Advertisement
Television

Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay among 50 to urge Directors Guild to improve policies for working parents

Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay and Reese Witherspoon
From left: Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay and Reese Witherspoon are among 50 signatories to a letter to the Directors Guild of America urging the organization to adopt improved parental leave policies.
(Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP; Getty Images)

Greta Gerwig, Amy Poehler, Ava DuVernay, Reese Witherspoon and a host of other Hollywood names have co-signed a letter urging the Directors Guild of America to make accommodations for new and expectant parents.

The letter, written by documentary filmmaker Jessica Dimmock, asks that the guild extend the qualifying period in which members must meet a minimum earnings threshold in order to qualify for health insurance. Such a policy, if implemented, would not provide paid leave per se, but would enable new parents to take time off from work without fear of losing their health insurance coverage.

Although the proposed policy would apply to all DGA members, Dimmock’s letter focuses on pregnant women and new mothers, who are disproportionately affected by the guild’s current policy.

“Having a child takes out of our lives,” Dimmock told The Times. “It’s like, ‘Can you just give me some of that back as a worker and allow me to get on my feet again instead of pretending that this didn’t happen?’ … Pregnancy is not a chronic thing. It’s not this rare illness. Everybody was born. We shouldn’t act so surprised when people have children. We should assume that people might have babies, and we should have things in place so their life isn’t thrown into chaos when it happens.”

Advertisement

The letter is going public Thursday, ahead of the 72nd DGA Awards on Sunday night, as conversations about gender barriers in Hollywood have once again come sharply into focus.

“Here is our ask,” the letter reads. “New mothers should be afforded additional time to make their yearly minimum in the year that they give birth. This provides new parents the opportunity to take the time they need to physically care for their child as well as recover and recuperate. Women will return to their work better equipped to handle the challenges of balancing parenting and work and better equipped to delve into their future projects. This should apply for adoptive parents as well.”

“The matter was recently brought to the DGA, and we have asked the Plans to examine it,” said a representative for the DGA, referring to the DGA-Producer Pension and Health Plans, a separate entity that administers healthcare plans for guild members.

Dimmock was pregnant while co-directing the Netflix docuseries “Flint Town,” which followed the police force in the beleaguered Michigan city amid a water crisis.

Advertisement

Her daughter was born in Sept. 2017, and she worked until the day she went into labor. But Dimmock didn’t work a directing job again until the following summer — in episodic TV for a streaming platform — and it didn’t pay enough to meet her guild minimum to qualify for guild insurance. She had to pay out-of-pocket for insurance that cost $1,400 a month to cover her and her child. Her partner and co-director, Zackary Canepari, was able to continue working more steadily, but also lost coverage for a period.

The current minimum to qualify for insurance through the guild is just under $36,000 a year in income from DGA directing jobs. For reference, a director helming an hourlong episode of broadcast television would make a minimum of roughly $47,000, according to the DGA. For non-broadcast episodic work, pay rates are about half that amount.

“My partner was not faced with quite the same physical pressures. That first year, while my partner retained his yearly minimum, I did not,” the letter continues. “Because my directing partner is also our child’s father, I was able to see in such a clear way the ways that having a child impacted me and not him, even though we were similarly situated. Since then, I’ve spoken to other members of the DGA who have had similar experiences.”

Dimmock drafted the letter last month, fueled, she says, by anger.

“Women are already underrepresented in directing — we know that it’s a problem and people are actively trying to change it,” she said. “But women are going to be impacted by pregnancy in a way that their male counterparts aren’t. ... And women are already at a disadvantage just for being women. How do we expect things to change if we’re not addressing some of the reasons that women might fall behind or women not might not get hired?”

Dimmock knew she’d need help if she was going to push for change. Suspecting her short time as a DGA member — about a year —and her limited name recognition might fail to garner much attention, she sought help from an industry friend with contacts in the comedy directing world to begin spreading the word. It wasn’t long before she clinched the support of an impressive list of high-profile women.

“I’m excited to stand with Jessica and all my fellow directors,” said director Alma Har’el, who is nominated for a DGA Award for first-time feature film for “Honey Boy.” “It’s time for us to look at practices that were established by men, for men, and make changes that will allow women directors to be part of the equation.”

Dimmock presented her letter to the DGA’s Eastern Directors Council, which deals with issues related to working circumstances, late last year.

Advertisement

“There was a very audible hush when I read the names,” Dimmock said. “The DGA is there to protect directors and have their backs. So when a director comes and says, ‘Listen, the way you guys are structured means that I lost my health insurance,’ it’s not great. Everyone in the room was receptive. There was support. But they can’t make the change in the room. There’s a national board, and a board of trustees that controls the pension health plan. But it felt like the next steps were a little bit unclear.”

The decision to go public now was all about keeping the momentum going at a vital time in the conversation about female directors.

Despite a modest uptick in the number of films directed by women in 2019 and a noteworthy number of acclaimed titles from female filmmakers such as Gerwig (“Little Women”), Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and Lorene Scafaria (“Hustlers”) released last year, all five nominees for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film at the DGAs are men. The same is true for the directing nominees at the Academy Awards. Gerwig was pregnant throughout the production of “Little Women” last year.

