Initiatives Targeted at Boosting Women in Hollywood Thrive, But Can They Close Gender Gap?

While it’s not a great time to be a woman entrenched in the Hollywood system, it is a good time to be an up-and-coming female director, writer, producer or even cinematographer trying to get her foot inside entertainment’s heavy doors.

Just look at the past several months. In June, Ava DuVernay announced that all the episodes in the second season of her series “Queen Sugar” (OWN) would, as in the first season, be directed by women. In July, the Toronto Intl. Film Festival kicked off a $3 million campaign to support female filmmakers and Sundance Institute launched Catalyst Women, to connect film financiers with women artists behind Sundance Institute-supported features and documentaries. NBC followed those initiatives with Female Forward, focused on female directors among scripted series across the Peacock network.

Spearheaded by NBC president Jennifer Salke in partnership with director Lesli Linka Glatter, Female Forward will give 10 women directors the opportunity to shadow on up to three episodes of an NBC series and receive an in-season commitment to direct at least one episode of that series.

“The initiative really came out of long-term frustration of trying to find female directors to direct pilots and episodes,” Salke says. “Then, about a year ago, I woke up one day thinking we have to do something more actionable and really make sure that we are coming away at the end of the year with 10 new female directors that we can plug into not only episodic assignments but also pilots.”

Female Forward is the latest in a plethora of femme-driven programs and mandates designed to boost opportunities for women in the entertainment industry and try to close the gender gap in Hollywood.

Almost every network and studio, including FX, Universal and Fox, have their own female-inclusion initiatives, as do various organizations including the Sundance Institute, Women in Comedy and New York Women in Film.

The onslaught of programs to promote women within Tinseltown exploded in 2015 after Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for her performance in “Boyhood.” Arquette’s acceptance speech catapulted gender equality and the wage gap between men and women to the forefront of the media landscape. A few months later the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that in 2014, women made up just 7% of the directors behind Hollywood’s top 250 films. Overall, of the 700 films the center studied in 2014, 85% had no female directors, 80% had no female writers, 33% had no female producers, 78% had no female editors and 92% had no female cinematographers.

“The initiative really came out of a long-term frustration of trying to find female directors to direct pilots and episodes”
Jennifer salke

The stark figures led to a December 2015 two-day secret meeting hosted by Women in Film and the Sundance Institute; 44 of Hollywood’s top movers and shakers, including Paula Wagner, Mike De Luca and Catherine Hardwicke attended. In February 2017 that group, formerly known as the Systemic Change Project, became ReFrame. Led by Women in Film Los Angeles president Cathy Schulman and Sundance Institute’s executive director Keri Putnam, ReFrame aims to further gender parity in the media industry.

“There are systemic barriers that were preventing women from getting ahead,” Putnam says. “We felt that the most valuable thing that we could do was use the network we had and bring together a group of leaders within the industry who care about this issue. We aren’t just some outside group saying, ‘Here’s what you should do about [gender equality].’ Instead we are a group of actively working men and women who, in many cases, are leading in their fields.”

But despite well-established funding and mentorship programs for women including Tribeca Institute’s Through Her Lens; New York Women in Film and Television’s The Writers Lab; Iris In: A Ghetto Film School Program for Young Women; and Sundance Institute’s Women at Sundance Fellows — women creatives are not exactly thriving in Hollywood.

In 2016, a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, found that women made up 17% of all directors, writers, producers, exec producers, editors and cinematographers on the top 250 domestic grossing films. That is actually a decline of two percentage points from 2015.

On the television front, things aren’t much better. In February, it was found that of the 41 broadcast drama pilots, only one was directed by a woman — Liz Friedlander — for ABC’s “Las Reinas.”

“The reality is, no single individual or program can change an entire industry,” says Erika Olde, producer and Iris In founder. “It takes both programs that focus on bringing gender equality into the industry, as well as executives making decisions to take more bets on women.”

In addition to DuVernay, exec producer and showrunners Melissa Rosenberg and Ryan Murphy have been taking those bets.

All 13 episodes of the second season of Rosenberg’s “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” were directed by women, while Murphy’s Half initiative, which is designed to boost the volume of female and minority directors working on Ryan Murphy Prods. series, helped raise the number of female and minority directors working on FX series to 51% in 2016, from just 12% in 2015. For Ryan Murphy Prods., 60% of directing assignments have gone to women, and 94% of director slots went to directors who were female, people of color or LGBT.

Despite the dismal 2017 pilot numbers, a recently released Directors Guild of America study showed that 73 (or 32%) of all first-time director hires in the 2016-17 season for episodic TV were women, up from 38 in the 2015-16 season, and 18 (or 8%) were female minorities, up from six.

Women in Film Los Angeles exec director Kirsten Schaffer credits toppers including DuVernay, Rosenberg and Murphy for the increase.

“The diversity and inclusion initiatives are really important and are definitely a part of the puzzle, but what we have seen be the most effective is when the person at the top mandates that the numbers change,” Schaffer says. “Going forward, it’s going to take time and continued pressure. It’s not going to happen naturally.”

In addition to pressure, Schaffer adds that viewers drive change.

“As more people demand content made by and about women then the studios and networks are more likely to make it,” Schaffer says. “Because ultimately we are an industry driven by the number of viewers and the number of dollars.”

That could mean that Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” could turn the tide for female directors. Fresh off a successful summer theatrical run ($412 million domestically) the pic recently topped the DVD and Blu-ray disc sales charts.

“That film proved a point that women already knew,” says Rachel Shane, OddLot Entertainment’s chief creative officer. “It’s evidence. There is no denying that film’s success. That said, there is a long way to go, but people’s arms are open more than they were even five years ago and that is a step in the right direction.”

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