One Way Forward: AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women

Amanda Mae Meyncke on Wednesday, Aug. 29th

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. In the second of three parts, Meyncke takes a closer look at the history of the DWW. [Read the first part of this series here.]

When the AFI Directing Workshop for Women (DWW) was founded in 1974, it was the only program of its kind, founded with the intention of supporting women directors and helping them move towards directing major feature films, correcting the imbalance of power that existed in Hollywood. Well, it’s thirty eight years later, and where are we now?

Men continue to dominate the field of filmmaking, while women and other traditionally marginalized groups such as homosexuals and people of color find themselves on the outside looking in.

The DWW workshop occurs annually, and today is comprised of eight women at a time. All told, it has had over 250 participants, at least 25% of whom have garnered professional directing credits since their time at the DWW, working on feature films and such television shows as Mad Men, Gilmore Girls and 30 Rock. Some of the women are gay, and many are from diverse backgrounds, all are striving not only tell their stories but also stories that large audiences want to hear.  The mission of the workshop is simple enough: women with a serious intent to become directors submit a short script and a reel, and eight women are selected for a three week intensive full time workshop. At this workshop, the AFI DWW staff will help them work through their scripts, educate them on the filmmaking process, provide information about fundraising, and offer up access to actors under their SAG agreement, as well as equipment and insurance. The films must be produced and edited within a certain time period, and always with the intention of parlaying the connections, and knowledge gained, into a real directing career.

Are these innovators? Experimental filmmakers? Well, the DWW strives to represent diversity, and in the early years understood the importance of some more famous faces, actresses such as Ellen Burstyn, Margot Kidder and poet Maya Angelou took part. Even now the bios of the current crop are impressive. Playwrights, writers with multiple screenplay deals, successful actresses, and talented cinematographers. Overall a relentlessly hardworking bunch. But the emphasis still remains on exceptional work and disrupting the ordinary by promoting unique female voices that may not otherwise be given an outlet. The aim of the program is to give the hard workers an even stronger chance of succeeding in this difficult industry. Making films is exceptionally difficult, and mostly unglamorous hard work, from the planning and preparation to the execution and post production, filming is physical labor and mind-numbing hours.

AFI DWW directors all shoot their shorts on digital, using equipment provided by AFI. The rise of digital filmmaking has given opportunity to women where none existed before, filmmakers such as Miranda July, Lena Dunham, and Lynn Shelton are able to make films for substantially less, outside the studio system. But AFI wants women smack in the big time, not fighting their way in from the outside.

Don’t believe that there is a real imbalance in Hollywood? Or perhaps it’s hard to imagine it’s really that disparate. On their homepage, AFI quotes some numbers from the DGA, which indicate that only 7% of all working film directors are women, though the number rises to 11% in television.

Those numbers are a bit worse for the top 250 domestic grossing films of the past year, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.  Only 5% (that’s 12.5 movies) of those top grossing films can boast female directors, which, and listen up closely, is only half of the number it was in 1998. With all our talk of equality, it turns out we haven’t progressed at all, we’ve regressed. On those same top 250 domestic grossing films, only 14% had female writers, 18% executive producers, 25% producers in any capacity. While 20% made up editors, only 4% were cinematographers.

Out of 85 Oscar nominations for best director since the beginning of the Academy awards, only four of those have ever been women, Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane  Campion in 1993, Sofia Coppola in 2003, with Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 being the most recent as well as the only woman ever to have won an Oscar for best directing.

Women haven’t had the same leg-up that men have, movies have been around for about a hundred years and though women made films, and even directed films in the studio system they were few and far between. Up until roughly the time of the first AFI DWW, were only beginning to work outside the home at the same level as men. In a town like Hollywood, in an industry that is as institutionalized and networking dependent as film-making, it’s unsurprising that women haven’t been given the same chances as men and are still fighting for a place in the directing world.

Our population, give or take a percentage point here and there, is pretty evenly divided. Women make up at least half of the movie-going population, and films that fall outside of the romantic comedy norm are triumphing more regularly. Services such as Netflix and iTunes rentals are making films available to audiences that may never be reached by the minimal advertising available to smaller independent features. Female voices are starting to be heard due to the box office potential that studios have begun to recognize. Women want to see stories that reflect their experiences, but women also want to see great movies. In time, the ideal film world would represent a wide spectrum of the female experience in all types of films, but the only way to accomplish that is to promote and support more female directors.

Why then hasn’t the AFI DWW made more of a dent? It’s complicated. It’s not that the program is ineffective, they do proudly boast a 25% success rate for their alumnae moving on to professional directing, but some students simply don’t succeed as directors or choose to enter the industry as writers, producers, actresses and such. The DWW can only accommodate eight women at a time, which isn’t very many when you consider the dozens of films that are released each month alone. It also isn’t meant to help a wide swath of women simply make short films, anybody can pick up a camera and create work on their own. What’s needed are driven, hardworking women interested in directing large studio films, the kind that make big box office dollars.

The AFI DWW is only one program in a vast city of people striving to make it, but it offers support and advancement in a time when women remain woefully under represented. While we may yearn for a broader range of voices and a wider diversity of stories, we must first infiltrate the system in order to change it for the better. Not everyone wants to play by the studio rules, but it remains one of the strongest ways of ensuring that an audience will see a film, given the ability of a studio to produce and market a big budget film. Independent film is wonderful, but the multiplex will continue to be ruled by big budget summer blockbusters and large scale Oscar fare.

One of the founders of the AFI DWW, Jan Haag, spoke to the difficulty of female directorial success in a 2007 essay about the origins of the program.

“The power in Hollywood still lies with those who, for the most part, believe that the lowest passions, the most appalling violence, perversions, or silliness are what sell images to a jaded public,” she said.

She believed that the AFI DWW program, though small, would create a rippling effect out and through the industry and a powerful effect upon the world. And the DWW seems to believe that as well. If they keep working steadily, churning out competent and talented directors ready for the pressures of directing major productions, then that this is one less battle women will have to aggressively fight.  Victory can be achieved by infiltration. The most innovative step women can take is to quietly but firmly begin to be ready to step into positions of power by working hard, being prepared for the harsh realities of the work itself, creating work of value and by assisting and advancing the careers of other women. It will take time, but the order of things continues to change as the old regime is slowly replaced by younger minds.

Alice Munro is one of the finest chroniclers of the experiences of womanhood, (a short story of hers was adapted into the Oscar nominated film “Away From Her,” directed by Sarah Polley). in 1971 she published a novel “The Lives of Girls and Women” that spoke to the inequalities and demands of womanhood. In that novel, one woman tells her daughter of the future, and gives us the beginning whispers of a different life for women, one that is still becoming and has not yet arrived.

“There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come.”


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


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