By Lyndon Stambler
When Barbra Streisand announced the best director honors at the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010, she mused that for the first time a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, or an African-American, Lee Daniels, could win an Oscar. Bigelow had already become the first woman to win a DGA Award for best feature film direction earlier in the year.
“Well, the time has come,” Streisand said as she opened the envelope. She announced the winner: Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. The orchestra played the ’70s women’s liberation anthem “I Am Woman” as Bigelow left the stage, Oscar in hand.
Members of the Guild’s diversity committees hoped that Bigelow’s and Lee’s nominations would pave the way for studios and networks to hire more women and minority directors. They had similar hopes and dreams when Ang Lee became the first minority director to win a DGA Award for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 and again in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain.
“These things are important,” says Chris Tashima, co-chair of the Asian American Committee. “People have been trying for that big change for a long time. Breaking barriers is very important.”
The victories by Lee and Bigelow brought hope but few new jobs. And the results of a DGA study released this September confirmed that minority hiring practices for primetime episodic television face similar challenges (more about this later).
It’s the same problem the Guild’s diversity committees have been grappling with since the Women’s Steering Committee got the ball rolling in 1979. Victoria Hochberg, who founded the committee with Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro, and Lynne Littman, recalls the conditions behind its formation. “A group of us who had done pretty well looked around and realized that all of the men we had started with were moving forward and we weren’t.”
The committee spent a year analyzing Guild deal memos, compiling statistics that showed between 1941 and 1980 only .05 percent of the available directing work in TV and film went to women. Announced at a June 20, 1980, news conference, the figures were a call to arms. In 1983, the DGA sued Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures on behalf of women and minority members. Although the suit was dismissed in 1985, Hochberg believes that it was still a positive step by the Guild. “It was tossed out of court, that’s true, but it was a game changer nonetheless,” she says. “The fact that the DGA brought a lawsuit really made the industry very aware that it was serious about this critical labor problem. The Guild should be proud of itself for what it did.”
The Guild continued its diversity efforts and by 1995 women directors accounted for 16 percent of total days worked by members. And to commemorate its 60th anniversary, the DGA designated 1996 as its Year of Diversity. In 1997, the Guild held its first Summit on Diversity and inaugurated the DGA Diversity Award to honor individuals or companies that have consistently hired women and minorities in DGA categories.
As the women were getting mobilized, so too were the Guild’s minority members. Wendell J. Franklin, the first African-American member of the Guild, formed the Ethnic Minority Committee in 1980, along with prominent black directors Ivan Dixon, William Crain, and Reuben Watt. In 1994, it became the African American Steering Committee. Ted Lange, a former co-chair, says the committees make the industry aware of all the talented directors, whether they are African-American, Latino, Asian-American, or women. The committees work to get executives out of their “bubbles,” as Lange puts it, by inviting them to screenings and events.
“What’s missing sometimes with the studio people and the TV producers is the dialogue,” Lange adds. “So they stick with the tried and true and what they know. You want them to be a little more adventurous than they are.”
As much as anything, the diversity committees serve as networking opportunities and a source of information for their members. One such instance occurred last year when Lange received a call from the Guild about an event for minorities in the media at the Los Angeles Convention Center. While in attendance, he heard the executive producer of a new TBS series, Are We There Yet?, announce that he was looking for directors. What’s more, they were making 90 shows. “I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, I’ve got a shot at this,’” says Lange, who has since directed nine episodes.
“By hook or crook, we as minority directors have to figure out ways to slay the dragon,” says Lange. “I would have never known about Are We There Yet? had it not been for the DGA.”
In 1990, six prominent Latino directors—Jesus Treviño, Luis Valdez, Sylvia Morales, Edward James Olmos, Frank Zuniga, and José Luis Ruiz—came together and vowed to increase opportunities for Latinos. As a result, in 1991 the Guild approved the formation of the Latino Committee. One of its first projects was to create a directory of Latino directors. Treviño recalls compiling the bios and contact information and running off 500 copies at Kinko’s. The idea blossomed into the Women and Ethnic Minority Contact List. (Women and minority members may now be searched for on the DGA website.) The committee also spearheaded the compilation of a DVD with the work of emerging Latino directors. The focus for the Latino Committee, as for all of the committees, is on mentoring young members and holding events to put them together with potential employers.
“I think confrontational politics are not very productive,” Treviño says. “If you look at how people get hired in the industry it’s through confidence, through working with people, and through a proven track record. We feel we’re just as good as any other directors in the Guild. We have something unique to offer because of our Latin backgrounds and our knowledge of the Latino community.”
Venezuelan-born director Betty Kaplan, one of the co-chairs of the Latino Committee, adds that through events and workshops the committee “promotes Latino talent and enlightens our members and inspires them.” In recent years the Latino Committee has honored Guillermo del Toro, Kenny Ortega, Rodrigo Garcia, Valdez, and Treviño.
The Asian American Committee was founded in 2000 and shortly thereafter held a special screening of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a Q&A session moderated by Wenda Fong. “I think we were a significant factor in Ang Lee winning the DGA Award,” says Sandy Tung, former co-chair of the Asian American Committee. (Lee also won in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain and subsequently won the Oscar.)
Eleven years later, on the occasion of the Guild’s 75th anniversary, the group again honored Lee as a game changer in the industry. Henry Chan, a former co-chair, said that the committee has made the industry aware that “we are a minority, but we are not voiceless.”
Like the other committees, the Asian American Committee is trying to shatter stereotypes. “We deal with a lot of the same problems, like discrimination,” says Chan. “Also, the perception of Asians is they’re the ‘good’ minorities. They don’t say anything so don’t worry about them.”
But as the Asian population rises, it is impossible to ignore their work. “Young Asian-Americans are more savvy with the Internet,” adds Chan. “The whole film and broadcast world is changing and we’re on the cusp. We’re going to be the ones making a lot of noise very soon.”
