The #MeToo movement has inspired women to expose entrenched sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood. But many women directors also suffer from the marginalizing practice of exclusion. As the latest research from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveals, only 4 percent of Hollywood’s movies are directed by women.
Hiring practices are the key to change, but few understand the tangled web that obstructs skilled women directors from building careers. There is a persistent myth that there aren’t enough accomplished women directors to bring stats up to parity, but this is patently untrue. There are literally thousands of accomplished directors who have simply been rendered invisible whether through lack of representation, prejudice or the common, misguided belief that “all the good ones are working.” There has been a lot of energy placed on programs to train new directors, but few initiatives focus on a rich labor pool that is more than ready.
In the past two years, many women testified about Hollywood’s discriminatory practices to the EEOC, instigating further investigation into the hiring practices of the networks, studios and agencies. Those testimonies were confidential and many women fear retribution if they speak publicly. Here are accounts of several women directors who would like the industry to better understand the insidious way gender exclusion works, hoping that this period of enlightenment will bring about change for mid-career women directors.
Stacy Title (“The Last Supper,” “The Bye Bye Man”)
I have an Oscar nomination and had already directed three features when I sat down with a prestigious Hollywood studio that had just announced in the trades that I would direct my next movie for them. I was with the principal of the company, his executives, my producer (on the phone from location on another movie) and my husband, who was the screenwriter, when he said, “I know this will make you mad, but I prefer to talk to your husband.”
For the rest of the meeting, he treated my husband as if he were the director, with zero eye contact to me. Finally, he pronounced that he wanted me to “try out” and direct two scenes from the movie before he’d decide if he would proceed. I reluctantly agreed.
On the day of the shoot, he called his executive on set to say, “Don’t help her,” demanding that no one give me notes, pointers or tips — which was fine with me, though odd. Once edited, everyone liked the footage, yet he quietly began shopping for a more experienced director to “executive produce” the project; i.e., babysit or replace me. Unhappy with how we were treated, my producer shifted the production to more supportive partners. My movie has gone on to make $27 million worldwide.
Judy Chaikin (“The Girls in the Band”)
Although I was already a professional director I was hired on a comedy series as a dialogue coach. My agent assured me it was a good way to work my way up to directing on the show. And he was right. After two seasons the producers and the series director, who were all really great guys, agreed that they would give me the final episode of the season as a directing assignment.
Two weeks before my assignment, I learned that the male star of the show had put the kibosh on the deal. His words, as reported to me later by the producers, were, “I’ll never let any woman direct me.” I picked up my marbles, quit the show, bought some video equipment and made a documentary, “Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist” which went on to be nominated for an Emmy.
Maria Giese (“When Saturday Comes,” “Hunger”)
I’ve faced my share of sexual harassment, but the real injury was not getting hired. While I was in graduate film school, I won many directing awards for my short films and was assured that if I observed I would be hired in television. I shadowed for literally hundreds of hours on Dick Wolf TV shows, but they never hired me — preferring again and again to give the gigs to men.
Later, after I had directed a feature film with A-list actors that screened at Cannes and got theatrical distribution, the same executive producer promised me a directing slot on “Law & Order” if I would just fly (on my own dime) to New York to observe one more time. So I did — but then he gave my episode to his stepson, who had much less experience than I did. That job helped the stepson launch a 20-year, $10 million career in TV directing — until last year, when he got convicted on charges of child pornography. I put up with this executive sticking his tongue down my throat on crowded sets, and who gets the job? At the end of the day, nothing was as degrading for me as not getting employed.
Maggie Greenwald (“The Ballad of Little Jo,” “Songcatcher”)
Years ago, after directing two independent features that were shown in competition at Sundance, and winning numerous international awards, I signed with a top agency. I immediately booked nine episodes of television. But when the jobs slowed and I asked my agents to submit me for more shows, their reply was to ask me who I knew. But I didn’t know any television producers, executives, or showrunners, and they never submitted me for episodic work again.
I went on to direct four more features and six TV movies, but when that form dried up, the head of the agency’s TV department still wouldn’t submit me for episodic work. There were years I didn’t earn a dime. In 2016, I directed a feature film that was selected as a Sundance Gala World Premiere — and even though I was back on everyone’s radar, the head of the TV department still wouldn’t submit me for episodic directing.
Finally, I left the agency and signed with a new manager. Within three months, I booked three prestigious network dramas and am hopeful about being able to earn a consistent living practicing my beloved craft — after 25 years. I’m thrilled, of course, but when I bump into white male director colleagues who started out at the same time and have had hugely lucrative, sustained careers it’s very disturbing.
Martha M. “Marty” Elcan (“Next of Kin”)
I was so excited to be one of a dozen people chosen from approximately 1,200 applicants to get into the DGA Assistant Directors Training program, a program established to address the disparity in the incredibly male-dominated industry. The shows are not allowed to choose their trainees; the program assigns the trainees to the shows.
On my first assignment when I went by to meet the executive producer, he came out to the lobby, his hand outstretched to greet me. Then he stopped in his tracks, withdrew his hand, and said, “You’re a woman!” Guess the name “Marty” caught him off guard. He never did shake my hand. The next day, I was off the show and a guy was reassigned. Years later, I was having meetings regarding directing, and was often told by producers, “We had a woman director last season, and it didn’t work out too well.” I never asked if any of the men “didn’t work out.”