“It feels like there have been some really good gains when it comes to gender inclusivity in Hollywood,” Dimmock said, “but then the DGA Awards announcements came out and there weren’t women on there. The Golden Globes had all male directors. And then the Oscar nominations. There are frustrations. And this is not the only contributing factor, but it is one of the obstacles. This is one barrier among many.”

The call to action highlights one of the strains working parents in Hollywood, particularly mothers, face when trying to manage work and family. The failure to address or accommodate issues related to childcare often puts women at a disadvantage, particularly in the U.S., where there is no paid leave policy at the federal level. The long hours, travel and the freelance nature of employment typical in the entertainment business compound these issues.

“Hollywood is reckoning in a big way with representation at the top and women directors are a core component of that,” said Katie Bethell, founder and executive director of Paid Leave for the United States. “Women are not able to take the time they need as parents and that’s pushing them out of leadership. One of the major barriers is the motherhood penalty. The burden of care falls on women and that has negative impact on women whose employers don’t actually give them the support they need through that period.”

Director Jessica Dimmock on location during the making of “Flint Town.”
Director Jessica Dimmock on location in downtown Flint,. Mich., during the making of “Flint Town.”
(Zackary Canepari)

The full letter and a list of co-signers is below.

Advertisement

To the Board of the DGA,

I joined the DGA in 2017 while co-directing the Netflix series Flint Town with my partner. I was pregnant at the time and worked until the day I gave birth. However, after the birth of my daughter it was necessary that I take some time to care for her and recover physically. My partner was not faced with quite the same physical pressures. That first year, while my partner retained his yearly minimum, I did not. I needed to switch to Cobra with enormous monthly fees while he retained his healthcare. Because my directing partner is also our child’s father, I was able to see in such a clear way the ways that having a child impacted me and not him, even though we were similarly situated. Since then, I’ve spoken to other members of the DGA who have had similar experiences.

As it stands, the DGA offers no form of leave for women in the lead-up and following child birth. In order to retain benefits, all members must reach a yearly minimum. Women, being underrepresented in this field, are already at a disadvantage towards reaching these minimums. To state the obvious, directing is a rigorous, intensive endeavor, often taking place away from home. Pregnant women are not allowed to travel until their final trimester, putting them at a disadvantage from the start. Add to this the stigma of applying for directing jobs while visibly pregnant. Subsequently, women are penalized for having children in a way that their male counterparts are not. Failure to meet yearly minimums introduces economic and health care insecurity when it could be argued that it is needed most. And, importantly, a lack of maternity leave will continue to be an obstacle in achieving parity in the field of directing unless corrected. It is imperative that in this moment of such positive gains that we work to clear this obstacle.

Over the past several years major strides towards inclusivity have been made. The DGA diversity report released in November shows that women directing episodic television rose to a record of 31%, more than doubling the last five years. 2020 is forecasted to continue in this positive direction and it is both encouraging and timely that these changes are happening.

The right to maternity leave is part of an important national discussion and ranks as the most important benefit to workers. Implementing forms of maternity leave will increasingly become the norm, and this gives the DGA an opportunity to put their efforts behind their stated goals of gender equality and will provide a reputation boosting moment when implemented.

Here is our ask. New mothers should be afforded additional time to make their yearly minimum in the year that they give birth. This provides new parents the opportunity to take the time they need to physically care for their child as well as recover and recuperate. Women will return to their work better equipped to handle the challenges of balancing parenting and work and better equipped to delve into their future projects. This should apply for adoptive parents as well.

At its core, we know that this isn’t just about numbers. Numbers matter. They show us how great the gap has been. But ultimately, this is about spaces for stories that stretch beyond a single perspective.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Jessica Dimmock, Director

Alma Har’el, Director and founder of Free the Work

Brooke Posch, Partner at Jax Media

Lilly Burns, Director and co-founder of Jax Media

And

Abbi Jacobson, Director

Amber Tamblyn, Director

America Ferrera, Director

Amy Poehler, Director

Amy Schumer, Director

Ava DuVernay, Director

Brie Larson, Director

Christy Turlington, Director and founder of Every Mother Counts

Crystal Moselle, Director

Elizabeth Banks, Director

Eva Longoria, Director

Floria Sigismondi, Director

Greta Gerwig, Director

Haifaa Al-Mansour, Director

Jenni Konner, Director

Jennifer Fox, Director

Jennifer Kent, Director

Jill Solloway, Director

Josephine Decker, Director

Julie Delpy, Director

Kasi Lemmons, Director

Kat Coiro, Director

Kerry Washington, Director

Laura Prepon, Director

Lena Dunham, Director

Lena Waithe, Director

Leslye Headland, Director

Lucia Aniello, Director

Marielle Heller, Director

Melina Matsoukas, Director

Miranda July, Director

Nanfu Wang, Director

Natalia Anderson, Director

Natalie Portman, Director

Natasha Lyonne, Director

Nisha Ganatra, Director

Olivia Wilde, Director

Rachel Morrison, Director

Rashida Jones, Director

Reed Morano, Director

Reese Witherspoon, Actor

Ryan Case, Director

Sam Taylor Johnson, Director

Shari Springer Berman

Sian Heder, Director

Tracee Ellis Ross, Director


Newsletter
Get our daily Entertainment newsletter

Get the day's top stories on Hollywood, film, television, music, arts, culture and more.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Advertisement