PLIGHT OF WOMEN DIRECTORS IMPROVED--BUT NOT MUCH : As Directors Guild Turns 50, Its Female Members Reassess Their Progress During the Past 6 Years


In the early 1960s, director Francine Parker had a chance to appear on the hit TV show “What’s My Line?” The show’s producers were sure she would stump the panel. “No one would ever guess that a woman would be a TV director,” recalls Parker, who was the 11th woman in history to join the DGA.

“What’s My Line?” was canceled before Parker got a chance to appear. But as a woman director, she continued to be a novelty for almost two more decades.

In 1980, statistics gathered by six women members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) confirmed the rarity of Parker’s position. At a press conference that year they announced that in the past 30 years, women had directed fewer than 1% of all major feature films and prime-time television. Specifically: Of 7,332 pictures, women directed 14; of 65,500 hours of television programming, women directed 115 hours.


Along with those bleak figures, the DGA Women’s Committee also presented to entertainment industry power brokers a detailed affirmative-action proposal for getting more women “tracked into the main talent pool of working directors.” The years since have seen lawsuits, networking, seminars, studies and conferences dedicated to increasing access for women into the prestigious guild.

And what has been the outcome? As the DGA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, its women members are assessing their status. Starting today, Calendar begins a four-part look at their starts and stops, based on extensive interviews over the last several months with dozens of men and women who make decisions in Hollywood.

There is no scientific way to measure progress, and personal evaluations differ widely. The overall picture is positive: Today, women directors are no longer such a novelty. The DGA has 344 female director members (7.6%) out of a total director membership of 4,503.

There are definitely more women directors at work today than ever before--on major projects in film and television. Women directors are an emerging minority. At the same time, conversations on the subject throughout the industry tend toward a good news/bad news pattern. Some sample observations:

“Those women who are working, by and large, seem to be doing reasonably well,” acknowledged Eileen Carhart, who along with Michealene Cristini and Thompson O’Sullivan co-chairs the DGA Women’s Steering Committee. “But there are not enough women working.”

--”I remember the (1980) meeting when those women revealed those embarrassing, shameful statistics,” producer Norman Lear reflected. “But then everybody went back to work, and I never saw any evidence of improvement.”

--”On balance, I’m satisfied that since our efforts commenced in 1978, progress has been made by women in gaining employment as directors,” said Michael Franklin, executive director of the DGA. “I am disappointed that our litigation a few years ago on behalf of women and minorities was not successful, but it, too, played a part in moving forward our goals for equal employment opportunities for women.”

--”The average person is no longer opposed to women directors,” said DGA President Gilbert Cates. “Ten years ago, the majority of studio executives questioned the ability of a woman to direct a film. Today, you’d have to dig deep in the barrel to find a fool to say that. That attitude has been put to rest.

“But the numbers are still disappointing. There’s no doubt that in relation to population, the number of women directing is very low. But I’m pleased to say that the awareness of the work of women directors is very high.”

--’Women are now going on to direct second and third features,” noted Eileen Carhart of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee.

“That’s different, even from the early 1980s. But it’s misleading to extend that same kind of positive growth to all the women working or not working in this industry.”

The last six years undeniably have seen a lot of consciousness-raising in the entertainment industry, and conversations on the subject of women’s access tend to center around questions of socialization of attitudes as well as power structures.

Just wanting to direct isn’t enough, insists Richard Donner (“Superman,” “Ladyhawke,” “Goonies”). “In the past, I’m sure women directors were kept down,” he says while directing a helicopter scene in the upcoming “Lethal Weapon,” a buddy-buddy cop picture starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

“Twenty years ago it was brutal for all minorities. But over the last 10 years, if people wanted to direct, they did it. So many people sit back with the excuse, ‘I’m not working because I’m black or I’m Italian or I’m a woman.’ My feeling is there’s been the desire but maybe not the energy put in by women.”

“Directing has always been kind of a boy’s club, like most things in America,” Ned Tanen, president of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, believes. “I don’t perceive this problem as being about this business. It’s a subtext of American culture: ‘You raise the kids, you take care of the house, dear. I’ll go out and kill the bear.’

