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Can She Pull It Off? (Or, How to Hire Women Directors)

Ava DuVernay directing a scene from Selma Photo: Atsushi Nishijima, Paramount Pictures

When I started working in film in 1995, there weren’t many women in the business overall, and women directors were almost unheard of. Twenty years later, I’m still here, but, despite gains in a variety of other fields from pharmacy to law, women directors are not getting any more work than they did when I was starting out.

During the last several months we have enjoyed what you might call a consciousness-raising moment in show business, with a variety of folks sounding the alarm all over social media about Hollywood’s sustained resistance to bringing in new faces. (For example, check out this month’s article in Filmmaker by Esther Robinson about the fascinating role of data in this conversation.) There are a lot of areas that need improvement, with the gender gap among film directors being a particularly thorny one. Just last month, in January, 2016, the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University released a new study that showed women made up a mere 9% of directors of films in 2015. Seeing that statistic — 9% — made me wonder anew: why haven’t women become more prominent among the ranks of directors? And more puzzling still, even if the numbers are low, why are they not growing? The numbers are staying put, hovering between 7% and 11% each year since 1998, according to the Center’s review of the top 250 top-grossing films.

I see those numbers and I think: What is up with that? This, in a country where, after generations of being shut out, women now account for about half of all lawyers and doctors. Plus, women are achieving significant gains in all other kinds of fields: business, education, politics. Some are slower than others, but all are showing big increases, which was well-documented in Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men.

The problem faced by women directors made national headlines last May when the ACLU asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate what they called “rampant and intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors.” The Directors Guild of America reported that women directors only make up 16% of the much more abundant work in directing for television, and a University of Southern California study found that when you look at the heavy-hitters behind the 100 top-grossing Hollywood films of 2013 and 2014, only 1.9% of the directors are women. As an independent documentary filmmaker, I, for the most part, operate outside of the traditional Hollywood machine. The numbers of women working in the documentary field are much greater than these, and the independent film world overall is generally more female-friendly than Hollywood. In fact, part of the reason that we are making films in a parallel universe of indies is partly because there is so little room for advancement in Hollywood for maverick figures. And because we’re so rare, women directors are essentially all mavericks, or at least we’re perceived that way by the larger industry.

Okay, back to the puzzle of: why so few women still? Let’s first dispense with some of the reasons that have been put forth over the years. One explanation for the persistent lack of women directors is that Hollywood is still an old-boy network. Granted. But weren’t law firms an old-boy network? Women have made serious inroads in lots of old-boy networks, so there must be something else going on here as well. Another common reply is: There aren’t enough women directors to fill the jobs. This has been disproved a number of times, and most recently with The Director List, a social media-driven movement that has succeeded in compiling a list of over 1,000 women directors in order to prove the opposite. Some have casually dismissed the Director List, arguing that it’s padded with amateurs with little experience – but for the record, I know several talented female directors who aren’t even on this list, so our bench goes much deeper. A third common answer: The kinds of films being made by the studios are male-centric and women directors aren’t the right fit. Isn’t this related to Problem Number One, the old-boy network? It’s a big assumption that women can’t direct films about male protagonists (Hello, Hurt Locker) and it makes little sense that so few films with women protagonists are greenlit, when in fact many of them are hits (2015 gave us Spy and Pitch Perfect II, among others.) So really, we need to ask why this male-dominated mode of filmmaking is so slow to change when compared to what we’re seeing in other fields.

My head-scratching over this has led me to focus on one small, but critical piece of the puzzle and that is: what’s going on in the selection process that’s keeping women from being hired as directors? Based on my own experience seeking financing for films and working as a director, I think there are multiple reasons that compound each other, making the problem even trickier to untangle.

Let’s think about what producers or investors are really doing when they choose to hire or back a movie director. In choosing a director, they are essentially putting their faith (and most likely their company’s money) into the creative vision of that person, and also into her capacity as a leader to execute that vision through the complex set of tasks that make up a director’s job. This is a tall order for anyone — man or woman. And these are two separate skills. The director is both a creative visionary and a leader of the film crew. The producer, investor or studio must believe that a woman can achieve greatness on both these counts. And on top of that, she is expected to make a movie that makes a killing at the box office. Like I said, tall order. And taller for women, I believe. Here’s why.

