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Women, Minorities Demand the Chance to Tell Their Stories in Hollywood

At the heart of one of the entertainment industry’s most tumultuous years on record lies an urgent question: Is Hollywood serious about achieving gender parity beyond optics?

The cultural reckoning on sexual abuse in Hollywood workplaces has forced the industry to come to terms with its woeful lack of progress on women rising to leadership positions. It has also demanded that decision-makers expressly acknowledge the importance of supporting storytelling from diverse perspectives in an increasingly multicultural marketplace that crosses borders. Both of these converging forces mark a sea change for a business that remains overwhelmingly dominated by white men.

The force by which power brokers have been challenged to confront the crying need for change has been unnerving at times. And it is inextricable from the outrage and frustration that so many in the industry feel about President Trump and his political agenda. There’s a fury in this extraordinary, post-Harvey Weinstein moment that is both highly combustible and highly productive for channeling rage into action.

“We are dealing with a lot of pent-up anger that has been there for decades and decades,” says producer Amy Baer, president of Women in Film Los Angeles. “When it all came pouring out, it opened the floodgates.”

The question of how many women and people of color will ride that tide over historic institutional barriers won’t be answered for many years. What is clear is that the pressure is not going to let up anytime soon. Too many women and men who have achieved prominence in their fields have been motivated to drive lasting change by the emotional jolt of hearing the graphic allegations of what some actresses had to go through to be hired by Weinstein or what aspiring comedians had to endure to connect with Louis C.K. on the stand-up circuit.

“It is unprecedented in that it has created seismic shifts in the management of major media businesses,” says Baer. “There have been seismic shifts in the portrayal of women, LGBTQ people, black and Hispanic stories. The singular difference now is that it has moved stock prices, moved management and blown up some institutions that have existed for a long time. You’re suddenly seeing zero tolerance for anything that smells like improper behavior, even for titans of industry and people at the top of their profession.”

The chance to forge real change out of a period of pain and conflict is being seized by those in a position to make a difference. Lesli Linka Glatter, a five-time Emmy nominee for directing on “Homeland” and “Mad Men,” launched the Female Forward program with NBC earlier this year to open doors for women directors who have yet to crack the world of episodic TV. Ryan Murphy has leveraged his formidable clout to make multiple networks support the mentoring and apprenticeship efforts of his Half Initiative.

“It’s more than a moment,” says Glatter. “There have been some substantial changes and an openness that I’m seeing all around. We’ve had a few of these over the years where I was optimistic that change was coming and then it kind of slid back. It feels different this time. We’ve reached a tipping point and the [employment] numbers show it.”

The horrors of the sexual misconduct stories that have poured forth in the past 24 months — beginning with the shake-up at Fox News with the ouster of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and the criminal prosecution of Bill Cosby — provided the shock to the system. The hard numbers remain persistently low for women in key decision-making roles, whether in the edit bay, in the writers’ room or in the C-suites of networks and studios. Experts say one of the biggest tools in stopping institutionalized harassment and discrimination is to have a diverse workforce. In most large companies that means boosting the ranks of women and people of color.

The working environment in Hollywood and across much of the U.S. media business is unprecedented in its proactive effort to bring women into the top ranks and previously male-dominated sectors. In the past year there’s been a scramble to compete for qualified female candidates for high-profile job openings among companies that have seen their reputations tarnished by allegations of sexual misconduct and those that have remained stubbornly male-dominated at the highest levels.

Fueling this most conscious effort to fight unconscious bias is a near perfect storm of socioeconomic trends — the advent of lightning-speed communication tools, the journalistic revelations of the past year and, of course, the Trump effect.

“If you’re not a guy who went to college with another guy, if you don’t play golf or pool or otherwise congregate how men congregate and collaborate, it can be very difficult to get that first credit.”
Ava DuVernay

One of the biggest factors in this “We’re not gonna take it anymore” attitude is that women in entertainment are more than ready to step up. There’s a generation of forty- and fiftysomething women who have earned their way up the ladder and are unquestionably qualified to move to the top rung. Jennifer Salke spent more than 20 years at Spelling Entertainment, Columbia TriStar, 20th Century Fox and NBC before she took the reins of Amazon Studios in February. Suzanne Scott logged more than 20 years at Fox News before being named its CEO in May. Both of those job openings came about as a result of sexual harassment scandals that drove out the previous occupants: Ailes at Fox News and Roy Price at Amazon Studios. When Matt Lauer was forced out of “Today” last November by sexual misconduct allegations, as reported by Variety, NBC News took the unusual step of opting for a female co-anchor team, with Hoda Kotb joining Lauer’s former partner, Savannah Guthrie, at the big table.

