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A-List Producers, Executives Pledge to Mentor Women Directors With ReFrame Rise (EXCLUSIVE)

A group of A-list producers and executives are combating Hollywood gender inequality in a pledge to mentor women directors in the middle of their careers. That’s a time when, at least one prominent study suggests, they disappear from show business entirely.

ReFrame Rise, an initiative of ReFrame, the parity organization run by Women in Film and Sundance Institute, is a pilot program that will pair eight female directors with advisers who will identify job opportunities, refine creative pitches and sharpen participants’ business acumen.

Sue Kroll (“Birds of Prey,” EP on “A Star is Born”), Stephanie Allain (“Dear White People,” “Hustle & Flow”), Michael De Luca (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Captain Phillips”), Poppy Hanks (“Mudbound,” “Sorry to Bother You”), Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat”), and Bruna Papandrea (“Lucy in the Sky,” “Big Little Lies”) are among the first round of sponsors committing to a minimum of two years of work with their assigned directors.

Executives on board include TriStar Pictures president Hannah Minghella, Amazon Studios film co-head Matt Newman, HBO executive vice president of programming Francesca Orsi, Netflix director of original independent film Christina Rogers and Marvel Studios production and development executive Brad Winderbaum. Hulu, a presenting sponsor of ReFrame Rise, will also offer its senior manager of content development, Jaclyn Provenzano, as a mentor.

“In an industry where networks, pathways and open doors lead to opportunity, it is crucial to gain access and to be supported at every level — and that requires a community-wide commitment,” Alison Emilio, director of ReFrame, tells Variety.

Trying to forge more sustainable careers for women directors is the third measure taken by ReFrame since its 2017 inception. It kicked off by creating a credits stamp for audiences that guarantees film and TV shows were made equally by men and women. The group also created a 14-step “culture toolkit” to help major media companies and smaller studios fundamentally change hiring practices and identify blind spots to inequality. The Rise program seeks to address the issue of talent pipelines.

“Why are all the women falling out and not making second and third movies?” asks Cathy Schulman, a flagship member of ReFrame and founder of Welle Entertainment. “Why is there this gap?”

Research from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published nearly three years ago showed egregious gaps in employment for some of the most exciting women auteurs in the marketplace. After their early film efforts, many were banished to television. This was before the revolution in premium cable and streaming content made the small screen a haven for creative talent.

The likes of Karyn Kusama, Lisa Cholodenko, Kimberly Peirce and Mimi Leder have all shared tales from the sidelines of the industry. Some cynics in the business call it “movie jail”; ReFrame calls it systemic exclusion.

The role of director is targeted as a powerful space for change not simply because of its visibility and creative autonomy. The director of a film is often charged with hiring other prominent department heads and key talent. Studies like those done at Annenberg, and by Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, have conclusively indicated that women hire other women.

“There’s a problem of studios and networks saying there aren’t enough women on their hiring lists. Then the agencies say, ‘You don’t hire our female clients.’ We’re in this continuing problem, and the answer to all of that is this pipeline isn’t deep enough, it essentially is not familiar enough — we don’t know who is out there to employ,” Schulman says.

The idea behind Rise is to furnish the eight chosen filmmakers — Desiree Akhavan, Haifaa al-Mansour, Patricia Cardoso, Hanelle Culpepper, Sydney Freeland, Zetna Fuentes, Tina Mabry and Meera Menon — with dedicated industry advocates who will help them get hired and raise their artistic profiles.

“It is up to those of us who have the trust of the people in charge to help push back on entrenched hiring practices and get these talented people hired on projects in which they can shine,” says Feig. “Sponsorship is where the rubber really meets the road when it comes to those who are ready or have formerly proven themselves worthy of employment and opportunity.”

Michelle Satter, the founding director of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, says each Rise participant will receive a primary sponsor and then a support group of secondaries. Trajectories for each of the eight will be “bespoke,” she said, but the specific commitment of two years was arrived at so all parties understood the importance of the work ahead. Satter and her institute are no strangers to cultivating top talent, thanks to the long-established incubation labs for screenwriting, documentary filmmaking and features that Sundance offers.

