EducationHow a Simple Mentorship Series is Taking on Sexism in the Film Industry
November 2, 2016
Cinefemme is a non-profit started by women filmmakers to serve women who aren’t waiting for permission to make their voices heard. By granting fiscal sponsorship to women filmmakers, writers, and artists, Cinfemme provides a way for independent projects to solicit tax-deductible donations from individual donors, foundations, and through our crowdfunding partner platform, Seed&Spark. Cinefemme incubates projects that would otherwise struggle to receive traditional studio funding, and empowers women to make their own careers happen.
Our mentorship program, Dinner With Dames, was created in the same spirit. Instead of waiting for the industry to come to us, we’re going to them. For the mentor, it’s an easy way to meet a number of emerging writers and directors with only a short dinner commitment. For the guests, it’s an invaluable way to network with peers and to learn from an accomplished industry leader. Creating a space where industry veterans can authentically connect with female filmmakers and writers is essential to battling gender inequity in the film industry.
Relationships are the foundation of creative collaboration, and perhaps for that reason, the film industry has been built around them. After the ACLU campaign highlighting the discrimination against women directors, two federal government agencies launched an investigation into discrimination against female directors in Hollywood. There isn’t a traditional HR for directors, and while these investigations have put pressure on studios and networks, the process for hiring is still clandestine and often impenetrable for those creating work outside traditional studios.
Of leading television providers, FX had the lowest hiring rates for women and diverse directors, at around 12% in 2014-2015. As of 2016, 51% of the directors booked by FX and FXX are men and women of color, or white women. This quantum change was achieved in part by FX’s exec VP of current series Jonathan Frank’s willingness to look beyond the traditional lists, to those who may not have had TV-directing experience.
Cinefemme board member and Seed&Spark CEO Emily Best has built an entire startup around empowering diverse voices and distributing their content, giving a start to EQUITY director Meera Menon’s directorial debut, FARAH GOES BANG. A Cinefemme sponsored project, The Director List, is a searchable database of over 1,000 qualified women directors. Both these platforms function as a direct response to the myth that there “are no women directors,” or that those who do exist are not qualified or talented.
When women don’t wait for permission to create their own content, and when industry leaders are willing to look beyond the usual candidate pool, systemic change becomes possible. In an industry built on relationships, how do you tackle gender inequity? By fostering relationships between women blazing trails outside the system and allies who are working to change things within the industry.
Jenna Payne, the Program Director of Dinner With Dames, was intentional as she invited both male and female mentors to participate. Dinner With Dames’ first mentor was Simon Barrett, writer of Blair Witch and The Guest, who shared insights into how he built his career making micro-budget films and then moved into studio films. At the end of the dinner, felt he had benefitted just as much as the guests from the conversation. By engaging male mentors in the industry, the mentorship goes both ways, as mentors learn from talented women filmmakers who are overcoming barriers to make their voices heard.
The mentor for our second Dinner With Dames was Jessica Sharzer, writer of Nerve and American Horror Story. She candidly shared her own path from directing shorts to where she is now, helping to run the writers room on Lee Daniels’ new Fox series Star. Her openness to share her wisdom and interest in the guests’ varied backgrounds and projects created a lively conversation for the whole dinner. Sharzer emphasized how despite the struggles that diverse candidates face, diversity inevitably makes for the best writers rooms. Difference in opinion and background lend a greater pool of knowledge and creativity to the room, producing the richest stories.
Industry relationships can be seen as a barrier to entry, or the humanizing collaboration behind our favorite films and television. Diversity can be a quota, or it can be a way for us to transcend our differences and find common ground in a search to create great art and a more equitable system. No one mentor can single-handedly end gender discrimination in Hollywood, but by continually holding these dinners, Dinner With Dames is fostering the relationships necessary to create systemic change.
Cinefemme is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by women filmmakers, for women filmmakers in 2002. Cinefemme provides fiscal sponsorship to women filmmakers and artists, as well as peer-to-peer networking, mentorship, and strategy for project fundraising. By advancing women’s careers in film and the arts, we empower women’s voices to create gender parity in the arts and equal representation in the media.
If Cinefemmes is up your alley, we bet you'd like this piece by Emily Best on 'A Feminist Way to Work.'