LOS ANGELES – Recent allegations of sexual misconduct by entertainment bigwigs have invigorated the campaign to put more women in charge.
In television, however, the revolution has already begun. Last season 262 female directors worked in episodic TV, a 45 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Directors Guild of America. That’s roughly one in five of all the directors employed.
“There’s obviously still work to be done, but we keep making obvious strides,” said Elisabeth Moss, star and co-producer for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Nine of that show’s 10 episodes were helmed by women, including Reed Morano, who became only the third woman to win an Emmy as best director for a dramatic series.
“When you look at the landscape of television now, and how much content is led by women and made by women, it’s exactly where we should be going,” Moss said.
TV directors don’t carry as much clout as their counterparts in film and theater. Traditionally, showrunners rule the roost in television — creators such as Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes, who often serve as head writer. But that’s starting to change as high-def home entertainment systems and streaming services with bigger budgets (and bigger ambitions) force everyone to up their game.
“The demands of visual storytelling have never been greater and, speaking for myself, they couldn’t have come soon enough,” said “West Wing” veteran Tommy Schlamme, who was elected president of the Directors Guild in June.
“I remember early in my career, I always wondered why networks and studios and producers didn’t want TV directors to reach into their toolbox and use the best visual vocabulary they had to tell the story,” Schlamme said. “There were restrictions. That never made any sense because I would watch ‘Citizen Kane’ on television, which was getting bigger and bigger, and it still looked like a visual masterpiece.”
The Half initiative
Few shows in recent years have been as cinematic as “American Horror Story,” “Scream Queens” and “Feud,” all from Murphy. And it’s no coincidence that his production company has dramatically increased the number of female directors in rotation — from zero during the first season of “Horror” to seven in its latest.
Last year Murphy launched his Half initiative, which pledged to create more opportunities behind the camera for women and minorities. Since then, 60 percent of the directing jobs on his shows have been filled by females.
Rachel Goldberg had made an impressive collection of short films, but couldn’t break into the big leagues until Murphy tapped her to direct an episode of “American Horror Story: Cult” that aired this year.
“When I met with him,” Goldberg recalled, “he was like: ‘You know, 50-year-old white men make change. I am now a 50-year-old white man and I can make change. I promise you I’m going to give you an episode.’ He did and it changed my life.”
Goldberg is attached to four feature films. “We’re not green,” she said. “We’ve been directing for a really long time. It’s just that we needed someone to give us a chance.”
Another game changer is Ava DuVernay, who used the success of her Oscar-nominated feature film “Selma” — and her friendship with Oprah Winfrey — to develop “Queen Sugar,” a series for Winfrey’s OWN network that employs only female directors.
“I always say if ‘Game of Thrones’ can have three seasons of all male directors, why can’t we have three seasons of all women directors?” she said.
DuVernay hasn’t abandoned her movie career; her highly anticipated adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” is scheduled to open in March. But the fast-rising star believes that episodic TV is often the best launchpad for burgeoning talents. It’s tough to secure feature-film work without some small-screen experience.
The Directors Guild reported in September that of the 225 first-time TV directors, 32.4 percent were women, up from 24 percent the previous year, an all-time high. But feature films are moving in the opposite direction, notwithstanding the commercial success of Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” and the Oscar buzz for Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” Female directors accounted for only 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a 2 percent drop from the previous year, according to a study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
You may suspect that TV execs are more likely to turn to women because television relies heavily on stories that are lower on testosterone and higher on hugs. And you’d be right — to a point.
Female-helmed episodes of the envelope-pushing comedy series “Transparent” and the ABC sitcom “Modern Family” have taken home best-director Emmys four of the past five years. Before that, you’d have to reach back 25 years to find a female winner in that category (for a Betty Thomas-helmed episode of “Dream On”).
ABC’s fairy-tale mash-up “Once Upon a Time” has employed five female directors during the past season and a half.
“Having a show that has such strong female characters, we really wanted to find more female directors,” said its Minnesota-raised showrunner, Edward Kitsis. “Our show attempts to reflect the world as it exists. To do that, we find it is critical to have creative forces on the show that have different backgrounds. ”
But women are also making inroads on fast-paced, violent TV series.
“I think there’s a little bit of a comfort zone in saying, ‘Oh, you’re a woman. You must want to direct teenage girls or a coming-of-age story.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” said Maggie Kiley, the first director chosen through Murphy’s Half initiative. “But this episode of ‘American Horror Story’ that I’ve just come off of, there’s some blood for sure. I’m very grateful for that. Bring on the blood.”
There’s plenty of work out there. With streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon investing in original programming, a total of 4,482 episodes were churned out in the 2016-17 television season. That’s 10 percent more than the year before and a whopping 42 percent leap from five years ago.
“What’s empowering in television right now is that there’s opportunity and we’re grabbing it,” said director Steph Green, whose credits include “Bates Motel” and “Luke Cage.” “We’re showing that there was never a problem with us doing action. There was only a preconception, like there is about so much of what women are capable of.”
A trailblazer and mentor
Green and many of her peers give a lot of credit to Gwyneth Horder-Payton, a trailblazer whose TV career began as an assistant director on FX’s “The Shield.” Horder-Payton, who went on to direct more than 70 TV episodes, makes a point of having aspiring directors shadow her on set. Others are following suit.
“You need people to open doors for you. You need people to guide you. And you need people to call for advice. I think all of us are really dedicated to that,” Goldberg said. “Everything I can do to give back and teach is super important to me because it’s the only way. People did it for all of us. So it’s only right that we do it for others.”
NBC has partnered with veteran director Lesli Linka Glatter (“Mad Men,” “Ray Donovan”) on an initiative called Female Forward. Ten female directors will shadow the production of as many as three network episodes during the 2018-19 season, and walk away with at least one directing credit.
“I think it will be a game changer,” said NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke. “We’ll start feeding the pipeline of directors we’re already tracking closely and chasing all over town, like everyone else is. There’s far too few women [in that group] and we felt it was time we did something about it.”
With commitments like NBC’s, television should continue to inch closer to gender parity behind the camera while influencing the next generation of female directors.
“I think it’s our responsibility to put great female role models both on the screen and behind the scenes, because kids today can then see what they can be,” said Lori McCreary, president of the Producers Guild of America.
“The more we put out there, the more little girls will be encouraged.”