In 2009 the Writers Guild of America (WGA) released a report on the challenges faced by diverse writers in the employment and earnings fronts. Despite a call for action in their 2007 report, the report found that women and minorities had not made any hiring gains since 2005 and had actually moved backward in some areas. White males continued to dominate television writing, while women represent only 27% of the employment in television writing and 16% of film employment.
Minority share of film employment has been stuck at 6 percent since 1999, while their share of television employment has increased from 10 to 11 percent in 2012 since the 2009 report. According to the most recent stats from the WGA, about 30.5% of TV staff are women, and about 15.6 percent of TV writers are people of color; both numbers represent modest gains from the past (Note: Women of color are in both the women’s and minority data)(Hunt, 2009). A San Diego State University study puts the percentage nearer to 34% for female television writers for the 2012-13 season. More than a decade earlier in 1999, 26 percent of working writers in cable and broadcast were women. By 2009, that number had risen by 2 percent.
From 2001 to 2009, women’s earnings declined 4.7 percent to their male counterparts who increased their average earnings by 31 percent. In short, between 2000 and 2009, “the earnings gap between women and white males had almost quadrupled (from $4,735 to $17,343).” There is an over $5000 earnings gap in TV and almost $42,000 in film (Silverstein, 2009). This is the widest margin in years. For every $100 a male screenwriter makes, a woman makes $58 which is higher than the overall gender earnings gap (Lauzen, 2014).
The 2007 Hollywood Writers Report noted that while women had made substantial progress in television earnings, the 2009 report indicated these trends were reversing for women in film earnings and continue to hold for female television writers with respect to their white male peers. In essence, women and minorities closed the earnings gaps with white men in television a bit, while the earnings gap in film grew. When you consider that women make up over 50% of the population and over a third of it is non-white, these percentages are clearly out of step with the population.
Minorities account for nearly 37 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 and by 2012 the majority of the babies born in the U.S. were non-white. Data also shows that minorities watch a disproportionate share of television and theatrical films, while the increases in their consumer spending outpace the rest of the nation (Hunt, 2014).
About 10 percent of working writers are minorities according to the WGA and that number has not budged for many years. If progress were being made, you’d think you’d see this reflected in the pilots or in the world of independent film, yet a 2010 Flavorwire article states that out of 40 pilots commissioned for the 2010-11 season only six were created or written by women (Larson, 2010). The WGA’ s data for that same season noted that 24 percent of the pilots in the pipeline had at least one woman writer attached, while only 9 percent of the projects had at least one minority writer (Hunt, 2009).
The creation of the WGA’s Writers Access Project (WAP) reflects a strong interest in the writing community gaining more access for diverse writers and dispels a key myth: Hollywood’s excuse that the pool of diverse writers is limited. The success of the program suggests that the underemployment of diverse writers in the industry has more to do with access, networking and opportunity than with a shortage of talent. Before we can hope to significantly address the unsatisfactory numbers for diverse writers, industry decision makers must embrace this truth.
The WAP project represents just one small step forward in the process of rewriting the all-too-familiar story of stagnant employment and earnings gaps for diverse writers revealed in the 2009 Hollywood Writers Report. The WGA plans to eventually expand the WAP to the film sector, which will require Guild collaboration with the major studios so that selected scripts can be made accessible to executives and producers in the feature film arena. In short, the Guild is encouraging the broader industry to rethink business-as-usual practices on the diversity front (WGAW, 2014).
Even on shows about women or minorities, there has often been an attitude that as long as you have one token minority or female writer on staff then some invisible quota has been met. In Hollywood this is known as a “diversity staff hire”- an entry-level, non-white staff writer, explicitly hired due to their race and often openly referred to as a “diversity hire”. Diversity staff writing programs exist at nearly every broadcast and cable network. While the network is involved creatively in producing a television show, all aspects of the financial responsibility of salaries, shooting and editing are paid for by the studio behind the show. The network then factors in additional costs solely for that “diversity hire”, so that the studio’s budget is allocated only to that which is “integral” to the show’s production (Shah, 2013).
