Director's chair

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 that director.

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 progressive environment?

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 Committee.  

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.