“It’s as if this is the Middle Ages or the period of the suffragettes. I keep thinking we don’t talk about these things anymore. And when we start talking about them, I say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re still playing this game.’ ”

Tanen’s view of women directing in Hollywood: “Earlier, there physically weren’t that many women remotely equipped to direct because they hadn’t been allowed to get into that position. But now the lid is off. It certainly is here. We’re really trying.”

But old attitudes die hard. Directing has been traditionally regarded as a man’s job, complete with boots, riding whip and bullhorn. “The kind of strength needed to direct has nothing to do with brute force,” Norman Lear emphasizes. “It has to do with strength of character. A deeper voice does not a director make.”

Lear talks in terms of individuals, rather than male/female--an approach women welcome. They object to being lumped together as representatives of their gender. “When it’s a woman, they move it into a generalization,” complains Phyllis Geller, a top KCET executive and a former president of Women in Film (a group of professional women who work in the film and television industries).

“Women have to do twice as well to achieve the same thing. We do give each other a bad name if we don’t do good work. If one woman causes trouble, the next five will have problems.”

In some industries, lawsuits have been successful in improving women’s positions. But many consider the entertainment industry to be unique. “A corporate mentality will respond to affirmative action, but a creative mentality won’t,” suggests Deborah Aal, president of the Leonard Goldberg Co.

Dawn Steel, president of production at Paramount, dismisses the thought of lawsuits. “It’s about talent, not lawsuits,” she says. “I don’t want to be in the position where I thought I got the job because I was a woman. No other woman wants to be in that position either.”

The DGA did try litigation. After the 1980 statistics were made public, the DGA encouraged production companies to adopt voluntary affirmative-action programs. It also attempted, unsuccessfully, to get producers to agree to having one out of every 13 TV episodes directed by a woman.

In 1983, when it was felt that little progress had been made, the DGA filed class-action lawsuits against Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, alleging discrimination in the companies’ hiring of women and ethnic minorities represented by the guild.

In August, 1985, the cases were dismissed. In brief, Judge Pamela Rymer ruled on counter-claims filed by the two studios. The studios argued that the DGA contract gives directors the right to select the first assistant director, and the first assistant the right to select the second assistant.

Thus, the studios could only hire the director, not the assistant directors. How could they be accused of discrimination if they couldn’t do all of the hiring? Judge Rymer ruled on this claim rather than on the actual issue of whether discrimination had occurred.

The DGA is no longer pursuing litigation. Warren Adler, assistant executive secretary of the DGA, explains, “Our current agreement requires production companies to use good-faith efforts regarding women and minority members. We looked at what they did last year. We think we saw some progress. It may have been illusory, tokenism or chance. We hope it was progress.”

“If that (DGA) lawsuit could have been continued,” Francine Parker believes, “we’d all be working. As long as the threat of a lawsuit hung over their heads, they’d be forced to throw open interviews for directors and purposely include women.”

Perhaps Parker is right. Talking about CBS’ response to the DGA’s voluntary affirmative-action plan, Tony Barr, vice president of CBS Entertainment Productions, acknowledges that “there was a concerted effort to find women who were qualified and to consciously train women. A number of producers made their sets available to women to come in and watch. I do know there was a push, and we were all involved.”

Is there any other solution? The “old-boys” network is well-established in Hollywood. What about an equivalent “old-girls” network? “When you’re powerless, what good is your network?” Parker quips.

“An ‘old-girls’ network was one of the mandates of Women in Film,” recalls director Nancy Malone, who helped found the group in 1973. “But WIF became too big and unwieldy to be a practical networking situation. It has good workshops, but some of us older members feel we’re always being put on the spot being asked for work.”

Yet there is a loosely structured female support system in Hollywood. New York-based documentarist Helen Whitney discovered it when she came to Los Angeles looking for directing work. “I met some fabulous people when I was wandering around,” she says. “All of them were women. They didn’t give me jobs (directing), but I was grateful for encouragement.”