The number of women directing films is abysmal. Alma Har’el has a plan to change that
Framed by her lion’s mane of flame-colored hair, Alma Har’el is a study in quiet intensity. Sitting in a glass-walled conference room at the NeueHouse, a stylish co-working space in Hollywood, Har’el is the center of gravity as a small group of people and a larger whirl of activity orbit around her.
In less than a decade, the Israeli-born filmmaker has notched an impressive list of breakthroughs. Her film “Bombay Beach” won best feature documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Three years ago, she became the first woman to direct a Stella Artois ad. Last year, her spot for Coca-Cola made her one of a handful of women to lens a Super Bowl ad.
“Thank You, Mom,” Procter & Gamble’s long-running campaign that aired during the 2018 Winter Olympics, earned Har’el a solo DGA nomination in the commercial category — making her just the second woman to earn this distinction. In January, she won a special jury award at Sundance for her first narrative film, “Honey Boy.” Amazon acquired the semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age tale written and starring Shia LaBeouf; it’s scheduled for release this fall.
But at the moment, Har’el’s focus is on telling a different kind of story: that of women and other marginalized creatives. Flipping through a presentation, she stops to spotlight the data displayed on a single slide: 4% of the directors across 1,200 films are female. “The numbers get worse, the more intersectional you go,” she proclaims. “So this is what we’re up against.”
For Har’el, who built her career by constantly knocking on closed doors and then knocking them down, this is more than just a plaintive battle cry. She has a plan.
Har’el is the driving force behind the groundbreaking Free the Bid, a nonprofit venture started in 2016 that successfully pushed the world’s biggest ad agencies to hire more female directors. It did so by having them commit to include at least one woman in every three directors invited to pitch a campaign — known in the business as the triple bid process. In exchange for taking the pledge, the agencies and brands gained access to a searchable database of female directors.
At launch, Free the Bid had 70 filmmakers in the database, today it has over 1,200. Initially, 21 agencies and four brands signed on, among them Coke and HP. Currently, 160 global agencies and some 180 brands have taken the pledge. Two large ad agencies, BBDO and CP+B, have since registered a 400% increase in jobs to women. Once HP became a signatory, 59% of the 53 commercials it has produced were directed by a woman; a more than impressive statistic if you consider that’s a jump up from zero. (There are no independent surveys measuring the number of working female directors in advertising.)
Having cracked open advertising’s calcified male dominance, Har’el now has her sights on the larger entertainment industry. This week at the Cannes Lions, advertising’s Oscars, Har’el is unveiling Free the Work, which she calls “a global network for women and underrepresented creators and the people who hire them.” The new venture already has buy-in with TV studios, streaming platforms and brands; Free the Work is announcing partnerships with Amazon Studios, P&G, Facebook and AT&T.
“I think we have had enough discussion about the problem,” said Har’el in an interview last month. “What we really need is to move into solutions. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
A consummate outsider, Har’el, who grew up in a small town south of Tel Aviv, is an unconventional choice to shake up the establishment from the inside.
“You know, I was the person that was reading Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” and going into the desert and taking psychedelic drugs,” she says. “So I wasn’t exactly like the corporate guru of my time. But I really found out that there is a need to understand the structures that are keeping us out and that we have to get in there and make them see that they’re losing when we’re not inside.”
But first, Har’el had to find her way in.
Her childhood was emotionally fraught, with parents who were always on the edge of divorce. But she says it taught her about the complexities of love and pain. Their frequent splits left her alcoholic father without a permanent home. As a result, Har’el, who turns 41 next month, often met him at the cinema. “We would go to see movies and that’s really how I got my love for film.”
Har’el says that she always gravitated toward being a director, but without the money to go to film school she had to find an alternative path. Initially she worked as a model and TV presenter, eventually negotiating her way behind the camera producing club videos.
Twelve years ago she came to the U.S. with her now ex-husband Boaz Yakin, a screenwriter (“Now You See Me”) and director (“Remember the Titans”). While browsing the bins at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, Har’el discovered a CD of the indie band Beirut.
“I felt destined to do their music video,” she says. After sending the band an email, they agreed. That led to her signing with Partizan Entertainment. “It just seemed like the biggest dream in the world back then.”
In short order, Har’el gained a following for stunning videos with a mix of reality, fantasy and emotion. In 2012 Har’el directed an eight-minute video for Icelandic band Sigur Rós. The video “Fjögur Píanó” portrayed a couple navigating an addiction- and abuse-fueled relationship. “Filmmaker” magazine called it “provocative and dramatically compelling.”
The video starred Shia LaBeouf and was the start of Har’el’s creative collaboration and friendship with the sometimes troubled actor. While in rehab a few years ago, he sent her a draft of his script for “Honey Boy.” “I send everything I make to her,” says LaBeouf in an email. “She said it was a movie that she wanted to make. Her way of making a film is a lot like the process of exposure work. It’s gestalt therapy.” Har’el found herself immediately drawn to the material. “It definitely just felt like the most urgent thing I had to do,” she says.
Har’el speaks passionately and thoughtfully about the complexities and challenges of diversity, inclusivity and opportunity, having experienced them firsthand.