Part I: Talent

First, the director must have creative vision (alternatively labeled as “talent,” “got the goods,” “got the chops,” “genius,” “rock star,” etc.). How do you know if someone has creative vision? No way to know for sure, and you know why that is? Because talent is inherently subjective. And when the most important job skill is subjective, it makes it harder for outsiders to break in. Subjectivity gives unconscious bias a giant playing field to run around in. If there were a simple multiple choice test where the people with the highest score got the job of movie director, you’d probably see a lot more diversity among directors. But it ain’t like that. In fact, the slippery concept of artistic talent is shrouded in a mystique that is often attributed to men. Throughout the arts, the words “talented” and “genius” are associated most commonly with men. Groups like VIDA and the Guerrilla Girls have been hard at work criticizing this subtle and persistent gender bias in the literary and visual art worlds, for example.

I often think enviously about how gender bias was tackled in orchestras. Until relatively recently, the American symphony orchestra was a place dominated by men. Maybe there would be one female harpist or violin player, but the vast majority of the musicians were men. As recently as 1970, women made up 5% or less of the approximately 100 musicians in an orchestra. Men auditioned in person in front of a jury, were perceived as the most talented musicians and got the jobs in the orchestras. Then, in the 1970’s, some orchestras started to hold “blind auditions.” Interestingly, one of the driving forces in this change was a lawsuit brought by an African-American musician in the early 1970’s. In a blind audition, the candidates played for the jury behind a screen, so that the jury couldn’t see them. They walked on carpets to and from the audition site so that their footfalls wouldn’t indicate female or male footwear. And the result of blind auditions? A complete turnaround. By 1997, women were up to 25% of orchestral members and today studies show that most orchestras have more than 30% women, with many orchestras showing an even split between men and women.

In my view, it’s hard to come by a stronger example of gender bias in hiring — both the proof of it and an elegant solution. And some of that bias was almost certainly unconscious on the part of the orchestra jury. I am quite sure that this problem occurs in assessing film directors — i.e. the perception is that the “talent” quotient lies mostly with men.

I have often mused to myself that if only we could conjure up the equivalent of a “blind audition” for directors, we’d be in business! But I can’t see how that solution can apply to us. Kathryn Bigelow, the one and only woman to win an Academy Award for directing the aforementioned The Hurt Locker, has stated that the current situation for women directors is “horrific” and has called for “gender-neutral” hiring of directors. I wish, but how? Part of what you’re getting with a director is the person herself. Her gender is part and parcel of who she is.

What the orchestra example proves is that when many people see an artist who is a woman, they tend to believe she is less talented than her male counterpart. I experienced a taste of this myself, when our documentary film E-Team premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to great reviews. I co-directed E-Team with my friend and colleague Ross Kauffman and at no point during the making of the film did we ever consider ourselves less than equals. Once the world reacted to the film, however, I started to see that not everyone in the public perceived us as equal contributors to the film’s success. On more than one occasion, I stood next to Ross as someone shook his hand and called him “a genius.” The first time this happened, Ross awkwardly smiled and replied, “And Katy, too.” We looked at each other and laughed for a moment. Later I stopped being surprised and was just annoyed, while Ross was too. One particular reporter interviewed the two of us about the film and made no eye contact with me, while directing every question at Ross. Afterward I muttered to Ross, “Did you see that guy? He didn’t even look at me!” And Ross said, “Yeah. What a moron. I kept trying to steer him towards you by giving him terse, one-word answers.”

I should note here that it occurred to both Ross and myself that one of the reasons he was singled out for attention was that he had won an Academy Award ten years before we finished E-Team. For a long time, I figured that the Oscar was why people focused on him, i.e. they knew he was talented and capable, and although I had my own list of credentials, I didn’t have that particular one. I have come to conclude that the Oscar tells some, but not all of the story. I learned this when I spoke to another woman co-director who experienced a similar disparity in attention — her male co-director was quickly courted by commercial talent agencies while she had to hustle to get an interview for agency representation. In this case, she was by far the more accomplished filmmaker and had received significant accolades for her prior work. She reasoned that because her co-director was a young, good-looking man, “he looked the part more than I did.” Due to a combination of unacknowledged reasons, the men in each case drew the attention of the industry insiders.

