It was as much a suffragette rally as it was an awards ceremony, with speaker after speaker at the inaugural Alliance of Women Directors awards calling on everyone in Hollywood to play their part in bringing equality to women in the industry’s workplace.
“I don’t know whether to start a revolution or a mutiny at this point,” said presenter Sanna Hamri, the producing director for Fox’s hit show Empire.
“It is probably accurate to say that almost every single woman that works in our business has encountered institutional sexism in one form or another,” said award recipient Ilene Chaiken, Empire’s showrunner. Her award was presented by Empire star Gabourey Sidibe, who was Oscar-nominated for her film debut in Precious. “We’ve found a host of ways to endure and navigate, but we’ve all got stories, right? We’ve made gains over the years, but we’ve also backslid. It’s a much reported fact that the most recent statistics are grim. Maybe it’s progress that some of the behavior that was once rampant is no longer tolerated, and some of the most overt rhetoric now has to be toned down or delivered with subterfuge. But it would be an understatement to say that women still face obstacles to achieving equality.”
“In Hollywood,”Chaiken continued, “we still fairly regularly hear stories of TV shows on which women directors aren’t welcome. ‘We tried a woman last year and it didn’t work out’… ‘Our cast…our lead…our showrunner…just doesn’t work well with women.’ But we have great allies too. Men like [fellow recipient] Greg Berlanti, men that have long cared as much as we do about correcting the inequalities, and that know as surely as we do that their shows are better for it.”
“Tonight,” she said, “I feel in good company saying I have an agenda. Personally, I have a bunch of them; a gay agenda; an inclusive agenda. The Alliance of Women Directors is one of the best things that’s happened for my most cherished agenda, the one I believe is the most important – full and total equality for women. It’s an agenda that I inherited from my mother, that I share with my wife, and that I’ll pass on to my daughters. I’m grateful to AWF for including me tonight, and for staking such a powerful and undeniable claim on our path to equality.”
Producer Greg Berlanti, who’s currently got half-a-dozen TV shows on the air, including Supergirl, The Flash and Blindspot, was one of the other honorees calling for the industry to make a change. “As I started running show,” he told the audience assembled at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, “it was just a natural thing for me to want to hire as many women as I could. And so through the years, in writers’ rooms and edit bays, most of the staffs I put together were made of equal parts women and men. And then you would look at the directors list and they always seemed like they were from a different era – like something out of Mad Men. It was all white dudes…This seemed very odd to me. But you would hear the same Catch 22 refrain – a network and a studio had to have worked with a person to hire them. Well, if women were getting less opportunities, how were they ever supposed to get the opportunities that would get them approved?”
This year, he said, “after three years of commitment to growing our numbers and our lists, our most veteran action show – Arrow – will have 50% of their episodes directed by either diverse or female directors – with our other series not far behind. I have no doubt that many of these directors will then have the material they need to convince film studios they’re the right women to be directing the tentpole films the studios are making these days. Obviously, we haven’t done enough yet; I haven’t done enough yet; this needs to keep happening until it’s no longer a conversation – it’s just a way of life.”
“I would advise every director or producer with experience,” he said, “to pick one or two younger female directors to vouch for and mentor – call producers like me, call executives; make a recommendation and let’s keep the lists growing. We owe it to our mothers and sisters, and women who influenced us, to create an equal workplace in Hollywood. We owe it to our audiences and we owe it to ourselves. It will make all of us better.”
Director Jennifer Warren, chairperson of the AWD, told the audience that “you are here because you are aware of the zeitgeist. You are on the cutting edge of the change we are seeing in our beloved industry.”
In other awards, We Do It Together founder Chiara Tilesi and board member Albert Berger were honored for advancing and promoting women directors. Their nonprofit organization was launched earlier this year to finance and create shows that empower women. Tilesi, who cited some of the industry’s grim statistics relating to the employment of women, said that “the culture of a society depends on its diversity,” and that “the limited way women are portrayed” on film and television “promotes inequality around the world.”
Touch director Jen McGowan, recipient of the AWD Breakout Award, charged up the crowed with her call to action. “We are not a minority,” she said. “We don’t need token women; we need a multitude of women’s voices. The lack of vision in the industry is always someone else’s fault. If you are not personally contributing to the solution, you are part of the problem. But all problems are solvable. Each one of us can contribute to solving this. We must, and we will.”