Martha Coolidge: Blaming DGA For Lack Of Female Directors Is “Dangerous Side-Path”

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Veteran director Martha Coolidge, a former president of the Directors Guild of America, wholeheartedly supports the ACLU’s call for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation into the woeful underemployment of female directors. But she says the civil rights group was wrong to blame the DGA for the problem.

“The DGA has worked harder and thrown more money at trying to solve the problems of discriminatory employment than anyone else in the industry,” she told Deadline over lunch the other day at Art’s Deli in Studio City. “Despite the fact that its members are primarily men, they have put a remarkable amount of effort into representing and promoting women and minority directors.”

ACLU Women's Rights 2In its call to action May 12, the ACLU claimed the DGA keeps a secret list of directors it recommends to producers and by doing so violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits unions from discriminating against their members based on race and gender. The guild does use its membership database to provide contact information to employers based on their specific requests in order to increase the employment of women and minority directors. But as a guild spokesman told Deadline, “The DGA does not make recommendations for hiring.”

“The DGA literally has nothing to do with hiring in this industry,” Coolidge said. “Nobody goes to the DGA and says, ‘Give us a list and we’ll hire only from this list.’ ” Blaming the DGA, she said, “is a dangerous, dangerous side-path. It is a tangential accusation that could become an excuse. It’s a deflection. Lists are used in this industry, but the lists that are about hiring are not generated by the DGA.”

Coolidge said that the ACLU would have been better served had it contacted the DGA before calling for a government investigation. “The ACLU didn’t ask enough questions,” she said. “They didn’t call the DGA, and that I don’t understand. I’m an ACLU contributor and a supporter, and I love them. I’ve only casually discussed this with people at the DGA, but they’re shocked that nobody called them.”

When asked about whether it called the DGA, a spokesman for the civil rights group said: “We spoke with many DGA members. At this point, we really are focused on what comes next with the (EEOC) agencies and women who are speaking out on this issue.”

Coolidge, who served as DGA president from 2002-03 and whose feature film credits include Valley Girl, Real Genius and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, remains the only female elected to the post and has been a tireless champion of diversity. As president, she shepherded a DGA diversity report on the hiring of directors by the networks at the top 40 primetime dramas and comedy series.

One day, after the guild crunched the companies’ numbers, she got a call from DGA Executive Director Jay Roth. “He said, ‘You won’t believe what we found out,’ ” she recalled. The guild had double-checked the data – which she said was “pathetic” – and found that it was even worse that they reported. “They were lying,” she said. “They were misleading; they were not giving us the real numbers.”

DGA Featured ImageBecause of guild pressure, she said, the real employment numbers did get better. “It did improve things, and then it got worse for some reason, and that reason can only be called discrimination. It keeps bouncing back to these ridiculously low numbers that are intractable,” she said. In its latest hiring report, the DGA found that women directed only 14% of the network and cable shows produced during the 2013-14 season.

“There has been some hiring based on this pressure,” she said, “but we also know that there are shows that have never hired women. The problem for the guild, which has no control over hiring, is what recourse to take. The guild’s recourse has been publishing the employment data and embarrassing the companies, doing everything they could to make it really obviously, glaringly horrible.”

The DGA sued Warner Bros and Columbia Pictures in 1983 on behalf of women and minority directors, but the suit was dismissed (by a federal judge appointed by President Reagan). Since then, the DGA has taken a four-track approach to the problem: negotiating increasingly stronger diversity language in its collective bargaining agreements; forcing the companies to establish director diversity programs; establishing steering committees to provide support, mentoring, and networking opportunities for women and minority directors; and publishing employment statistics designed to shame the companies into hiring more women and minority directors.

So far, the overall numbers haven’t improved much, though it’s impossible to say how much worse they’d be if the DGA had done nothing at all.

Rather than blaming the DGA, Coolidge said, the ACLU and the DGA should work together to address the problem of discriminatory hiring. “There are things the ACLU can do that the DGA can’t do, and there are things the DGA can do that the ACLU can’t do. The DGA has a lot of money to throw at this.”

One thing the EEOC can do that the DGA can’t is subpoena the companies’ records and emails that might show a pattern of discriminatory hiring practices. But it could hold hearings and take testimony from a wide range of industry employers, the headlines from which might shame the companies into expanding opportunities for female directors. It also can sue in federal court seeking back wages for women who were discriminated against. But, like the DGA, it can’t order individual film producers and TV showrunners to hire more women directors – and few would argue that a governmental agency should have such powers.