Part II: Power

There was a moment last year when the New York Times ran a photograph of Ava DuVernay directing a scene in Selma. The photo showcased DuVernay’s long hair streaming down her back as she raised her hands to direct the action of a wall of actors for a big scene involving hundreds of extras. The image was a rare sight and thrilling to me. It defied the image we have in our minds of what a director in charge looks like. But this image of a powerful woman calling the shots on a big movie set is rare because, of course, the woman herself is rare.

DuVernay overcame a major second hurdle that women face in getting hired as directors. In addition to proving that she had an inspiring vision, she also had to prove that she had the leadership skills to run a large film crew. Both of these skills, or traits, are ones that are commonly associated with men. So, let’s go back into the interior workings of the producer’s mind. First, you, the producer, have to become convinced that the woman who wants to direct the movie is talented. So, let’s say you cross that hurdle — you do believe she’s talented. But then you remember that you’re also asking her to call the shots in a room that is mostly men, from the cinematographer to the dolly grip. In some ways, this aspect of the job — assuming and maintaining leadership of a crew — is the one that is the most traditionally masculine. She must be tough, smart, hardworking and determined. So you, the producer or investor, you’re asking yourself: Will she be able to command that male attention? Will she be decisive enough? Will the crew respect her? Will she be able to pull this aspect off? Many secretly, and silently, feel that the answer is most definitely no.

Part III: Money

Last, but not definitely not least, female directors face another daunting hurdle that cuts to the core of the film business: lots of money is at stake. If you hire a woman director, you’re essentially placing a bet on her to deliver you a product that will make you money. In my estimation, this is perhaps the most trenchant obstacle for women assuming creative leadership in Hollywood. Money makes things complicated, particularly when women are entrusted with it. And when big money is on the table, people don’t like to take chances. The Center’s recent study reflected this, when they noted that among the lower-budget films, women directors are represented in higher numbers. As the budgets get lower, women show up more and more. The documentary world, where I dwell, enjoys the largest percentage of women directors, and the film budgets are correspondingly small. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has documented on several occasions that women tend to ask for less money than men do and they tend to get less than what they ask for. I am always mindful of this fact when I seek funding for my films. Don’t ask for too small an amount, I tell myself, but at the same time, I don’t expect to get the full amount requested. So due to this circular reasoning, women start out as low-budget creators and we stay there, functioning under the radar of the more high-profile, big-budget work.

Big money is associated with risk, and it’s common knowledge that Hollywood is inherently risk-averse. Everyone is looking for the sure thing — the blockbuster based on the popular comic book hero that can’t go wrong, that romantic comedy team that always hits the box office jackpot. And since women don’t direct many movies currently, hiring a woman to direct a movie is a radical act of trust. You are doing something different, if you hire a woman to direct, which is, by definition, perceived as a financial risk. The person who hires a woman often puts their own job at risk, if not their own money. Of course, in reality, every film is a financial risk, whether you hire a man or a woman, whether it’s a comic-book franchise or an avant-garde film. But if you want to minimize the risk, then you don’t stray from the mainstream, which means you don’t hire someone who is different. Stay away from the maverick decision. Stick to the old script.

Sometimes, those in power do take risks and they hire the unproven director. But typically, when they take this risk, it’s on an unproven man. There has been a spate of articles this past year on how, after a man directs an indie film festival hit, he stands a decent chance of being plucked soon after to direct a big budget film. In other words, a studio takes a risk on this festival darling. The producer Mynette Louie hit the nail on the head when she labelled the “mini-me problem,” in which established directors keep an eye out for someone who reminds them of themselves, and they help that mini-me get ahead. By contrast, when a woman directs a festival hit, her phone typically does not ring with offers. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University documented this trend in another study in the spring of 2015, dubbing the problem “the post-festival chasm,” charting women filmmakers across multiple film festivals.