Iram Parveen Bilal (“Josh”)
I’ve directed several feature films and although my newest screenplay has won many prestigious awards I cannot find an agent or manager to represent me. I hear all too often, “Come back when your movie is greenlit.”
Many women tell me they hear the same thing. Recently, the day before an investor was about to sign on to finance my new film, he balked at the line item in the budget for my salary as the writer, producer and director. He asked me why I was getting paid, said I didn’t have enough “skin in the game” if I received a salary.
I explained that I thought developing the project over four unpaid years was plenty of dedication. I’m embarrassed to say that when he asked me to null most of my fee I almost agreed. Thankfully, the next morning I realized it was beneath my dignity. It’s interesting to me that I’m considered qualified enough to speak on panels and be the face of organizations as the “woman of color,” yet when it comes to opportunities behind the camera, it’s never the “right time.”
Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl,” former DGA President)
My last two features were produced by men younger than me. Before production, they admitted that if I were any older they wouldn’t have hired me, because they thought an “older woman” would not have the stamina.
But when we were shooting, working 20-hour days on little sleep and prepping on weekends, one of them told me that he couldn’t keep up with me. Maybe this was intended as a retraction of his earlier statement, or just surprise. Still, after a lifetime of dealing with sexism, I’m facing ageism. But there are plenty of men older than me who are thriving in their careers! It isn’t mentioned in the meetings but I can feel it when I walk in the room. As a director, I’m at the top of my game, and wisdom is a huge benefit to production, so why is age thought to be more of a handicap for women than men? I’m readier than ever to walk onto a set, but I’m saddled with fear that I may never work again.
A final word. Representation by good agents and managers is the key to a career. But because women are hired so infrequently, it’s very difficult to get one. Agents get the work, and without one it’s virtually impossible to have a career. But agents are not interested in clients who don’t bring in money and aren’t a “sure thing.” It’s a vicious cycle. The fact is, there’s a large population of skilled women directors who have not been able to make a living at their craft, despite degrees, awards, credits, and determination. It’s not just a loss to the women, But also to their families, to the industry, and to the world.
Rachel Feldman (“She’s No Angel,” “Lizzie McGuire”)
I’d already directed scores of episodic television, in addition to several award-winning shorts, when I sold a script to Lifetime that I was attached to direct. But the producers lied, pushed me off my film and hired a man to direct my movie — a film inspired by my relationship with my mother. Their excuse was that, despite my accomplished resume, I’d only directed one-hour dramas and no long-form movies. It was heartbreaking and it made no sense.
Several years later, after I had directed several long-form movies and much more episodic television, I wrote a multiaward-winning screenplay to which I was again attached to direct. I found an Oscar-winning female producer and an Oscar-winning actress to star, both outspoken “feminists” — who called me a “TV director” and tried to boot me off my own project to hire a male director.
I took my project away and found wonderful, new producers. But even now, some financiers continue to refer to me as a “first-time director” because, they say, I’ve not yet directed a “theatrical film.” The finish line keeps moving.
Shannon Flynn (“Instant Mom,” “Hannah Montana”)
I was working on a major hit show that required 50-hour work-weeks. I directed a few of the episodes and also worked a crew job on the show. When the third season came around, I had just had a baby. The producer was happy to have me back in my crew position but when I asked about directing, he said, “It takes a lot of energy to direct.” When I questioned if he was implying that my pregnancy had somehow diminished my ability or fortitude, he claimed he was kidding. I never reported this because I didn’t want to lose my job.
Amy Goldstein (“The Silencer,” “East of A”)
I had already directed two independent features, big-budget music videos, and an episode of television, but I wanted to direct more television so I was thrilled to be selected for the competitive HBO/DGA Television Directing Fellowship, a fellowship I was assured would lead to directing.
Unfortunately, the director who I had been assigned to shadow had not been told about the program, nor apparently had anyone else. (I was given a walkie-talkie and asked to work as a PA.) This director didn’t think women should direct and resented me being there.
Then a young man, not part of the program and with less experience, was invited to shadow and the same director not only trained him but helped him get an episode. I informed the diversity department at the DGA that their program was a false promise. Their response was that I was lucky to have anything. After that, I set up a genuine shadowing experience with a female director who was directing another HBO show. She went directly to her producers who gave their approval for me to complete my program as her shadow. But the DGA/HBO diversity program told me I couldn’t — that I’d already had my chance.
Ivana Massetti (“Domino,” “Nadro”)
I am a writer, director and producer and have directed over 60 short films, music videos and commercials as well as several feature and TV films in Europe. I was hired by producers who knew my work as a writer and director to write a miniseries about Luciano Pavarotti. I spend two years researching, writing, growing close to his family and friends — I became one of the leading authorities on his life. I wrote the scripts; the producers and financiers were blown away.
But when I asked to be considered as the director, the producers scoffed, said the project was too big a budget for a woman, yet their all-male list of directors knew nothing of this passionate, Italian story, and were far less experienced directors that I was.