The pressure that Hollywood employers are facing is real and sustained. Television series with no female writers on staff are publicly called out — as Fox discovered with the latest season of “The X-Files” earlier this year — now that social media makes it easier for anyone to grab a megaphone and be heard. Movie studios that have weak track records of hiring women face an accounting on a public level that is impossible to ignore; witness the fanfare with which Marvel unveiled Anna Boden as co-director of the upcoming “Captain Marvel” with Ryan Fleck. Warner Bros. made headlines in April by naming Cathy Yan as the first woman of Asian descent to direct a big-budget blockbuster, DC Comics’ Margot Robbie starrer “Birds of Prey.”

“At every level, it really matters who is building [the] show,” says showrunner Tanya Saracho, whose Starz drama “Vida” brought a female-driven, heavily queer, distinctly Mexican-American story to TV in a nearly unprecedented way. To tell these stories as authentically as possible, Saracho says, she made sure to have Latinas in her corner not just as writers and directors but also in casting, props, script supervising and cinematography. That way, they could make sure that their Latinx actors were properly lit, the bilingual scripts read properly and (Season 2 spoiler alert!) the queer characters had their own realistic strap-on harnesses. Says Saracho, “Our female gaze is really active, because we have skin in the game.”

Led by Warner Bros., corporate parent AT&T has made a commitment to fostering diversity across all departments in productions that stem from the studio as well as its HBO and Turner siblings. The focus will be on ensuring that filmmakers and showrunners are mindful of diversity in staffing at the outset of every project. The new regime at AT&T has vowed to release an annual report tracking the numbers in each job category, with the responsibility for executing those goals falling on the leaders of physical production as well as corporate communications, human resources and legal for Warner Bros., HBO and Turner. The Warner Bros. plan was developed in concert with red-hot actor-producer Michael B. Jordan as he began work with Warners on “Just Mercy,” a drama revolving around the work of renowned civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative.

Women filmmakers and showrunners also have been in the trenches for years, learning their craft in writers’ rooms and in the huddle around the video village on sets. Industry veterans say there’s no shortage of women candidates who are well-positioned to succeed if given the chance to break through the old-boy network. Since most hiring decisions on movies and TV shows are made by white men, there’s a tendency to stick with who you know, especially when millions of production-budget dollars are on the line. If you’re not embedded in the decision-maker’s network, it’s harder to break in. “Not having that first credit is a barrier and an excuse for people to say, ‘This person doesn’t have the ability or know-how,” says filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “If you’re not a guy who went to college with another guy, if you don’t play golf or pool or otherwise congregate how men congregate and collaborate, it can be very difficult to get that first credit.” Especially, she adds, if you’re a woman or a person of color.

But in the current environment, opportunities for women and people of color are finally becoming less infrequent. Actress Frances McDormand crystallized the sense of excitement at the potential for — and frustration over the persistent bottleneck of — opportunities by beseeching the stars packed in the Dolby Theatre for the Oscars in March to demand inclusion riders in their contracts to help ensure greater diversity on film sets.

(Let to Right) “Queen Sugar” director-producer Ava DuVernay hires only women directors for the OWN series; “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna (right), with star Rachel Bloom, credits a female production team with giving her freedom on the script of “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Others who have climbed to positions of power have taken their own stands. First-time showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who worked under female executive producers on “Nurse Jackie” and “Orange Is the New Black,” respectively, before going out on their own with Netflix’s “GLOW,” figured out as they went along where they could be more inclusive on set. “Our [assistant director] department is all female, which feels like one of the most important moves we made between Season 1 and Season 2,” says Mensch. “Our actresses are constantly being asked to put their hearts and bodies on the line to tell our stories. And as much as the majority of our directors are female, the ADs run the set.”

DuVernay has hired only women directors for her drama series “Queen Sugar,” which airs on OWN, a cable channel co-owned by Oprah Winfrey. It’s another example of the slow but steady gains women have made that are putting them in a position to accelerate change and build the pipeline of experience that’s so important to expanding the overall talent pool. In fact, DuVernay says, many “Queen Sugar” alumni have gone on to be so successful that she can’t book them in time. Several were too busy on shows like “American Crime” and “Ozark” to work on DuVernay’s upcoming CBS drama “Red Line,” but she did eventually manage to enlist one: Victoria Mahoney, who’s now off making history on the set of “Star Wars: Episode IX” as the first black female unit director in the franchise.

But DuVernay emphasizes that her choice to have a slate of all-women directors — most of whom are women of color — isn’t an “‘initiative’ or a ‘diversity program,’” but “a way of working that’s correcting decades and decades of all-men” directors. “It’s really important that we face that,” she says. “While we can applaud all-women directorial teams, we need to scrutinize these all-men directorial teams too.”

What’s more, it’s only recently that more women and people of color have gotten the chance to not be the token representative of their sex and/or race in an otherwise white male writers’ room. “In other rooms, they’d been ‘the only one,’” says Saracho of her all-Latinx writers. “They had to be ambassadors, and sometimes not just to the Latinx community but to all people of color.” Having the opportunity to drop that role and just concentrate on their work, she says, simply made them even stronger writers. Flahive and Mensch highlighted a similar phenomenon unfolding in their female-dominated room. “There isn’t as much of a need to translate your experience as a woman,” says Flahive. “There’s foundational understanding.”

