Where are the Agents of Change? A Primer on the ACLU Investigation into Hollywood’s Gender Discrimination

When director and Transparent creator Jill Soloway delivered her fiery, uproarious keynote address to the graduating students of the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women back in May, she exclaimed, “Let’s just sue all of Hollywood!”

Soloway was referring, of course, to the letters the American Civil Liberties Union sent to three state and federal agencies (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs) on May 12, demanding a formal investigation into the hiring practices in Hollywood that have been characterized as widespread discrimination against women directors.

Amid page after page of damning statistics, and interviews with 50 women directors across the industry, the ACLU’s letters specifically campaign these agencies to examine the studios, networks, and talent agencies that dominate Hollywood. Some salient stats: Studies show women directing only 1.9 percent of top-grossing films in 2013-14, and 4.1 percent directing the top films of the previous 12 years. The numbers are slightly better in television, where women directed a “whopping” 13 percent of episodes during the 2013-2014 season, but as many as 70 shows on 31 networks didn’t have a single woman director across any of its series. For women of color, the rate of women directors in television is at a shameful two percent.

Typically, a discrimination investigation starts by probing individual employers or specific instances, but when the numbers are as pitiful as this, they point to what the Supreme Court has called the “inexorable zero”—when the statistics themselves are so glaring that they alone can prove the presence of systemic discrimination.

Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBT, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, set off this media blitz alongside colleague Ariela Migdal. Goodman says all evidence points to a systemic problem: “The incredibly dire statistics are so bad, they don’t suggest that there’s just one or two bad employers out there.”

As always, progress hovers at the fringes, looking for a way in. Organizations in the world of indie film have been stepping up to the plate in recent years. The Sundance Institute has been one of the most outspoken leaders of the fight. With the introduction of their Female Filmmakers Initiative (FFI) in 2012 (in conjunction with Women in Film, Los Angeles), they’ve vowed to up their female director rate at the Sundance Film Festival to an even 50 percent (Women only directed 25 percent of films in U.S. Dramatic Competition between 2002 and 2014).

So, given the raw numbers, why doesn’t Hollywood respond to the ACLU’s call to action with similar voluntary commitments, rather than endure the hassle of a protracted investigation and potential lawsuit? We already know you’re guilty, Hollywood. Make the commitment to change, effective immediately. If the independent world can do it, so can you.

Ceilings and Cycles

So we’re aware of the problem, but finding a solution is about as straightforward as a David Lynch plotline: You run into a series of self-perpetuating cycles that behave like broken flowcharts—and, frustratingly, you always wind up back where you started.

Hiring Cycles

Talent Agencies

Studios and networks use shortlists when looking for directing talent on new projects. Women are rarely represented on these lists, so they’re often not considered at all, or weeded out in the first round. These lists come from the major talent agencies—CAA, WME, UTA, et al—and agents admit there’s little incentive to rep women, because they book fewer jobs.

Cronyism

Hollywood is a closed ecosystem, ringed by an army of gatekeepers who hire each other—and people like themselves—over and over. The majority of these executives, producers and showrunners are men, who overwhelmingly hire other men. “Don’t expect the industry to change,” warned Soloway. “They are not giving up those lookout spots easily.”

On the other hand, Hollywood loves a challenge. Which will be the first major studio to follow Sundance’s lead, and vow to hire a woman director for every man they hire? Or will the powers that be simply wait for the angry hordes of women filmmakers Soloway is urging to “boost each other up those watchtowers and pull those motherfuckers down?” Cronyism works both ways, after all. Soloway created an award-winning show for Amazon and will hire whomever the hell she wants.

Sexist Stereotypes

The FFI’s report identified a perception by Hollywood brass that women “can’t handle” leading large crews, aren’t interested in the directing chair, or aren’t competent as directors. The self-proclaimed “cathartic” Tumblr Shit People Say to Women Directors collects anonymously submitted instances of these fallacies—including a quote from Girls showrunner Lena Dunham: “I heard a guy on my show say into his microphone: ‘I hate this job. I can’t wait to be back on a show where there’s a man at the helm.’”

Half of those interviewed by the FFI said that genres like action and horror “may not appeal” to women directors. They must not remember Mimi Leder’s $350 million-grossing sci-fi action Deep Impact, Mary Harron’s bloody drama American Psycho, Mary Lambert’s horror hit Pet Cemetery, or Kathryn Bigelow’s entire filmography.

Money Cycles

Blame Wall Street. In early Hollywood, women climbed to positions of power through the same channels as their male contemporaries. Moviemaking wasn’t a sought-after occupation at time. But as the industry transitioned from silents to talkies and the Great Depression sank its claws in, studio execs were forced to turn to the money-makers on Wall Street for financing. They wouldn’t back projects with women creators, and kicked off the interminable cycle of sidelining women.

The truth is, financing female-helmed projects isn’t much easier in the indie realm. Director Rebecca Miller says the films she’s been offered have always been about women. But when she was looking for a greenlight on her girl-driven fourth feature, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, she was told, “If you could have a male protagonist, you’d have a 70 percent higher chance of getting financed.”

Global Cycles

The enormous success of blockbusters like Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, Furious Seven and The Avengers: Age of Ultron in China and other major international markets has ramped up Hollywood’s commitment to producing more of the same. Of the various issues this brings up in today’s industry—original stories being shut out in favor of pre-sold franchises, for one—banking on the tried-and-tested means, once again, banking on male-driven projects about males. This in spite of the fact that, according the MPAA’s 2015 Theatrical Market Statistics Report, women make up the majority of moviegoers around the world.

Cycles of Silence

Many women in the industry don’t feel safe to talk freely about their experiences with gender discrimination for fear they might not work again. For this article, MovieMaker reached out to several industry women who declined to comment. In a January 2015 New York Times interview, Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston lays it out: “Any mention of [our place in the industry] labels you as a harridan or a bitch or a troublemaker… It’s a conundrum: We can’t change it ourselves, but no one can change it but us.”

Emerging filmmakers are worried—like Jaclyn Gramigna, a recent graduate from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Gramigna says she applied to at least 100 directing jobs over the past couple of years, and has never received a reply, despite being “perfectly qualified for the majority of the positions.” She considered changing her name on her reel to Jack to see if the response was different—but chickened out.

The ACLU spoke with 50 women to kick off their campaign. As ACLU’s Goodman says, “This is a civil rights movement, and women [need to] feel more comfortable speaking out. One of the ways you create that situation is to create an overwhelmingly loud and constant conversation in our culture about it, such that people start feeling it’s safe to talk—they don’t feel like they’re all alone.”

And some high-profile moviemakers are speaking out—like Kathryn Bigelow. In a statement to Time, the Oscar-winning director said, “Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward-thinking and progressive people, yet this horrific situation for women directors persists. Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential.”

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