NBC has a novel solution to the dearth of female directors: Let them direct
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 this 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.”