The problem or lack of diverse writers or writers trapped in entry-level positions involves a better understanding of writers room dynamics that may retard the progress of diverse writers. According to the WGA 2009 report, women are half as likely as men to be show runners. Under the condition of anonymity, one female writer explained that “…it’s not unusual for females or writers of color to be relegated to junior writer positions and to be stuck there for years rather than being promoted to positions of greater responsibility. If you aren’t hired to write on staff, you can’t be mentored. You can’t gain experience and move up to ultimately create your own show. You can’t have overall deals. You are essentially shut out of the process.” One woman who has written for several shows stated “Being the only woman writer in the room is like having a target on your back. Even more important than stocking any given staff with female writers, women have to make the effort to become show runners who set the tone and create their own projects. That’s where you get real diversity” (Harris, 2010).
In 2013, out of CBS’s six new shows that season, each one was created by a white male. At Fox it was the same: six out of six. ABC’s seven new shows had two female creators of comedies amongst the all-male led creators of drama. NBC, with twelve shows, all created exclusively by white males. “If I had to guess”, said Marc Guggenheim an experienced television writer, “I’d say that writing staffs have been shrinking since the (2007-2008) writer’s strike and the start of the recession. When jobs are hard to come by, it’s minorities, including women, who are disproportionately impacted.” By way of contrast, Wal-Mart was sued because only 33% of women were in management. In Hollywood only about 25% of executive producers are women (Ryan, 2011). The most recent San Diego Study of Women in TV and Film reports that 27 percent of women bear the title executive producer, and 24 percent are “creators” (Carter, 2009).
Over the past four decades, HBO and several other networks of its kind have also failed to give women and people of color a bigger role. Specifically an original one-hour drama series. Huffington Post’s TV critic Maureen Ryan conducted a poll and found that between 1975 and April 2014, of the 38 people who created or designed the narratives for HBO one-hour dramas and mini-series, thirty-four were white men, three were white females and one was a non-white man (Michael Henry Brown who co-wrote 1993’s “Laurel Avenue”). Since 2008, the outlook has gotten worse: no woman or person of color has been a creator or narrative architect on a one-hour drama or mini-series between 2002 and 2014. Under 8% of HBO’s original dramas and miniseries come from women and 2.6% are created by people of color. These numbers confirm the worst fears of females and writers of color (Ryan, 2014).
In response to this report, HBO released a statement announcing “a new program called HBO Access that seeks emerging, diverse filmmakers, currently developing new programming with Oprah Winfrey, Steve McQueen, Jenjhi Kohan and many others” (Ryan, 2014). Part of HBO’s reasoning to cast a wider net presumably would be to grow its subscriber base. People have more devices to watch than they’ve ever had, and if America’s population is expanding to the point where in a matter of decades its going to be 50% people of color it makes sense to start to open the gates wider now (U.S. Census, 2012).
AMC, FX, Showtime, Netflix and HBO are among the leaders of the pack in television. Their programming represents popular culture that can often capture the public’s imagination and solidify the power of the people who create the programs. These five outlets have ninety-seven narrative architects. Twelve are women and two are persons of color (Brown and Veena Sud)
This is an unscientific, inexact snapshot of the industry that is nevertheless telling. From 2002 to April 2014: just over twelve percent of the creatives and narrative architects in the dramatic realm were women at HBO. Of the 31 people who created or were narrative architects of an HBO original drama or mini-series, two or roughly 6.5 percent were women. Not one was a person of color (Ryan, 2014).
For that same time frame, the numbers failed to improve at AMC, FX, Showtime, and Netflix as well. Of Showtime’s 23 creators, six were women. No persons of color. FX networks had 22 creators, one of whom was a woman and no creators of color. AMC had 11 creators, one of whom was a woman and one a person of color. Netflix had three creators heading a drama or miniseries when it began. One was a woman and no creators of color. “Orange is the New Black” created by that one woman, helped put Netflix on the map in part because of the diverse array of characters and stories viewers had been missing from TV (Ryan, 2014).
