grade,” each brilliant casting decision takes a hammer to the conventional wisdom of what exterior and interior qualities a performer requires to be dynamic enough to captivate us and hold our attention. With what is all-too-often described as “quirky casting,” Jones is helping to redefine what it takes to become a star, while breathing fresh life into our favorite storytellers’ worlds.
Former ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey
In a world of social media, President Trump, and #MeToo, it is sometimes hard to know where the lines are being drawn, as the space between scapegoat and sacred cow feels like it is disappearing. Some punishments can seem arbitrary, while there are those whose constant outrageous behavior has just become accepted and codified. For those having to decide how to handle the industry’s problematic revenue generators, who aren’t violating the law or work place, that decision of when to stop turning a blind eye carries incredible weight and is so often botched, badly, like really badly.
Roseanne Barr presented a particularly difficult set of circumstances. Beyond being the original titular character of ABC’s hit show, Barr’s racism had long been tolerated because she was, in equal parts, also considered something of a conspiracy-loving crazy person. This is, in part, what made former ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey’s decision to fire Barr over a her disgusting Valerie Jarrett tweet so stunning, but also so perfect. It appeared to be the product of moral clarity rather than careful calculus. As the rebirth of Barr’s show was touching hot-bottom topics surrounding the white working class’ move toward Trumpism and sparking a new type of water cooler conversation, there was no room for the face and brand of ABC’s hit show to be this unhinged, this immoral, this racist. It was a decision that was as justified as it was shocking.
Documentary Crusaders Tabitha Jackson and Joslyn Barnes
Documentaries have never been more prevalent and making bigger business than they are right now, and with the rise of streaming platforms, where nonfiction programming is flourishing, it’s a trend that is likely to continue. Yet this rise has only led to the deepening of well-tread grooves of convention, at the exact time the format desperately needs exploration. Film, in general, is a new medium, but the cinematic forms of expression in nonfiction filmmaking are still in their infancy and aren’t exactly emerging from the fertile early days that scripted narrative filmmaking had during the first half of the 20th century. It’s hard to image an art form that has been more limited by unhealthy convention than documentary filmmaking.
From her powerful perch as the director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program, no one in documentary film is fighting more for the art of nonfiction to be explored and expanded than Tabitha Jackson. With well over a million dollars in grants to disperse, overseeing the influential Sundance nonfiction labs and the creation of the Art of Nonfiction fellowships, Jackson has used the considerable resources at her disposal to support and elevate the most exciting cinematic voices in nonfiction, changing the nonfiction culture of Sundance itself. What’s more, her eloquence and demeanor on the topic has bridged the not-always-necessary divide in the doc community, arguing documentary filmmakers using form are no different than others artists and doesn’t exclude social justice topics or anthropological approaches.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, no one is more protective of her filmmakers’ process, not afraid to intercede and push back against producers pressuring a more paint-by-numbers approach. One producer who doesn’t have to worry about getting that type of call from Jackson is Joslyn Barnes. Barnes, the co-founder with Danny Glover of Louverture Films, is a producer who has guided filmmakers trying to push beyond narrow confines by finding ways to protect, nurture, and re-enforce filmmakers’ unconventional processes. Without Barnes, we don’t have a film like “Hale Country This Morning, This Evening,” and without a director like Ra’mell Ross reaching for the untapped potential of nonfiction filmmaking, the cycle won’t get broken.
Union Leader Cathy Repola
This summer, Cathy Repola, the national executive director of the Motion Picture Editors Guild Local 700, did something that seemed obvious, but was unheard of for a leader of film/TV IATSE local. She engaged her 7,000-plus members with specifics on the gravity of issues crew faced, where negotiations stood, and made the argument why they couldn’t wait until the next contract to tackle them. She educated members with videos, emails, presentations, and through social media, which culminated with a spirited July 21 gathering of close to 2,000 members.
As a response, the leadership of IATSE ostracized her, punished her editors in negotiations, slung sexist attacks at her, accused her of illegal behavior, whispered unfounded rumors (many anonymous cowards testing the appetite of this reporter), and more than implied she and her follow leaders of 700 were corrupt. They then launched an expensive, full-barreled get-out-the-vote effort based on the premise that Repola was lying and presented the new IATSE contract – which the AMPTP crafted while never fearing even the possibility of work stoppage – as the best deal ever. In other words, IATSE and its international president Matthew Loeb went harder after Repola, one of their own, than they ever did the studios they were negotiating with. And when it was all said and done, their battle won, Loeb kicked Repola off the unions’ pension board.
Yet, Repola proved in a matter of weeks that film crews could be organized and mobilized in a way Loeb had never dreamed. She showed the issues at hand were too important to continue to be something only local leaders grappled with alone. And as those issues – the rise of streaming, longer work hours that make having a family impossible (and are a major safety concern), and lack of stability in benefits funding – remain, if not worsen, Repola has sketched a blueprint for film and TV crew to engage and strengthen their negotiating power.
The Women of Local 871
Pay equity is a big issue in Hollywood, but when it comes to below-the-line crew, the issues are far trickier as positions that are traditionally held by women are paid far less. How much less? The members of IATSE Local 871 (Script Supervisors, Coordinators, Accountants and Allied Production Specialists) commissioned a report and the results are hard to ignore.
Well, they turned out to be easy for IATSE and the AMPTP to ignore, but 871’s Reel Equity campaign is well-laid out and smart. And when they reached beyond normal channels they found their pay equity petition warmly received by 3,300 industry figures, including heavyweights whose support makes it harder for Hollywood to ignore. It’s a problem that will be hard to solve, as it’s ingrained in its collectively bargained union wages, but these women with very little leverage helped the industry take an important first step towards recognizing the problem.
Many women who work behind the camera face an impossible contradiction, right as they start making headway in their career their biological clocks start ticking. The tensions between career and motherhood are not unique to one industry, but the circumstances are more severe in film production. The long hours and travel make it difficult, childcare options are typically non-existent, and there’s a perception that pregnant woman shouldn’t be on hard-working sets. In an industry striving for gender equality, this issue more than any other keeps the scales impossibly tipped.
For many in previous generations, production versus having child was a black and white choice, but increasingly, a new generation of production moms are navigating not-so-easy path.
My daughter was born this March in the middle of my wife working on the biggest job of her production career. The job was an opportunity she’d been working toward for close to a decade. When the shoot was pushed at the same time she got pregnant, the assumption was she would have to wait for the opportunity to come along, hopefully, in another two to three years, if at all. Either way, the trajectory of career would be altered by the birth of our second child. Except a group of women – two very powerful producers, a studio exec, and my wife’s crew – rallied around her to make it possible.
One producer, who more than anyone made this possible, told us that every baby born to a production changes the perception of the industry. So to production moms, and those who support them, know filmmaking is a better place because of you.