Recent reports reveal that female writers and directors remain woefully underemployed in the film and TV business; the numbers are so dismal that in May the ACLU called on the government to launch an investigation. But the numbers are far worse for female directors of photography, who make up less than 4% of the membership of the American Society of Cinematographers.
The ASC may be Hollywood’s most exclusive club, and for most of its 96-year history, it was exclusively an all-men’s club. Founded a year before women won the right to vote in 1920, it would be 60 more years before the ASC would admit its first female member, and another 15 years after that before it would admit its second. By contrast, the DGA admitted its first female member in 1938 – two years after its founding — and its second in 1950.
In its entire history, fewer than 800 cinematographers have had the honor of placing the letters ASC after their names, and fewer than 20 of them have been women. Other than the stuntmen’s organizations, which don’t have any female members at all, no other industry group has fewer women.
Ten years ago, there were only five, and today there are only 14 active ASC female members, accounting for less than 4% of its 360 active members. None of its officers is a woman, and there are no females on its 15-member Board of Governors, and none of the five alternates is a woman either. Its current president is a man, and its former presidents – all 50 of them – were men, too.
No woman has ever received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, and a recent survey found that only 2% of all the Emmy nominations for best cinematography have gone to women.
The ASC is not a union, but virtually all of its members are members of one – IATSE Cinematographers Guild Local 600, whose national officers are all men too. Both the ASC and the Cinematographers Guild, however, have been trying to bring more women into the business, and have been promoting those already here. The guild recently took out a trade add touting its 1,100 female members – about 15% of its membership – and has a Diversity Committee dedicated to raising diversity issues and encouraging producers to hire more women and minorities.
The ASC also has an outreach program designed to promote greater understanding of the cinematographer’s craft and to reach out to film school students interested in becoming cinematographers. At an outreach program at its famed Clubhouse in Hollywood last June, ASC member Lisa Wiegand, a cinematographer for American Crime and Chicago Fire, told students that doors are opening for women in the industry. “I think this job is awesome, and I’ve wanted to do it since I was 15,” she said. “I think that today, there are so many more opportunities for cinematographers, such a great variety of projects being made, that there’s a lot more room for more people to shoot, and an increase in women cinematographers will just become part of that.”
ASC member Joan Churchill, the award-winning documentarian whose director of photography credits include Last Days In Vietnam and Biggie and Tupac, told the students that the industry may be on the verge of a new era of diversity. “I think there are more women learning to be cinematographers today than ever before,” she said. “A few years ago, when I was the cinematographer-in-residence at UCLA, more than half my students were women.”Few of them, however, will ever make it into the ASC, which over the last decade has added, on average, fewer than one female member per year. Those who have managed to make it in include Uta Briesewitz (Arthur); Sharon Calahan (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo); Anna Foerster (White House Down); Judy Irola (An Ambush of Ghosts); Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind); Reed Morano (Frozen River, The Skeleton Twins); Cynthia Pusheck (Revenge); Tami Reiker (Pieces Of April); Nancy Schreiber (The Celluloid Closet); Sandi Sissel (The People Under The Stairs); Amy Vincent (Eve’s Bayou, Hustle & Flow), and Mandy Walker (Shattered Glass, Red Riding Hood).
In 1980, Brianne Murphy became the first woman ever admitted to the ASC and the first woman director of photography on a major studio film – Fatso. Seven years earlier, she’d become the first female cinematographer in the Cinematographers Guild. She died in 2003.
Membership in the ASC is by invitation only, and there is a growing list of accomplished female directors of photography who have yet to be invited to join, including Annette Haellmigk, who was nominated in each of the last two years for an ASC Award for her work on Game Of Thrones; Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler and Love, Marilyn); Rachel Morrison (Fruitville Station, Cake); Lisa Rinzeler (Dead Presidents); and numerous acclaimed documentary DPs, including Jenna Rosher, Kirsten Johnson and Emmy-nominated Nicola Marsh.
Part of the problem for women breaking into any male-dominated club is the invitation process itself, because it’s usually the men who do the inviting. “We are an invitation-only organization,” ASC president Richard Crudo wrote in the ASC Magazine last year. “You can’t just call up and join. You can’t be a newcomer to the career, either. Membership is open to directors of photography who have occupied that position for no less than five out of the eight years preceding application. As you might expect, the individual’s work must have continually demonstrated superb taste and technical mastery.”
Candidates must also be of “good character,” he noted. “Little known to the industry at large, good character is an important prerequisite. Those who are dishonest, abusive to their crews, or who have any sort of dodgy reputation are inevitably found out and barred from our ranks.”
Today, diversity and inclusion may be the ultimate test of the industry’s good character – and in an increasingly diverse and international marketplace, a source of profit, as well. As Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster wrote recently, “Diversity can bring new and better perspectives to our workplace, increase productivity, motivate, and add to our learning experience.”