More women watch television then men. In primetime and daytime, writers and producers who are female have had great success. Despite this, late night and comedy shows typically have very few or zero women on staff. More than half of Letterman, Conan and Leno’s audiences are made up of women. In 2009, out of roughly 50 comedy writers working on Conan, Leno and Letterman, none were women. Some women in the business feel that as long as the hosts remain almost exclusively male, so will the writers. One woman with her own late-night show, Chelsea Handler has five women on her staff of ten, lending credence to this theory. Yet, Sarah Silverman’s show has no women writers, although she is credited as a writer herself. (Harris, 2010).
Saturday Night Live’s cast has always been under 3 percent black and female during its 38 year run (Shah, 2013). As of 2013, there had not been a black woman on the show in six years and there have only ever been four black females on the show out of 137 repertory and featured cast members. The first black female cast member was only a featured player and was fired halfway through her first season. “The Daily Show”, with the exception of Stacey Grenrock Woods (1999-2003) and Samantha Bee (since 2001), didn’t hire another female correspondent until 2010. When asked if it felt like a boys club at The Daily Show, Woods responded “Yes. Did I want to be a part of it? Not necessarily. So it kind of goes both ways” (Carmon, 2010). Ironically, “The Daily Show” was created for Comedy Central by two women, Lizz Winstead and Madeline Smithberg. Kimmel’s Jill Leiderman and Leno’s Debbie Vickers are examples of females who’ve held positions of power as executive producers of their respective shows. Currently, Letterman’s show has three – Jude Brennan, Barbara Gaines and Maria Pope. Jimmy Fallon has three out of twelve on his staff, while Kimmel has only one. Jill Goodwin, of Letterman and Meredith Scardino, of the Colbert Report, are currently the only women on their writing staffs.
According to Nell Scovell, a former female writer on Letterman’s Late Show claims, “there have only been seven women writers hired over the past 27 years. These seven have spent a total of 17 years on staff combined (her emphasis), while male writers have a collective 378 years” (based on an average writing room of 14 men, the size of the current Late Show staff). Scovell feels that television shows that “often rely on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers should instead have targeted outreach directed towards talented bloggers, improv performers and stand-ups to help widen the field of applicants. A room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material” (Scovell, 2009).
Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” and Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” have changed the landscape somewhat with a high percentage of female talent hires by sitcom standards, but in the decade since Rhimes first hit “Grey’s Anatomy” the status quo remains much the same. A Variety article notes that “30 Rock” had four women, seven men, and one man of color (Donald Glover who moved on to a co-starring role on “Community”) (Boyd, 2009). In contrast, women are the majority on AMC’s “Mad Men” where seven of the nine members of the writing team are women. The staffs of both Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal and Cold Case also have a majority of women (Chozick, 2009).
Some networks have established selective workshops for diverse writers and only employ “diversity hires” that are graduates of that process. Other networks believe being gay, female or sufferring from minor health defects fit the definition for non-white qualification. CBS has no diversity initiative whatsoever. The WGA has tier-based, salary minimum requirements of which staff writer is the lowest. With that in mind, if Fox hired a person of color for an upcoming season, they could keep that person on as a staff writer, year after year if desired, where they might remain in limbo at that position regardless of qualifications. If a promotion should arise for that writer of color, then their salary would then come out of the show’s budget instead of the network’s. This additional cost is taken from funds that would otherwise go towards the production of the show. Thus, making it all the more cost effective to retain that “diversity hire” at the staff writer level indefinitely if they so choose.
In addition to diversity staff writers being referred to condescendingly as a show’s “DSW”, women are often referred to as D-girls for “development girl”. There is also the unspoken stigma in TV writing of diversity staff writers never being good writers (Shah, 2013). Notable exceptions being Mindy Kaling of “The Mindy Project”, Danielle Sanchez-Witzel of “The Millers”, “New Girl” and “My Name is Earl” and Alan Yang of “Park and Recreation” (Shah, 2013).
