Long Way Left To Go: Women Directors Face Uphill Battle in Hollywood

Amanda Mae Meyncke on Tuesday, Aug. 28th

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This week film journalist and filmmaker Amanda Mae Meyncke takes a look at the uphill battle women directors face in Hollywood through the lens of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women and her own personal experience. First up: the DWW through the eyes of one of its current participants.

Women directors make up less than 10% of all working directors in Hollywood, and the AFI Directing Workshop for Women has been doing its steady best to change that number. Since the program’s inception in Los Angeles in 1974, there’s been plenty of famous faces in the ranks, and a high percentage of the alumna have moved on to directing features, television shows and creating their own singular works.

Lauren Ludwig is the prime example of a women director who doesn’t take no for an answer, and makes things happen without waiting for the perfect moment. One of the eight women chosen to undertake the AFI Directing Workshop for Women this year, she’s an accomplished playwright, radio and theatre director as well as a writing coach who has won numerous awards for her theatrical work. Her short film Burns Brightly, created during the workshop, finished production this summer. We recently caught up with Ludwig to catch a glimpse of what the program was like on the inside.

The question of why there are so few female directors working in Hollywood is a complicated one, and Ludwig believes that the problem begins for many female directors in film school when more forceful, and often male, voices are rewarded with attention, while women may be afraid of speaking up, or discouraged. She acknowledges that the problem is a systemic one and that there is no clear-cut solution to getting women into positions of authority within the industry.

“Women need to be told they are storytellers and encouraged to tell those stories,” said Ludwig.

The goal of the DWW is producing confident female directors and quality filmmaking. Eight women’s scripts are hand picked from a myriad of entries as part of the application process. They are then given access to cameras and professional assistance in realizing their own films. Ludwig was well-versed in creating a wide variety of work, and still wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in, thinking perhaps she’d get a nudge in the right direction and access to free equipment.

What she found instead was a community.

“What I got was three weeks of film school with some amazing teachers.” Best of all, the DWW created a safe place where the burgeoning directors could ask questions without any fear of judgement.

It seems like with so many years of experience, the AFI program should have generated more positive change in the Hollywood film industry, that there should be a bigger influx of female voices, but Ludwig likened the program to “an NGO building a bridge in an impoverished community. It’s a small thing that has a big impact on the lives of the women who’ve gone through the program. But ultimately it’s one bridge at a time.” She acknowledges that an additional challenge that faces DWW graduates is that there isn’t really a set system for mentoring graduates and ensuring that they’re ushered into the professional field. The program is currently more focused on developing women’s voices and helping them complete a film project, and though there’s some assistance for finding work, that’s an area that could definitely benefit graduates, since the end goal is to make a difference in Hollywood by actually working.

The DWW’s focus is in promoting women who want to work in the mainstream industry, adding their own unique voices to studio productions and television shows, amidst producing and promoting their own work. While the program isn’t distinctly devoted to outsider voices or mentalities, Ludwig says there’s plenty of support for the more unique among them.

“Some of the scripts are more disruptive than others. Some of the filmmakers are more experimental in their approach than others. We’ve been given a lot of freedom to follow those paths as long as, at the end of the day, we’re telling a story effectively.”

One major problem is there’s not enough programs that specifically target and promote minority groups, including women. AFI’s DWW can only accomplish so much through limited funding and space, and they have chosen to maximize their efforts by limiting the number of participants in order to ensure that the ones who are admitted will receive unparalleled assistance in completing their films. While the program is certainly helping a number of women, there’s still a great deal more that can be done.

“Perhaps the biggest issue is that many people still find the idea of a female leader hard to swallow. I hope that milestones like Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar start to have a ripple effect in years to come,” says Ludwig.

However, there is hope. In an ever-changing digital world, the gap between access and ability is lessening. Digital cameras abound and ideas about women’s roles continue to evolve and change. From the success of brave new voices like Lena Dunham ( TV’s “Girls”) and Lauren Miller (“For a Good Time Call”) to women who dream of working on established television shows and overseeing studio films, women need to forge new paths and relentlessly pursue their dreams. Ludwig is certain of one thing though, there’s no waiting for the right moment.

“No one asks you to direct; you need to just stand up and declare: ‘I’m a director.’ Start doing it. Write a script, pick up a camera, figure it out. Directing is a multidisciplinary art form. So take writing classes, take acting classes, learn cinematography, organize a group of people, even if it’s just on a trip to In-N-Out. You need to be comfortable taking charge and trusting your instincts. Put yourself in situations where you’re forced to do that. And just keep shooting movies. Even short, no-budget ones. It’s the only way to learn. And learning is the only way to build a career.”

Amanda Mae Meyncke lives in Los Angeles, and writes about movies and ideas for a living.

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