One of the new generation of Asian-American directors the committee has supported is Justin Lin, who started with the Asian-American-themed, independently financed Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002 and has moved on to studio action films, including three of the five Fast and Furious films. In 2006, the Asian American Committee hosted a screening of The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift followed by a discussion with Lin.
“Here is an Asian-American director who is doing the most successful mainstream American franchises,” Chan says. “His ethnicity is never a question. One of the main goals of the Asian American Committee is that we should not be marginalized in any way. All Asian American directors are Americans, after all.”
To broaden exposure and call attention to other Asian-American directors, the committee has also presented screenings and discussions with Jet Li, Shekhar Kapur, James Wong, Mira Nair, and Jessica Yu, among others.
Current co-chair Tashima, who started as an actor, has seen the benefits of the committee’s efforts. “The industry is just so closed,” he says. “Like in any other place, you hire who you know, who you’re comfortable with, and who you’ve worked with before. So it’s a constant educational process, which iswhere the committees come in. There’s a lot of activity at the Guild and it’s not just empty talk. I find it all inspirational and motivational.”
As efforts continued on the West Coast, the Ethnic Diversity Steering Committee (recently renamed the Eastern Diversity Steering Committee) was formed in 2001 to represent the needs of East Coast women and minorities. “It started as a positive way to address the abysmal employment statistics and to figure out what we were going to do to change those statistics,” says former co-chair Esperanza “Candy” Martinez. “We know it’s all about networking and who you know. People said they were not aware of who is out there. Well, we’re trying to change that picture.”
As part of its mission, the Ethnic Diversity Steering Committee has held showrunners events, a “speed networking” night featuring a series of one-on-one meetings between female and minority directors and program executives in hopes of finding jobs for the upcoming TV season. In addition, the committee invites guest speakers to hold seminars after each meeting. “If you look at the statistics, it’s grim,” says co-chair Zetna Fuentes. “We have to keep striving to make an impact and hope the access opens up little by little.”
Fuentes, a daytime drama director who aspires to work in episodic TV, is one of the young filmmakers who has participated in the DGA Disney-ABC Directing Fellowship, one of several diversity programs ins stituted by production companies to address the ongoing problem of minority hiring. However, in the Guild’s recent analysis of hiring trends, it was reported that these diversity programs have yet to make any significant impact.
First Vice President Paris Barclay, co-chair of the Diversity Task Force of the DGA’s National Board, a committee formed in 2004 to elevate and support the Guild’s diversity efforts, reacted strongly when the results of the study were announced in September. “It’s not enough to just give lip service to the idea of increasing diversity behind the camera,” he said. “So far these programs are failing to live up to their promise. So we’re going to take the discussion straight to the people on each show who make the hiring decisions.”
The statistics are sobering. The DGA report found that white males still dominate in episodic TV. The Guild studied 2,600 episodes of primetime TV shows in broadcast, basic, and premium cable and found that 77 percent were directed by white males. White women directed 11 percent of all episodes. Minority males directed 11 percent of all episodes, and minority females directed just 1 percent of the shows surveyed.
In other words, there is still much work to be done by the diversity committees. “I don’t see that the climate has been any more receptive toward the hiring of black directors,” says Carl Weathers, a former co-chair of the African American Steering Committee. “I don’t see that the climate has been any more receptive to hiring minority or women directors. When we look at the makeup of this country and the cultural changes that have occurred, it just seems that in terms of hiring, [the entertainment industry] is behind the curve.”
As much as the Guild has recognized this and supported its members over the years, there are very real limitations to what it can do. As Rolando Hudson, co-chair of the Ethnic Diversity Steering Committee, points out, “We’re a guild—we can’t force the studios to hire people, we can just suggest.”
Similarly, the diversity of new Guild members is dependent on those hiring practices. In order to become a DGA member, an individual has to be hired by a production company, studio, or network that is a signatory to a Guild agreement. So new membership statistics reflect the picture of what is happening in the industry. Of the 967 new DGA members in 2009 and 2010, 72.1 percent were Caucasian males, 16.3 percent were Caucasian females, 8.3 percent were minority males and 3.4 percent were minority females. Women and minority members currently make up 29 percent of the Guild’s total membership.
Longtime Guild member Bethany Rooney is one female director who is grateful for the push her career got from the Guild and the enlightened hiring practices of TV producer Bruce Paltrow, who gave Rooney her first shot at directing with St. Elsewhere in 1985. “There were a few of us that got in,” says Rooney. “But the time has come again to help people who are struggling to get work. Just the fact that there are diversity committees says to Guild members and to the world at large that we are focused on the fact that minorities are not well represented in directing categories.”
On a practical level, the DGA negotiated a new provision in its most recent collective bargaining agreement that allows it to meet directly with TV executives responsible for hiring practices at the individual shows. Now that the findings of its recent study have been announced, the Guild is moving ahead with plans to schedule meetings with individual producers to address the problem.
“We are encouraging shows, production companies, and networks when they weigh in, to offer opportunities to up-and-coming directors from all backgrounds,” says Lesli Linka Glatter, a National Board member and co-chair of the Diversity Task Force. “We’ve heard the excuses from those responsible for hiring that they don’t want to take a chance on a new director. But the truth is that the industry hires new directors all the time; it’s just that most of them are white males.”
Weathers, like other members of the Guild’s diversity committees, remains hopeful. “As the community of filmmakers evolves, the opportunities are sometimes not as much as we would like for all kinds of reasons,” says Weathers. “But to have the first woman last year to actually win a DGA Award and an Academy Award is pretty darn significant. Now that a woman and an Asian-American have won, it would be fantastic to see that for a black director and a Latino director.”