A strange paradox seems to exist at most diversity departments of major networks; the segregation of young writers in diversity programs from executives in development of current programming departments. Consequently, these writers remain unknown to the very television executives who not only create and maintain shows, but hire writers throughout the year. Just another impediment to breaking through the dominant white male color barrier for writers. In June of 2014 Fox launched a mentoring program for females and diverse voices “by nomination only… from agencies, management companies and a select number of organizations identified by Fox that have a history of fostering strong, emerging and developed talent from diverse backgrounds” (Fox, 2014). In other words, if you are already a director affiliated with or represented by an agency or management company then only applications submitted through your respective organization will be considered.
In 2013, women may have broken box office barriers with the success of the female co-produced Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Jennifer Lee redefining the princess genre with Disney’s Frozen as co-director; and Megan Allison’s Oscar nominated productions for American Hustle and Her (Sperling, 2014). But a report on Women in Film conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film: Celluloid Ceiling proves otherwise. It states that only 16 percent of behind-the-scenes jobs on the top 250 grossing movies were held by women – a one percent drop from a high in 1998. Also, only 6 percent of the top films last year were helmed by women. A decrease of 3 percentage points from 2012 (Lauzen, 2014). To add some perspective to this: In 86 years, the Motion Picture Academy has only nominated four women for Best Director and only one, Kathryn Bigelow has won. Three African-Americans have been nominated for Best Director (John Singleton, Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen). None has ever won. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and Asian director were two of the first non-white filmmakers to win Oscar’s Best Director award in 2005: Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi and Cuaron’s Gravity in 2013 (Filmsite, 2014).
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media also conducted a study in gender disparity behind the camera on all G-rated films and the 50 top grossing PG and PG-13 films between September 2006 and September 2007 noting the gender of every director, writer and producer in the 122 films. Out of 1,565 creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates into 4.88 males working behind the scenes to every one female (Smith & Choueiti, 2009).
Of the 600 new movies reviewed by the New York Times, roughly 10% were directed by women, which included foreign female directors. Only a handful of these were from major studios. In 2009, Fox and their Searchlight division led the pack with five female director releases: “Jennifer’s Body”, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”, “Amelia”, “Post-Grad” and “Whip It”. Disney had one: Anne Fletcher’s “The Proposal”. Sony had four: Nora Ephron’s “Julia & Julia”, “An Education”, “Coco Before Chanel” and “Sugar”. Universal had Nancy Meyer’s “It’s Complicated”, while both Focus Features and Miramax had no female directors. Neither did Paramount or Warner Brothers (Dargis, 2009).
In 2013, the Emmy’s nominated two females for their outstanding direction of a dramatic series for episodes of “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad” (both lost to David Fincher’s “House of Cards”). In the comedic categories for writing and direction there were three nods for “Girls”, “Modern Family” and “30 Rock” of which only Tina Fey won for writing (Emmy’s, 2013). But 2014, had no female nominees in the drama series direction. Only one for “Breaking Bad” in the dramatic writing category and three again in comedy writing and direction “Orange Is The New Black” and Modern Family”. These results reflect the latest Director’s Guild statistics that indicate women direct only about 14% of all episodic television work (Littleton, 2014).
That same sexism and gender bias is just as pervasive in the world of theatre. In an analysis of “Discrimination in American Theatre” conducted by Princeton undergrad Emily Glassberg Sands, co-author of Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of Blind Auditions, it was found that plays written by men are produced more often on Broadway. The figure is 82% male to females 18% (Sands, 2009). Plays written about women by women are the least likely to get produced, so consequently women reduce the amount of female parts in their plays. When role names are switched to a male moniker, the likelihood of being produced increases. Only 11% of the plays on Broadway over the last decade (from 1999 to 2009) were written by women. They also made more money and had higher revenue by 18% because women buy 60% of all the tickets. In response, American playwright, novelist and television writer Theresa Rebeck stated “Women are buying all the tickets and plays by women make money. Theaters can no longer afford to hang on to the shreds of old thinking.” This same study also notes that in 2008, only 31.6% of creative jobs (actors, writers, directors, designers, etc.) were held by women in NY theatre houses, while men held 68.4% (Silverstein, 2009).
