Director Olivia Newman had it all planned out. In order to keep making personal features — like her 2018 Netflix film “First Match” — she’d make a living as a TV director. But her agent, she says, warned her that his other client, Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), had struggled getting her first episodic credit even after making a movie, “Bessie,” for HBO.
Newman wasn’t discouraged. And the timing was right. NBC was launching a new directing program: Female Forward. She applied and was accepted into its inaugural year. Now she’s “suddenly a director in the Dick Wolf universe, which if someone had told me 10 years ago that’s where I’d get my start in television, I’d be like, ‘Ha, that’s funny,’” Newman says.
It’s the sort of success story that has long been the exception more than the rule for female directors in Hollywood.
Rising awareness about systemic gender discrimination and bias in recent years hasn’t extinguished the power imbalance — just look at the all-male nominees for best director and best screenplay for next month’s Golden Globes. Even the dense fog of television content, which has contributed to record gains for the number of episodes directed by women, hasn’t solved TV’s gender-parity problem. Women directed 31% of episodes in the 2018-19 television season, according to a recent report from the Directors Guild of America.
The Female Forward initiative hopes to help close the gap more quickly. Now in its second year, the program was designed to increase the pool of experienced women directors working in episodic television by actually letting them direct.
“It’s not just about giving someone an opportunity,” says Lisa Katz, co-president of scripted programming for NBC Entertainment. “It’s about making it so they’ll succeed. You have to give people the chance so that they can rise to the occasion.”
Each finalist has directing experience in other forms — short films, indie features, commercials, music videos, digital content, etc. — and all are looking to break into episodic television. It’s a tough transition, particularly for female directors, who are at a disadvantage in navigating the obstacle course that leads to the coveted “first” episodic television directing credit. The difficulties of that quest help explain why feedback from some alumnae of the program has been so effusive.
Lee Friedlander, who was part of the inaugural class, had been disenchanted by trying to make a career in television. Despite her work on a string of Lifetime and Hallmark TV movies, as well as her direction of the pilot of the short-lived series “Exes & Ohs,” which aired in the U.S. on Logo, she couldn’t book episodic gigs.
“I’ve been to so many meetings. So many. Have heard so many ‘Let’s talk next season,’” Friedlander says. “Nobody would take the ‘risk.’ This program did. And I’m so grateful to this program. It’s literally changed my entire career.”
That’s high praise when you consider that some applicants felt pangs of frustration or resentment about having to apply to and participate in such a program even after accruing directing experience outside of television.
Ramaa Mosley had done a couple of indie features, including 2012’s “The Brass Teapot,” when her husband urged her to apply after numerous meetings for episodic TV gigs went nowhere.
“He was like, ‘You need to swallow your pride and get into a program,’” she recalls. “And I kept saying, ‘I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.’ There is that feeling of ‘What am I doing? What has my career become? Is this a step back?’ I should be able to get this on my own. I’ve been on hundreds of sets, directing commercials and documentaries and features. And yet I can’t get it on my own.”
“So many of the women directors I talked to, when I decided I wanted to pursue directing, would tell me about all the programs they did,” says Katie Locke O’Brien, also an alumnus of the inaugural class, who transitioned from acting into directing. “And they would say, ‘I met great people. But I can’t say any of them helped move the needle for me.’ So it’s like, is it worth it or should I just go make another short?”
Female Forward is one of several programs in Hollywood aimed at improving inclusion behind the camera; others include Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative and the Sony Pictures Television Diverse Directors Program.
A new Female Forward class is selected ahead of each broadcast TV season. During that time, women have the option of attending workshops, held in partnership with the Alliance of Women Directors, where directors, producers and programming executives offer insight on communicating with actors and showrunners, standing out during the hiring process and other subjects.
And then there’s the primary incentive of the program: participants shadow another director on as many as three episodes of a scripted NBC series, such as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Superstore,” “Good Girls” and “Chicago Fire.” And, unlike similar programs, there’s a guarantee that participants will direct at least one episode of the series they have been shadowing. (The directors are paid a stipend while they shadow and receive the DGA minimum — which is roughly $28,000 for a half-hour series and $47,000 for an hour — when they direct.)
Melissa Silverstein, the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, considers it a much-needed addition to directors’ professional development.
“There’s an abundance of women out there and they are just waiting for the opportunity and the access,” she says. “This program gives both. By providing an actual real job, (NBC) will allow these women to gain the experience they need to continue working.”
The guaranteed episode to direct was something Emmy-nominated veteran director Lesli Linka Glatter (“Mad Men,” “Homeland”), who helped create Female Forward in partnership with NBC, felt strongly about incorporating.