Within the creative community, the response to what Women in Film’s Baer calls the “collective awakening” about abuse and the gender-parity deficit has been overwhelming. Virtually every major network and studio has established some form of talent-development program designed to open doors behind the camera for women and people of color. The most ambitious efforts, such as NBC’s Female Forward directing program and Murphy’s Half Initiative, mix apprenticeship, mentoring and shadowing opportunities with a direct process for participants who demonstrate the right stuff to secure the crucial first credits in episodic TV or film — a break that can be the stepping-stone to a prosperous career.

The influence on the final product when women have a big say on hiring decisions, as well as the selection of stories that make it to the screen and creative choices in telling those stories, are readily apparent in some major industry success stories. The 2006 Meryl Streep-Anne Hathaway hit “The Devil Wears Prada,” for instance, is often described as a romantic comedy, but its biggest love story is between its heroine and her work — a twist on the conventional romantic-comedy formula that, even 12 years later, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna is still thrilled she was able to realize. “No one ever asked me to give it a conventional romantic ending, ever,” she says. “I never got that note. It was liberating.”

McKenna, now the creator and showrunner of The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” has a hunch why she got to stick to her vision for “Prada.” “The studio president was a woman. The studio executive was a woman. The two producers were women,” McKenna says, referring to Fox 2000 president Liz Gabler, Fox 2000 executive VP Carla Hacken, producer Wendy Finerman and exec producer Karen Rosenfelt.

The fortuitous “Devil Wears Prada” scenario was an anomaly for a long time. But not for much longer, industry veterans fervently hope. Glatter’s wish is that creative decisions become less rooted in gender and more focused on what special spin an individual brings to telling any given tale. “It’s not about gender. It’s about storytelling. That’s what I’ve always dreamed of when I started mentoring people 25 years ago — that someday gender would be a nonissue and [hiring decisions] would be about storytelling,” Glatter says. “Women can direct men and action and monsters, and a man can direct sensitive romantic stories.”

“We are dealing with a lot of pent-up anger that has been there for decades and decades,” says Women in Film Los Angeles president Amy Baer. “When it all came pouring out, it opened the floodgates.”
Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterdtock

In her travels as a working director and as a VP for the Directors Guild of America, Glatter was tired of hearing that productions couldn’t find viable female directors. Earlier this year, she crafted an initiative with then-NBC Entertainment president Salke that involved the heads of comedy and drama and the individual showrunners for NBC series. NBC received 1,200 submissions for 10 slots.

“This is not a training program,” Glatter says. “This is for directors who have worked in other areas — indie films, commercials, short films. They will shadow on three to six episodes and then be guaranteed an episode to direct. What hopefully happens is these women will be in the NBC pipeline and next year be part of the group of directors who are hired. And people can no longer say there’s not enough women with experience.”

Hollywood has been through waves of female empowerment — like clockwork, about once a decade since the 1970s, Glatter notes. But in this moment, the factors driving the demand for greater equality and consideration have created gale-force winds of change. The question that remains is whether the institutional actions will lead to a fundamental leveling of the gender bias that has been so deeply rooted, particularly in an industry where who you know and the ability to network is crucial to landing your next gig.

As with Glatter’s push at NBC, the genesis of Murphy’s Half Initiative sprang in part out of his frustration at not being able to find a woman to direct an episode of 2016’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” on short notice after another female director had to drop out for medical reasons. The Half Initiative strives to achieve at least 50-50 gender parity among directors of Murphy’s many shows. The effort is gradually expanding to other job functions on the set. Tanase Popa, a producer on FX’s “Pose” and other Murphy shows, serves as director of the Half Initiative. Murphy hired no female directors on his “American Horror Story” franchise until its sixth season, in 2016. That year, six of the season’s 10 episodes were helmed by women. The change happened because Murphy decided to use the power of his influence at FX to make equal hiring a priority.

“Everybody trusts him to set his directors up for success,” says Popa. “They’re set up for success through a support system that comes from the executive producers on down to answer questions and help them make their days.”

Funding for the Half Initiative is provided largely by the various networks as part of Murphy’s overall series deals. Netflix is also on board now that the producer has set up shop there.

There is much more work yet to be done. As seen over the past year of painful, necessary revelations, eliminating the widespread influence of toxic power players from the industry is far more complicated than simply pointing out that they exist. But with more women galvanized and in a position to do something about it, and with a groundbreaking swell of momentum propelling them forward, the tide may finally be turning for good — so long as the collective will remains strong.

“We have to circle the wagons as women and bring everyone else along,” says Women in Film’s Baer. “So much opportunity comes from having the proximity to opportunity. Men have historically enjoyed that proximity much more than women. We’re just on the brink of changing all of that.”

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