This past Saturday, March 2, 2013, became an historic day as the DGA Women’s Steering Committee hosted the DGA Women of Action Summit in LA bringing together 150 female American directors for a day-long event designed to create solutions to the problem of the under-representation and under-employment of women directors in Hollywood. This event was a long time coming and to me, the day was reminiscent, in terms of unity, passion and commitment to the rallies for women's rights of the 1970's.
The day included opening remarks by Academy Award-winner and advocate, Geena Davis, who connected the need for the global proliferation of more positive images of women and girls to the immediacy of getting more women behind the camera here in Hollywood. Currently, according to the latest stats from the DGA, women only helm 5% of feature films and 15% of episodic TV shows.
Victoria Hochberg, who introduced Geena Davis set the moral tone for the day with a beautifully crafted speech about the history of the DGA Women’s Committee and the need for courage and principles in the face of an industry that often does not honor the civil rights laws of our nation. Hochberg was one of the six who started the DGA Women’s Committee in 1979. She reminded us of our history, spoke the difficulties involved in attaining the employment data. In 1979 women made up one half of one percent of employed DGA directors. Most interestingly, she revealed how the Women’s Committee succeeded in getting the DGA to file a class-action lawsuit against three major studios in 1983, a piece of history not often shared by the Guild.
The first panel, "Employment Equity Matters," moderated by Martha Coolidge, director of 46 films and the first and only female president of the DGA, included successful feature directors: Debbie Allen, Catherine Hardwicke, Amy Heckerling, Mimi Leder, Nancy Meyers, Robin Swicord, Betty Thomas, and Nia Vardalos. Each of these mega directors agreed that even the view from the top is dismal. Even in success, America’s top women directors do not enjoy the privileges accorded to their male peers. Robin Swicord called for participants to recognize that the low number of women directors in Hollywood appears to violate U.S. equal employment laws. Even reluctant attendee Betty Thomas was incredibly moved by the event declaring "I'm ashamed! I'm ashamed! This is great!" And a great cheer arose.
Panel Two, "Making the Choice for Change", moderated by Penelope Spheeris, was a look into the future for women, envisioning a "paradigm shift" brought dynamic concepts for realizing equality for women directors from panelists Valerie Faris, Victoria Hochberg, Mary Lambert, Lynne Littman, Freida Mock, Kimberly Peirce as well as guests Keri Putnam (Sundance), Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation), and Cathy Schulman (Women in Film). Proposals discussed included everything from galvanizing women throughout our industry, employing ad campaigns, creating a studio dedicated to women filmmakers, to the big idea of revisiting suing the studios for violations of Civil Rights laws.
The panel was followed by lunchtime discussions where the women directors brainstormed solutions for increasing employment for women directors based on a list of questions prepared by the organizers of the Summit. One issue that resonated with the members was the perennial lack of compliance of DGA-studio agreements already in place intended to increase the hiring of more women and ethnic minority directors.
We need to keep in mind that The DGA Diversity Task Force, implemented 8 years ago by former DGA President Michael Apted, is the key mechanism in place designed to assist the Guild in overseeing studio compliance of those agreement. However, since its implementation the ratio of female director-employment has not budged much at all. Why is that?
The last panel of the day "Creating Opportunities for Women in Film & TV," was moderated by BET’s Loretha Jones. The panelists included showrunners, producers and directors, Paris Barclay, Lesli Linka Glatter, Matt Weiner, Susan Cartsonis, Betsy Thomas, Callie Khouri, and Lillah McCarthy. This group of seasoned producers are among the executives most dedicated to helping create opportunities for women directors in episodic TV. Unfortunately, they seemed generally to feel that the numbers of employed women directors was a fairly good representation of the ratio of women director members of the Guild.
Several of the Guild’s leaders were present for the entire day including National Executive Director Jay Roth and First Vice-President Paris Barclay, as well as Bryan Unger and Regina Render, most of of whom supported and helped encourage the planning of the event during the preceding months, listened carefully and contributed numerous ideas to help move the issues forward with the studios and the industry at large.
The most significant proposal of the day was an appeal to newly appointed DGA Feature Film and Television Negotiations Committee co-chairs Michael Apted and Thomas Schlamme, and their team (including Stephen Soderbergh) to encourage to make equal opportunity for women DGA members the central issue of the 2013 negotiations.
Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband, John Adams, on March 31, 1776: "I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies. If particular care and attention is not paid to us ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by laws in which we have no representation."
Maria Giese is an American feature film director, a member of the Directors Guild of America, and an activist for parity for women directors in Hollywood. Giese was a creator/organizer of the 2013 DGA Women of Action Summit. More info here.