The State of Female Director Programs and Mentorship

The working environment for women directors in television has steadily improved over the years, but while mentorship of the formal and informal variety has helpedto bridge the gap in representation behind the camera, there’s still a ways to go before parity is achieved.

Of the more than 4,300 TV episodes produced in the 2018-19 season, the percentage directed by women has more than doubled over the past five years and has edged up from the 2017-18 season when only one in four directors were women. But they cap out at only to 31%, according to the Directors Guild of America’s inclusion report from last fall.

“There’s been a dramatic shift in the last couple years, where now everybody’s actively working to make sure that for television, women are part of the directing team,” says Nicole Kassell, executive producer and director of “Watchmen.” “And I think on the feature side, that women are at least getting to pitch. But it feels very recent, that shift.”

What is aiding in that shift are those who have already cemented their place in the DGA and are holding their hands out behind them to help pull others up. For Kassell, this kind of mentorship came from everyone from Paris Barclay and Marcos Siega to Mimi Leder and Lesli Linka Glatter, whom she calls “extraordinary” and “super generous.”

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“I don’t know if I just cold-called her,” says Kassell of Glatter. “I just was like, ‘I want to know you.’”

Glatter, the longtime “Homeland” director whose decades-long career has included helming episodes of “Gilmore Girls,” “ER,” “The Walking Dead,” “True Blood,” “Mad Men” and other series, says she was “very well-mentored by men” when there were not very many fellow women directors. Now she is intent on paying it forward.

“I’ve been very committed to this for many years, whether it’s having people shadow, [making] the call about the pilot that someone’s out for, or [doing] whatever you can to help,” she says. “At that time, I was questioned, ‘Why are you doing this? There’s only room for one of us. You’re cutting down your own chances.’ And I thought ‘Wow, that is not a world I want to live in. If that’s true, well, so be it.’ And I have to say that I don’t feel like it’s ever affected me negatively to give back.”

Glatter believes that the proliferation of television, with more than 500 scripted series on air, has helped offer more shots for women directors.

“I’m a big believer in mentoring and shadowing,” she says. “But with all the programs, I really believe if you don’t have a job at the end of it, there’s no skin in the game.”

The programs Glatter speaks of range from fellowships and third-party sponsorships, such as ReFrame Rise, designed to inch the industry closer to parity in the directing field, to initiatives set up directly at studios and networks. When it comes to the latter, Glatter has been working with NBC on Female Forward, a program that gives women directors the chance to shadow up to three episodes of an NBC series, plus a promise to have them direct at least one episode of the show on which they shadowed. In its inaugural year, eight out of the 10 directors who participated were hired back for additional episodes of shows on NBC or elsewhere, according to the network. (Female Forward’s sophomore year participants have completed the program but have not yet had a chance to direct more episodes as coronavirus caused a production shutdown.)

“This is focused not as a training program,” Glatter says. “These are directors who are experienced, whether it’s in the films or documentaries, whatever their background, and are making the transition into directing series. They shadow on three episodes of a series and they are guaranteed an episode to direct. And that’s a game-changer.”

“Transparent” creator Joey Soloway, who is a mentor for the Disruptors Fellowship — designed to support trans, non-binary, disabled, and undocumented writers of color — acknowledges that if there weren’t inclusion programs, “there wouldn’t be anywhere near as many people of color or women in Hollywood right now.”

But they say they have noticed that the women who have gone through these programs over the years would be “collected, like chocolates in a box,” and sometimes offered the opportunity to shadow on set.

“A few weeks later, maybe the EP would say, we need a director for this episode,” Soloway says. “And somebody would say, ‘How about that woman who shadowed?’ And I think that the EP would think [that] anybody who’s got time to shadow probably isn’t really ready. ‘We need somebody great. We need somebody fast. Let’s get that guy who we love because that person just shadowed.’ So these programs weren’t really ways to bring people into the director’s chair. They were ways to kind of gather interesting people around the project around the network or the studio and have them nearby.”

Nearly half of all first-time hires in the 2018-19 TV season were women, up from 41% In the prior year, which outwardly marks some substantial progress. But the DGA report notes that “most first-time directors do not move on to develop directing careers.”

“I think it’s very hard to get your first episode, and it’s very hard to get your second episode,” says Glatter. “After your second episode, if it goes well, it will open the door.”

The guild’s research found that the key driver behind that drop-off is the widespread and growing practice of employers giving “perk” directing assignments to series insiders — those employed on the series in another capacity, such as a cinematographer, production designer or actor getting their shot to helm an episode.

But Soloway contends that white supremacy and patriarchy are at the root of the issue.

“The only [solution] I see is just kind of like a clearing of the board,” they say. “And a real, a real deep interest in men and especially white men or white people saying, ‘Not only do I want to find and hire, and groom and mentor new directors, I want to continue to show up for them.’”

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