“Hiring is the trickiest problem,” she said. “Who is doing the hiring? Hiring is all over the place in this business. It’s not one entity.” In television, she said, “The people who created the series have a very strong say in who gets hired to direct, and they don’t want to hire people they’re not comfortable with. And that’s where you get the excuse, ‘Our showrunner doesn’t feel comfortable working with women.’ I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it more than once. And that’s from shows that never hire women.”

One of the biggest obstacles to creating a diverse workforce is that the film and TV industry essentially is a business of relationships, built on word-of-mouth hiring, and such who-you-know hiring systems generally are prone to produce skewed diversity numbers. And it’s especially glaring in the TV industry, where women held only 15.1% of the executive producer jobs last year – and it’s the executive producers/showrunners who hire the directors. And nearly all of the showrunners are writers.

Vintage TV television“Showrunners – that’s where you live or die,” said Coolidge, who most recent helming credits have been on the TV side. “You can make friends with a person as you’re going up who’s a young writer on a show. You’re a director on the show, and you become good friends. Then later, they get their own show. Now they hire you. They feel comfortable with you; they like you; they hire you. And you see that all the time. It’s a boys club because those people are mainly men.”

Sex discrimination, she said, “is a systemic problem, and it is not just the motion picture and television industry. It is a huge problem in the country and in the world.”

Stereotypes, however, are not the only problem women face in Hollywood. “There is a sexual element, which is deeper than just stereotypes,” she said. “There is a sex fantasy that holds over Hollywood. There are even some men in this game for the sexual perks – and this is serious, I’m dead serious – and if they’re screwing around all the time, and they want to be on a set where they are the king and they can f*ck anything out there, they’re not gonna want women around who are like their mother or their sister or their principal. So they are not going to hire women in any important positions. They are going to hire cute women that are their prey and conquests. Even if it’s just for eye candy, they don’t want someone watching who might say something to their wife or their boss. And that is the truth.”

Coolidge, who teaches directing at Chapman University — she also is prepping a film about two Polish musicians, one Catholic and one Jewish, whose love survives the horrors of World War II and the Nazi concentration camps — said she sees an “explosion of female directors coming up” but worries that many of them will be discouraged from joining the ranks of directors because of the widely held belief that there are limited job opportunities waiting for them. Many will become producers instead, she said ruefully. New media holds greater promise for up-and-coming female and minority directors, she said, because there are fewer gatekeepers and thus fewer institutional roadblocks.

She believes that the talent agencies hold an important key to greater access for female directors. “One way of actually accomplishing something would be to hold a very strong mirror up to the agencies,” she said. “They need to be a little more virtuous in their representation, and they need to instruct their agents that when they are told, ‘We don’t want to see women,’ they need to say, ‘You can’t say that.’ We hire them; we pay them.”

As an example of what a committed agent can do, she pointed to the young rep who bucked Hollywood’s ageist hiring practices to restart the career of legendary director John Frankenheimer. “I was very close to Frankenheimer,” she said, “and he hadn’t worked in years. He wanted to work, but he was elderly. But he met a young agent who went around like a tornado and got John a new career in his 70s. And he wasn’t the biggest agent; he wasn’t a famous agent; he was a committed agent. That is what it takes.”

Female directors and their supporters, she said, should use every means at their disposal to battle sexism in the industry. An EEOC investigation is much needed, she said, but mused that the state of California’s new tax-incentives program might also be tweaked to give extra points to productions that hire female directors, writers and producers. “I wonder if we could do that?” she asked. “But would a male-dominated legislature vote for it?”

In the meantime, she said, women will have to keep fighting to break down gender barriers. “Jay Roth told me, ‘When it comes to gender discrimination, it’s war.’ I know that. It’s war. That’s why feminism was almost like a war. And that’s why the civil rights movement was so violent, because you’re threatening the status quo. So I’m not surprised by the anger and rage of women, because it’s justified. I have it too. I’m still facing people telling me they don’t hire women, or that women can’t handle this kind of thing. I can tell you from my own personal experience that I’ve been facing this for years and years and years. And these same frigging questions are asked, and the points they make are even more ridiculous as time goes by and there are more and more women who can do anything.”

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