“Listen, I’ve shadowed a lot, and it’s incredibly helpful, because you get to observe the process and it helps you grow as a director,” she says. “But without the guarantee of a job, it’s not meaningful in the same way, in terms of moving the needle. There has to be traction. And shadowing doesn’t create change. Credits create change.”
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The topic of shadowing fatigue generates a lot of discussion among the filmmakers.
“I know directors who have shadowed 20 times and it’s like dangling this carrot,” Mosley says. “It’s like, ‘Just to show that we’re doing something, we’re going to let you in the room to watch.’ Well, you know what, we have amazing stories to tell. And almost every director I met who is wanting to do this is prepared to do it. We are ready. Just open the door and let us in. This program let us in.”
“There is kind of a ‘shadow rut’ that happens,” says Kris Lefcoe, who is part of the current class of filmmakers and whose background includes music videos and a comedy pilot. “Yes, you can learn from watching. But it’s not the same as learning from doing.”
Of course, getting showrunners and executive producers on board with that is a tall order in a fast-paced business where millions of dollars are at stake. But Katz and Pakosta say showrunners’ initial trepidation was calmed by the assurance that participants would become familiar with the set, cast and crew through shadowing before prepping for their episode. Shows also were offered an on-set guarantor — a producing director able to step in if needed — but only one of the shows opted to take it the first year.
“I think there’s probably a little bit of skepticism with some of these programs,” Katz says. “The first year, (producers) were willing but maybe a little hesitant, and then there was genuine enthusiasm for taking candidates the subsequent year.”
Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green, the co-showrunners of “Superstore,” say there was a level of ease about embracing a newcomer to episodic TV because the NBC sitcom is a well-oiled machine at this stage in its run. “We weren’t going to be throwing someone into a sink-or-swim situation,” Green says.
When Heather Jack, whose prior work includes short films and branded content, was selected to work on “Superstore” in the first year of the program, Miller and Green quickly realized they wouldn’t need to be grading on a curve.
“She came in with a deep knowledge of the show and this whole presentation that really stunned us,” Green says. “She was more prepared than a lot of the directors we’ve met with who have been doing this for years. That level of preparation continued when she directed last season and this season. And she’s just one of our directors now.”
“Chicago Fire” showrunner Derek Haas says the program — and, more important, the directors’ work — has given him and the show’s other producers a jolt.
“It definitely made us think, ‘OK, we need to try a little harder on our end,’” Haas says. “Don’t wait for a program to make you put in the time to find fresh eyes. It’s easy to fall into the habit of, ‘Let’s use the same director we’ve used in the past,’ especially with a show like this where you’re making the schedule at the beginning of the season, and you get résumés from people who’ve done like 10 episodes of ‘Law & Order’ and who’ve worked in the Dick Wolf camp before.”
That notion came into sharp relief for NBC executives ahead of the 2017-18 television season. Of the 13 pilots the network ordered, none were directed by a woman, and only four women helmed pilots across the other broadcast networks.
Consideration for a pilot directing gig usually requires ample episodic directing credits, so networks often clamor over the same small group of well-established female directors. It spurred the network’s then-entertainment president, Jennifer Salke (who now oversees Amazon Studios), to launch a program that would set a foundation for women directors to build a roster of TV credits and eventually become those well-established episodic directors booking pilot gigs.
“It was a big wake-up call for me and Jen,” says Katz, who was then head of drama for NBC. “And we said, ‘This can’t happen again.’”
Though only in its second year, Female Forward has already seen positive results. Eight directors from the program’s inaugural class were invited back to direct additional episodes of NBC- or Universal TV-produced series, and some have landed directing gigs on TV shows outside the NBC umbrella.
“To have people return, being asked back to direct, I think is the biggest vote of confidence,” says Tracy Pakosta, co-president of scripted programming at NBC. “If we can continue that for multiple years, the pool will expand and expand. I think, for us, the next step is to have someone from Female Forward direct a pilot — or multiple pilots. That’s the goal.”
In forging a path in the TV world, the women say they’ve walked away with an even greater perk.
“These are my fellow filmmaking sisters,” says Sarah Zandieh, a member of the current class, whose prior work includes music videos and short films like “The Pool Party.” “We have an amazing text thread where we share resources with each other or suggestions and tips; there have been late-night calls. The bond that we have is something I’ll take with me forever, within my career and also just within my life.”
And they’re eager to pay it forward. Some have participated in the interview process with finalists or have offered advice to interested applicants.
“This program is life-changing for every person that has participated in it,” says Kim Nguyen, a member of the current class whose episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” will air early next year. “It has set us up for success. And if it can bring success for others, we all win.”
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