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An Open Letter to TV Showrunners: There Are Over 1200 Experienced, Accomplished Women Directors Waiting to Be Hired

Features
by Rachel Feldman
July 17, 2014 3:20 PM
6 Comments
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Dear TV Showrunners,

I have known many of you over the years as colleagues, bosses and friends. I know you to be a group of professionals with the highest work ethic and a mindful approach to your families and the issues you find socially relevant. So I can't help but wonder, where is your social consciousness about gender equity in Hollywood?

You all have wives, sisters and daughters -- a few of you are female yourselves -- and I know you want an even playing field for those you love in whatever career they desire. In corporate America, even in American politics, the numbers of women in positions of authority has grown tremendously. But in Hollywood, a supposed bastion of progressive thinking, only 4.7% of the studio films are directed by women. Though it is documented that 12% of episodic television is directed by women, when credits are examined by name, this number does not seem to represent how many different woman are directing, only the total number of episodes. By name analysis, it appears as if only about the same 15 to 20 women directors are hired again and again. 

I know there are millions of dollars at stake. I know that your actors and crew demand the highest level of professionalism. I know that when you hire a director, you want someone who will make your job easy, and because of that you either hire guys you know, or guys who are well known. I also know that employment equity and women’s rights are far from the top of your mind when you are in the whirlwind of production.

Showrunning is a very tough job, but hiring more women directors is not simply a labor/employment inequity that needs to be rectified -- it’s an issue that has important, global social relevance. Film and television are our culture’s most powerful influencer and ambassador. All around the world, even in the most remote corners of our planet, men, women and children see how Hollywood movies and television present the human condition. Our media is a great proselytizer, and we have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that the images and ideas we disseminate represent the most enlightened aspects of culture and are not created with a single-gender perspective.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media has published studies finding that, when woman create media, stereotyping is radically reduced and more female characters appear onscreen. Women directors often cast females in roles that had been written for men; tone down hyper-sexualized wardrobe, gratuitous nudity, and on-screen violence; and populate background talent with equal genders. These sensibilities don’t make us better or worse as directors, but show that there are varied perspectives.

I was delighted when ABC Network and Studios recently held an event with the goal of introducing current production executives to experienced female directors with whom they were not already familiar. ABC consulted with the DGA and made a step forward in acknowledging they need to do better in hiring women directors. It was a much appreciated endeavor and a lovely evening. However, the executives admitted that their approvals were of little use since showrunners, who did not attend this event, are the single most significant element in hiring.

The primary reason showrunners and executives cite for not hiring more women is that they don’t know any. As former co-chair of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, I’m delighted to tell you that there are over 1,200 experienced, accomplished, female director members waiting to be hired. Will you have to move out of your comfort zone to find them? Yes. But this is a job worth doing.

Your list of women directors will probably not come from agents (unless you want the same 20 directors who are already directing all the time) since the vast majority of women directors sadly do not have the benefit of representation. You will have to check out festivals, or even train the talented filmmakers who are already on your team as editors, A.D.s, or script supervisors. Or even easier, reach out to the Guild to be introduced to any number of talented, mid-career women directors with decades of credits. 

Talent doesn’t dry up. Only opportunities do.

Of course, the feature film world is even worse. With only 4.7% of our studio features directed by women, the same excuse for not knowing any women directors is given by studio heads every day. Having top agents and prior box-office mojo is no guarantee of who will successfully direct your next picture. The trail to great women directors will not be uncovered by conventional means, but through the route of discovery.

A friend of mine, who is a prominent attorney in town, told me that when he organizes panels for the American Bar Association, he is mandated to enlist a diverse panel of experts. And while it sometimes requires a bit of a search, he and his profession recognize the importance of doing so. Each and every time he discovers new people, the panels are enriched in ways he had never anticipated.

The television showrunning community has a great opportunity to be the leader for women. With over 3,300 episodes of television being made each year in Hollywood, YOU have the power to make real change for girls and women around the world. Film schools are filled with female students. Let’s not doom another generation of promising young women.


Rachel Feldman is a director and screenwriter. She is currently in development on The Good Years, a feature film based on the life of Lilly Ledbetter with Mandalay Pictures. Rachel has directed series television and Movies of the Week for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, FOX, HBO, Lifetime, Disney Channel, Teen Nick, and SyFy. She teaches directing at Loyola Marymount University and has taught directing and screenwriting at the University of Southern California. Rachel was a recent Co-Chair of the Directors Guild of America Women’s Steering Committee. Follow Rachel on twitter @WomenCallAction or visit her website at www.rachelfeldman.com.