Despite earning global critical acclaim and awards, Har’el was unable to advance into bigger-budget music videos, step up into commercials or film her own vision in documentaries and features.
“I kept getting written about but I kept getting the same small budgets and I saw all my male peers getting bigger and bigger artists and bigger and bigger offers and breaking into commercials,” she says. “At a certain point it hits you; you literally have to be an entrepreneur to create change.”
Har’el bought a $650 camera at Best Buy and then spent six months filming “Bombay Beach.” It is a visual portrait of three people living on the edge, geographically and on society’s fringes, that was hailed for its genre-redefining work. Still, the needle barely moved.
The turning point came when she was awarded the Stella Artois ad in 2016. The spot happened to be written by a woman, Sasha Markov, then the creative director of the agency Mother. It paid homage to the founder’s widow, Isabella Artois, who saved the Belgian brewery from going under. Markov recalls that Har’el had the best treatment.
But the advertising industry was like a fun house mirror reflecting the vision of the entire world through the gaze of men.
“It was so fresh and original and had so much feeling in it,” Markov says of Har’el’s ad. But she notes that the big trophy commercials for beer and cars always went to men. “I was trying to get a female director within a male world. It’s crazy we made it happen.”
The idea for Free the Bid initially took shape over a series of conversations between Har’el and PJ Pereira, chief creative officer and co-founder of San Francisco-based boutique agency Pereira & O’Dell. The pair first worked together in 2012 when Har’el shot the Airbnb campaign “Views” for the agency. “The work Alma did was more delicate and caring than any man would do,” Pereira says.
“We have conferences about diversity in leadership, that it’s too male-driven,” he adds, “but I’d never thought about how it impacted our choices for directors.”
Pereira told Har’el that going forward his agency would make sure to have women attached to bids. But Har’el knew that if you were going to make systemic change you had to change the system, not just a single agency’s practices. When Pereira suggested they initiate a fourth, exclusively female bid, Har’el balked; she wanted to give women a shot at the process not Balkanize it. “If we’re doing that,” she told him, “’it should be one of the three bids.’”
Stripping the industry of the excuse that there just weren’t enough talented women, Free the Bid caught on quickly. “It was like almost people were waiting for somebody to come and say here’s something we can do,” she said
“Sometimes the best ideas are the most simple and obvious,” said Lora Schulson, the New York-based director of production at the agency 72andSunny. “It’s funny, when we first started talking to Free the Bid our gut reaction was we work with the best people. Then we took a step back to look at the numbers and realized we had a problem here and we need to change our behavior. If we signed on it will push us and hold us accountable to make change.”
As Free the Bid’s database swelled, so did demand. It expanded to include photographers, colorists and editors. When Free the Bid was among last year’s 18 grantees awarded a piece of the $20 million that CBS earmarked to women’s groups from former CBS chairman Les Moonves’ severance package, Har’el decided she could actually broaden the scope beyond the advertising industry and launch Free the Work.
Another CBS grantee, Time’s Up, has announced a mentoring initiative to create more opportunities for women and underrepresented individuals to enter the entertainment business. But the crux of Free the Work is that the talent already exists.
Marc Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer, was one of the early signatories to Free the Bid and is similarly committed to this latest iteration. “There’s been a lot of discussion about equality, but it’s been just that — discussion,” he says. Free the Work is a “practical action to cause people to focus on making equality behind the camera happen.”
Har’el calls it a “holistic talent discovery service for women and underrepresented creators,” and a resource for “change agents.” Free the Work’s Cannes debut will be accompanied by an advert filmed by up-and-coming director Amber Grace Johnson. It’s a clever riff on how Mozart’s equally talented sister Maria Anna went unnoticed over time. “Who else have we missed?” it asks.
Like Free the Bid, this iteration has a searchable database but one that allows for customized searches. For instance, users can look for a production style (documentary, feature), geographic location and even language skills. Har’el likens it to a combination IMDBpro, Spotify and Instagram. There will be social networking and educational capabilities to build a talent pipeline as well as tracking tools.
“There’s a lot of people and organizations working towards diversity,” Har’el says, “but they can’t quantify the change they are making.”
Another feature is “personalized discovery,” showcasing tastemakers and their playlists of underrepresented talent as curated by influential industry players, which would look like: Jordan Peele’s five favorite horror shorts or Gal Gadot’s favorite emerging talent from the Middle East.
“Hollywood makes the things that tell the world how to feel about itself,” says Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” and that has tremendous implications about who creates content. Soloway, who founded 50/50 by 2020, an intersectional initiative of Time’s Up, has signed on as one of Free the Work’s tastemakers, contributing playlists consisting of nonbinary creatives and her discoveries of female directors. She calls Free the Work “a great first step,” adding that in Har’el she has found a kindred spirit.
“Alma is doing the same thing I am doing, she is incredibly ambitious in her own career and relentless and evangelical about making sure every other woman and otherized people have a shot.”
Har’el is cognizant that this is a moment in time and she’s seizing it. “The thing that’s interesting about history is that you can have that moment a hundred times,” she says. “So even when you do accomplish something, it’s not going to stop. … The question is, who are our allies and what kind of weapons do we have?”
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