Part IV: Surviving as a woman director
Right now, women directors who recognize that they are not likely to get hired as a director have to make some decisions. Do they hang out in Hollywood and keep trying, despite their frustration and the demoralizing situation of not being able to work? Do they quit the business? Or do they try to make a go of it on their own? Many of them, including myself, take a stab at Hollywood, read the writing on the wall, and then find a home in the independent film world. We have basically created a vibrant subculture apart from the Hollywood mainstream in order to become filmmakers and to tell different kinds of stories. The reason we can thrive in this subculture is that we have devised a way around the fact that men don’t hire us. And that is: we hire ourselves. I started my own — albeit tiny — production company, and hired myself as a director. Most of my colleagues in independent film do pretty much the same thing.

So, from one perspective, this subculture is a brilliantly devised coping mechanism that has enabled hundreds of people of color, LGBT folks and women to call the creative shots in movies of their own creation. Our subculture also is home to male filmmakers who want to make films that would never get made in Hollywood, which qualifies them as mavericks along with the rest of us. The downside is that there is a lot less money to be made within this subculture and it’s still very difficult to succeed at a career in making films. The films are generally low-budget, documentaries are more common than fiction, and there’s less prestige. The upside for filmmakers like myself is twofold: more creative freedom and an opportunity to direct. Mavericks of all stripes are much more likely to actually direct a movie when they operate within this parallel universe outside of the mainstream.

Part V: The future

Steven Spielberg spoke to The New York Times about his decision to hire the relative newbie Colin Trevorrow to direct the 2015 mega-hit Jurassic World. “He had a vision for this, and I believed both in his vision and in his ability to pull it off.” Spielberg then went on to say that he was given a break as a young director when he was entrusted with helming Jaws and that’s partly why he’s open to giving an untested young talent a shot. This is a great thing for Spielberg to do, and it turned out that Trevorrow was a hit-maker for the Jurassic franchise. If we could see producers taking that same leap of faith with talented, untested women, we’d be in much better shape.

I think Spielberg’s phrase “pull it off” says it all. That’s exactly what a producer is asking himself when he sizes up a director. Can she pull it off? And if your gut tells you no, then you damn well don’t give her millions of dollars to make a movie. But what we’ve learned from the blind auditions in the orchestras is that, in some cases, she could pull it off and your gut is likely to underestimate her ability.

So what’s the solution? We can’t create a screen for women directors to audition behind. Investors, producers, executives have to look her in the eye, and accept her for who she is, female qualities and all. In other words, they just have to find a way to take the perceived “risk.” And risk-taking is what all of us in the independent world do every day, when we ask someone to give us money to make our movie, when we take the plunge to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. What we need is other people in leadership positions to take the risk with us.

I am not alone in suspecting that we are in a moment in which the status quo could shift radically in the near future. What we know for sure is that there are no good, justifiable reasons not to be hiring women directors more frequently. Once it starts happening more, it will become the norm, as it has for female professors, lawyers and cellists before us.

Perhaps the solution is in re-thinking who qualifies as a “mini-me,” ie. someone with potential. There are those who can actually “pull it off” but she (or he) may not look or act much like those who pulled it off before them. All it would take for a change would be to look beyond the familiar in order to see those qualities – talent, leadership, responsibility – in a wide range of human packages.

Katy Chevigny is an award-winning director and producer based in Nashville, Tennessee, and co-owner with Marilyn Ness of Big Mouth Productions. Most recently, she co-directed E-Team (with Ross Kauffman), a documentary about human rights investigators. The film won an award for Best Cinematography at Sundance in 2014, received two Emmy nominations and was acquired as a Netflix Original Documentary. She also directed Election Day and co-directed Deadline (with Kirsten Johnson) and has produced over a dozen award-winning feature documentaries. Her films have played at festivals around the world including Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Berlin and Full Frame, and have shown theatrically, on Netflix, PBS, HBO, NBC, and others.

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