“Having come up in the industry, you notice the imbalance,” De Luca tells Variety, calling from the set of a streaming series in Vancouver. “When I’ve been in a position to hire, I’ve tried to keep it balanced, but you do come up against some systemic bias. The great thing about this program is that it’s skewed toward results, not theories.”

Schulman describes the desired effect as a cross between “a security blanket and a beacon,” to keep that individual’s career viable. Regardless of gender, the producer (and Oscar winner for “Crash”) finds mentorship is lacking in the industry overall.

“We wanted to look at a new model,” she says. “It’s no longer useful defining mentor as ‘I met someone, gave them some good advice and sent them on their way.’ That’s what we do in Hollywood. At the end of the day, there’s no follow-through.”

This new endeavor “looks like a concept where a person would stick with a filmmaker long enough to understand the ins and outs of their career path,” Schulman adds, “and then stand up when that person is a candidate for a job and guarantee the work.”

Culpepper, who has directed episodes of “Star Trek: Picard,” “Shooter” and “UNreal,” recently met with her sponsor team, lead by Allain.

“I had this moment of feeling choked up and blessed, because I have five sponsors who are all these incredible, busy humans who have lives. We met at Stephanie’s house, to talk about what to do to help me reach the next level,” she said. 

Kroll, who is preparing the release of the first movie that features an all-female superhero team in DC Films’ “Birds of Prey,” says she’s happy to support the cause but also views ReFrame Rise as good for the bottom line.

“There are so many hungry content providers today. There’s room for an inclusive and rich palette of stories to be told and the lens through which they are told,” she says. “I am honored to be a part of this program, but it’s not really about altruism. I see this as good business for all involved. Of course, opportunity is everything, and sponsorship programs help create opportunity.”

The inaugural class of Rise sponsors includes: 

Stephanie Allain Founder, Homegrown Pictures

Carolyn Bernstein EVP Scripted Content & Documentary Film,
National Geographic

Nicole Brown EVP Film, TriStar Pictures

Michael De Luca President, Michael De Luca Productions

Cassian Elwes President, Elevated Entertainment

Blye Faust Partner, Based On Media

Erik Feig President, PICTURESTART

Paul Feig Director/Writer/Producer, President, Feigco Entertainment

Jane Fleming Co-Founder, Court Five Productions

Jonathan Frank EVP, FX Networks & FX Productions, FX

Tara Grace SVP Development & Production, HBO Films

Poppy Hanks SVP Development & Production, MACRO

Jordan Helman VP Content Development (Head of Drama), Hulu

Lee Hollin SVP & Head of Current Programming, Lionsgate Television

Lynette Howell Taylor Founder, 51 Productions

Robert Kessel EVP Narrative Film, Participant Media

Jaclyn Provenzano, Senior Manager of Content Development

Laura Kim SVP Marketing, Participant Media

Sue Kroll Founder, Kroll & Co. Entertainment

Lindsey Liberatore EVP Television, Rideback

Glen Mazzara Writer/Producer, “The Dark Tower”

Hannah Minghella President, TriStar Pictures & Television

Matt Newman Co-Head Movies, Amazon Studios

Mark Ordesky Co-Founder, Court Five Productions

Francesca Orsi EVP Programming, HBO

Bruna Papandrea Founder, Made Up Stories

Christina Rogers Director Original Independent Film, Netflix

Couper Samuelson President of Features, Blumhouse

Jenna Santoianni EVP & Head of Development, Paramount Television

Cathy Schulman President, Welle Entertainment

Sarah Shepard VP Original Scripted Content, Disney+

Brad Winderbaum Executive, Production & Development, Marvel Studios

Julie Yorn Producer, LBI Entertainment

Michael Zeeck Manager Drama Development, Warner Bros. Television

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