Can the major Hollywood studio with the worst track record of hiring female directors lead the way in improving diversity within its ranks?
Warner Bros. is launching a workshop to help underrepresented communities break into an overwhelmingly white, male field: directing. The studio is introducing the Warner Brothers Emerging Film Directors Workshop, a nine-month intensive fellowship that will end in a showcase for an industry audience.
As Greg Silverman, Warner Bros. Pictures president of creative development and worldwide production, told The Hollywood Reporter, “it’s really for anybody who is looking at the system and saying, ‘the unfair part is that I can’t even get started.’ So get started with Warner Bros.”
It’s a big leap for a studio that, according to a 2015 study by the Los Angeles Times, has the most disappointing history of hiring female directors of any studio in its class. The numbers are abysmal all over — only 8.1 percent of major studio films were directed by women in 2010, and that was a five-year high; the low point was 4.6 percent, in 2014 — but when it came to female representation, Warner Bros. came in at the bottom of the list. Only 2.3 percent of Warner Bros pictures were directed by women. As the L.A. Times points out, the studio “relies heavily on big-budget superhero and action films, the genres least likely to be helmed by a woman.”
The fellowship, which will consist of five filmmakers, is intended to mimic the process of producing a feature film, just at “a micro level.” It will pair aspiring directors with executive mentors at Warner Bros. pictures who will “work with them through the entire film production process, from pitch to final cut and even a premiere, which will take the form of a film festival on the Warners lot and is aimed at showing the complete work to agents and executives from a broad spectrum of the industry,” THR reports. Estimated budget per film, each of which will be between three and 10 minutes: $100,000. This is the first program of its kind at Warner Bros. for film.
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Silverman told THR that the program has been in the works for over a year. "We wanted to have more diverse voices; it’s a better way to connect with our diverse audience and with the world."
Diversity has achieved a tricky status, buzzword-wise: If everyone is saying it, does anyone really mean it? Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and champion for women and people of color in film, said recently that she "hate[s] that word so much." She said, “I feel it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue. It’s emotional for artists who are women and people of color to have less value placed on our worldview.” She prefers the language of "inclusion" or "belonging."
Her word choice isn't just more evocative but, considering the way in which individuals do (or don't) get hired on film sets, it's more appropriate. Research indicates that it's not so much an active effort to keep women and people of color out of the process as there is a tendency toward working with already-familiar names or "this guy that reminds me of me."
Nearly a year has passed since the ACLU requested that state and federal agencies launch an investigation into Hollywood’s sexist hiring practices, claiming that the practices in place are in violation of Title VII. In May, leveraging piles of data and testimony from a fleet of women directors, the ACLU reached out to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, imploring the agencies to “initiate an investigation into systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.” As the letter to the Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing put it, the statistics on female directors "reveal what the Supreme Court has called ‘the inexorable zero’ -- a figure, representing ‘the glaring absence’ of women that is highly indicative of systemic employment discrimination.”
In USC Annenberg's annual study of the top 100 grossing films of the year, the numbers continue to reveal "an epidemic of invisibility" both on and off the camera for women, people of color, and LGBT individuals. Take 2014's top 100: Those films employed only two female directors among them. Only 24 out of the 779 directors behind the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 (excluding 2011) were women.
This year's Academy Awards saw the revival of #OscarsSoWhite, a social media campaign started by April Reign after the 2015 acting slate failed to include a single person of color and reignited when, yet again, all 20 actors up for Oscars this year were white. The Academy responded with a statement from its president Cheryl Boone Isaacs -- "Change is not coming as fast as we would like" -- and a promise to implement new policies for inducting new members and determining which existing members could maintain their status as Oscar voters.
While the focus of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign was largely on on-screen talent, it's worth noting that there is even less diversity in the directing category than there is in the acting categories: Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, and she remains the only woman to do so. Not only has no woman won the award since then; no woman has even been nominated since then.
Last October -- before the Academy Award nominations came out -- Sundance Institute and Women in Film, Los Angeles hosted a private gathering of 44 Hollywood insiders with the goal of brainstorming actionable, tangible steps to battle the systemic, endemic gender bias within the entertainment industry. They emerged with four bullet points, one of which was to launch "a pilot sponsor/protégé program to identify talented early-to-mid career female film and TV directors for a year-long training and fellowship program, and pair them with advocates across the industry who will actively help them move to the next level.”
It is a little early to be too optimistic and more than a little late on Warner Bros.'s part to be too congratulatory. The program sounds fantastic -- but it's not like Warner Bros., or any major studio, needs to be turning over couch cushions and searching the hidden, darkened corners of the world to find female filmmakers or filmmakers of color worth hiring. Last fall, Vulture put together a handy list of 100 women Warner Bros. could have hired yesterday.