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6 Comments

  • Jen Frankel | July 22, 2014 7:12 PMReply

    After reading submissions for 5 years to a major film festival, I can tell you that more than 50% of my submissions were women. When I go to lower level events, more attendees are women. When I look at film schools, theatre schools, and music schools, more students are women. It's only "out in the real world" and at higher levels that women aren't represented. Why? Because no one lets us in. Men are chummy with each other, and pass on opportunities, bring on acolytes, sponsor each others' careers. They don't with women. And there are not only not enough women already in the biz to make a difference, they don't have the power, and they're always watching their backs. The quickest way for a woman to kill her own career is to advance too many women and become known as a feminist. That's the way to ejection from the club. It's not about what women want -- it's about who's in the position to let them get it.

  • Joy | July 21, 2014 9:16 PMReply

    David Wiseheart, there are so many reasons for the lower submissions to upper level awards, festivals, etc., that it's impossible to summarize.

    But this article focuses on one problem, a lack of women directors being hired for TV episodes and films, and prescribes some solutions for that same problem, pairs it with show runner's common explanation that they just don't know female directors to hire, and recommends some solutions.

    Rather than broaden the discussion beyond reasonable bounds, how about we stick to the matter at hand?

  • David Wisehart | July 22, 2014 4:25 AM

    I mentioned the festival submission stats because that was the only data I could find on the relative numbers of men and women attempting to become working directors.

    The Sundance Film Festival gets about 12,000 submissions per year, so it's a large sample of aspiring filmmakers.

    The data indicates that of that sample of aspiring filmmakers focused on narrative films, about 13% are women.

    According to the DGA, 15% of episodic television is directed by women.

    So the amount of episodic television directed by women is roughly the same as the amount of Sundance narrative film submissions directed by woman.

    The headline of the article above states that there are "Over 1200 Experienced, Accomplished Women Directors Waiting to Be Hired."

    And that may be absolutely true.

    But nowhere does the article state how many "experienced, accomplished male directors" are waiting to be hired.

    The DGA has over 15,000 members.

    If there are 1,200 female DGA director members, that represents only 8% of the total membership.

    So the problem with getting more women directors jobs in television (or film) appears to be that the available talent pool is overwhelming male.

  • David Wisehart | July 21, 2014 8:52 AMReply

    It's not just Hollywood.

    Even in the indie film world, women aren't directing as many films as men.

    I don't know why.

    The Sundance Film Festival commissioned a study by USC's Annenberg School, which among other things looked at submissions to Sundance from 2009 to 20012.

    Women only accounted for 13.1% of all narrative film submissions.

    For every submission by a woman director, there were 6.61 submissions by male directors.

    Yes, the working directors in Hollywood are almost all male.

    But also the struggling, out-of-work directors are almost all male.

    If there are six times as many men as women trying to be film directors, this needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

    If the goal is for more women to work as directors in Hollywood, then we need more women to pick up a camera and make a film.

    No one needs Hollywood's permission to make a movie.

    Is it hard to make an indie film?

    Yes.

    But the barrier to entry is very low.

    Get a DLSR, get some friends, get a few thousand dollars, and do it yourself.

    Some day we may see as many working female directors as working male directors, but not until an equal number of women get in the game.

    Why aren't women attempting to be filmmakers in equal numbers to men?

    I don't know.

    Okay, let's look at something a little easier:

    Writing.

    Women can certainly write as well as men, and they're absolutely killing it in the publishing world, especially with self-publishing, where the only real gatekeepers are the readers.

    But what about screenwriting?

    We all know women writers are underrepresented in Hollywood.

    But again, it's a similar pattern.

    It's mostly men writing screenplays, trying to break into the industry.

    For the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, fewer than 30% of submissions are by women.

    Why aren't more women writing and submitting scripts?

    I don't know.

    It's a very real problem, and I wish more women would live up to the spirit of that Annie Lennox song, "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves."

    Because complaining is not an effective strategy.

  • Rena | July 17, 2014 5:08 PMReply

    Thank you Rachel. Very, very well said.

  • Paula Harvey | July 17, 2014 4:16 PMReply

    This needs to be said, great thoughts.

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