Despite so many initiatives across television networks designed to boost opportunities for female and minority directors, those helmers took another step back this pilot season. Of 41 broadcast drama pilots this season, only one — ABC’s Las Reinas — is directed by a woman, Liz Friedlander. This could be an all-time low.
The numbers have been going down the past couple of years. In 2015, there were four female drama pilot directors, two of them women of color: Ava DuVernay (CBS’ For Justice), Sanaa Hamri (Fox’s Studio City), Coky Giedroyc (ABC’s Broad Squad), and Julie Anne Robinson (ABC’s The Catch, which she had developed).
Last year, two of 40-plus drama pilots went for female directors, one via an open assignment, Jennifer Getzinger (NBC’s Miranda’s Rights). Friedlander directed the pilot for ABC’s Conviction, which she co-created and had been attached to direct from the get-go.
For a second consecutive year, there are no women of color directing broadcast drama or comedy pilots. And, with Friedlander as the sole female drama pilot director this year, for the first time in years there are no women making their broadcast pilot-directing debuts. Friedlander is seasoned — in addition to a feature, Take The Lead, and extensive episodic work, she has four previous broadcast pilots under her belt, the last three of which all have gone to series: The Secret Circle; Stalker; and last year’s Conviction, from the same producers as Las Reinas.
Going into the pilot season, I hear broadcast networks and studios had pledged to make a concerted effort seeking out female/minority directors for pilots. I hear that — at least to some extend — they did try. There was a push to “think outside of the white male box,” as one industry insider put it, when selecting a pilot director, and there were lists compiled of female candidates to direct drama pilots.
Why didn’t anyone from those lists make it? Sources blame the high standards the networks and studios have set for level of accomplishments required to land a pilot-directing gig. Drama pilots are a risky bet, costing $7 million-$8 million or more, and networks traditionally have been very conservative, handing jobs to either a big feature helmer or a veteran TV pilot director with a proven track record.
I hear the female directors networks would approve this year were not available or not interested, while those who were available did not meet the approval criteria. One of the most sought-after drama pilot director this year was a woman, The Night Manager‘s Susanne Bier, coming off an Emmy win, but she was not interested. Feature maven Kathryn Bigelow was unsuccessfully courted again, as she is virtually every year. I hear ABC’s hourlong dramedy The Trustee was supposed to be directed by the pilot’s executive producer Elizabeth Banks, but her schedule did not permit it.
The problem is three-fold. There are not enough well-established female directors — in features or drama series — who would be getting straight pilot offers; there are not that many female episodic drama directors who have enough experience to land open pilot-directing assignments; and there is not strong enough will on the part of the networks to give such helmers assignments. Initiatives like Ryan Murphy’s Half — aiming to hire 50% female directors to work on all his television shows — which he launched last year, and FX’s push in increasing director diversity should help groom female directors with strong enough resumes to be serious considers for broadcast drama pilot jobs. Additionally, DuVernay’s OWN drama series Queen Sugar employs all female directors, almost all of whom are women of color, with Shondaland’s dramas also known for giving female minority directors a shot. There is a lot of ground to make up, as according to the most recent DGA data released, during 2015-2016 season, 17% of episodic directors were women, 19% minority.
Still, even if women rise through the episodic ranks, the open pilot assignments for which they can compete are shrinking as the networks bet more and more on packages — projects that are being sold with a big-name director already attached at the pitch stage — or assign a director under an overall deal at the studio at the time of the pilot pickup. The list this year includes such drama pilots as ABC’s Marc Cherry (Michael Offer), Unit Zero (David Gordon Green) and Deception (David Nutter); CBS’ SWAT (Justin Lin), SEAL Project (Chris Chulack), Instinct (Marc Webb) and Paul Attanasio Project (Rodrigo Garcia); Fox’s Behind Enemy Lines (McG), Controversy (John Requa & Glenn Ficarra) and Marvel project (Bryan Singer); NBC’s Warren Leight project (Charles McDougall); and The CW’s Black Lightning (Salim Akil) and Dynasty (Brad Silberling).
Women have made more strides in comedy pilot directing with seasoned helmers like Pam Fryman, Julie Ann Robinson, Beth McCarthy Miller and Gail Mancuso, who have been getting pilot assignments every season. But even in comedy, there has been a retreat for female directors this season, with five pilots set to be helmed by females, and a sixth in negotiations. Last year the number was nine. What’s more, those nine half-hour pilots were spread among eight different directors, including first-timers, in 2016. This time, the 5-6 are being directed by three female helmers, all A-list, established names — the prolific Fryman, who is directing CBS’ multi-camera/hybrid 9K, 9K AND 9L, Real Life and Distefano; SNL veteran Miller, set to direct Fox’s single-camera Amy’s Brother and in negotiations for ABC’s multi-camera single-dad comedy; and Robinson, helming ABC’s single-camera Losing It.
Some declines are tied to the overall retreat in the genre by the networks this season. While the number of drama pilots is close to last year’s total, the comedy pilot tally is down by 25%. Still, one would think that the hire last year of Christine Gernon — an established UK comedy TV director who had done episodic work in the U.S. — to helm ABC’s Speechless, which became one of the top comedy breakouts this season, would encourage network executives to give more female directors with limited pilot-directing experience a shot.
The situation is similar for non-white male directors on the drama side. Last year, seven drama pilots and three comedy pilots were directed by minority directors: John Ridley (ABC’s Presence), Marcos Siega (ABC’s Time After Time), Rodrigo Garcia (CBS’ Bull), James Wan (CBS’ MacGyver), Lee Daniels (Fox’s Star), Paris Barclay (Fox’s Pitch), the Mars Project (Bharat Nalluri) on the drama side, and Tim Story (CBS’ What Goes Around Comes Around), Malcolm D Lee (Fox’s untitled Chris Case) and Phil Lewis (NBC’s A Bronx Tale) on the comedy side.
This year, there are four non-white drama pilot directors: Barclay (CBS’ Perfect Citizen), Garcia (CBS’ Paul Attanasio), Justin Lin (CBS’ SWAT) and Salim Akil (the CW’s Black Lightning), and tree comedy directors, Anton Cropper (ABC’s Libby & Malcolm), SNL‘s Osmany Rodriguez (NBC’s Seth Meyers project) and Jay Chandrasekhar, in negotiations for ABC’s Goldbergs spinoff.
Of these, only three were director hires — Barclay, Cropper and Chandrasekhar — as the other three had been involved in the projects’ development. Both this and last year, there are only a couple of non-white up-and-coming directors getting a shot, with the majority gigs going to either A-list filmmakers like Daniels, Wan, Lin, Story and Ridley or seasoned TV directors like Emmy winner Barclay, Garcia and Siega.