In the WGA’s most recent 2014 report, employment for minority writers increased for the first time between 2007 and 2012 from 8.4 to 9.9% overall- a period coinciding with the Great Recession’s beginning and end. While the numbers of employed writers increased for Asian (42%) and Latinos (32%), the number of employed African-American writers increased by a more modest 10.5% and the already small number of employed Native writers actually dropped by 30%. The overall employment rate for white women also declined from 55.4% in 2007 to 54.6% in 2012, while minority women enjoyed the biggest increase in employment rate over that period, from 57% to 65.5% (Hunt, 2014).
Previous WGA reports noted that although white male writers continued to dominate in overall earnings, women had closed the gap significantly by 2009, while minorities continued to lag behind. As a result, the overall earnings gap for minority writers remained the same $30,135.
In summary, the white male dominance stated in previous reports is still characteristic of current employment and earning patterns for 2012. Male writers accounted for 75 percent of industry employment. In 2012, women writers earned 90 cents and minority writers earned 77 cents for each dollar earned by white male writers (Hunt, 2014).
When asked why diverse writers seem to be losing ground, Kim Meyers, director of diversity at the WGA, attributed the trend to the types of films being developed at the studios. “The emphasis on tentpole movies, comic book franchises and graphic novel adaptations where action is the main focus. This is often seen as the province of male screenwriters and could be the reason women screenwriters are not being hired to write the “big” movies. What comes next after the comic book adaptations? Who’s to say?” Myers continued. “Trends change. It may be a young female screenwriter who writes the film that introduces a whole new era in feature films.” And let’s not forget new media. We live in a world where it is increasingly possible for all young writers to get together with their peers and make the films they write. A control over their future that previous generations of writers have not had.” (Silverstein, 2009)
Since Sherry Lansing became the first female president of 20th Century Fox in 1980, there have been women running studios on and off ever since. A few years ago, four of the six major studios were being run by women. Now there is only one, Amy Pascal of Sony Pictures which as of late has become more of a boy’s club for Spiderman, superheroes, and frat-boy, fart- joke comedies from Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow. Independent film’s female directors that have made a splash at Sundance, now disappear far too quickly: Think Sofia Coppolla of “Lost in Translation” or Kimberly Pierce of “Boy’s Don’t Cry”. Even the careers of crossover studio directors such as Clueless’s Amy Heckerling, “A League of Their Own’s Penny Marshall, Martha Coolidge, and Mimi Leder have had a short shelf life. Writer-director Jasmine McGlade-Chazelle, who mentored under Kimberly Pierce, hasn’t had much luck pitching complex female protagonists to male executives. “I’ve seen blatant sexism at every level in the questions they ask me. Questions that they’d never ask a man like… Would you be comfortable giving orders to a male crew?” (Sperling, 2014)
Hollywood’s usual answer is that all it cares about is box office which is both true and convenient, but women get less credit for blockbusters (Catherine Hardwicke’s “Twilight”) and more blame for bombs (Mimi Leder’s “Pay it Forward”). In Leder’s case she didn’t direct again for nine years. Meanwhile a flop from a top male director usually gets a pass from the industry like John Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” or Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” (Sperling, 2014). Manhola Dargis of the New York Times decided to put that theory to the test.
In 2001, Michael Mann directed the bio-pic “Ali” with Will Smith with an estimated budget of $107 million from Sony and netted only $88 million globally. The following year, Kathryn Bigelow directed Harrison Ford in K19: The Widowmaker for $100 million and brought in only $66 million globally. This $22 million difference in box office receipts meant that Mann could move on to direct “Collateral” in 2004 with Tom Cruise followed by “Miami Vice” in 2006 both with budgets of $65 million and $135 million respectively. Meanwhile Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007’s “The Hurt Locker”, bankrolled by a French company for a budget reportedly under $20 million and won an Oscar for as it’s producer and director (Dargis, 2009).
This might be the key. Embracing a male dominated genre and succeeding at directing it better than a male. Studios are concentrating on giant blockbusters that are driven by young males. If women and people of color can co-opt a specified genre, much in the same way whites co-opted rhythm and blues, there is room for progress and a paradigm shift. Once Tyler Perry proved box office consistency with the black family comedy, he can continue to create his own projects. As can Ms. Bigelow with the action genre and Ang Lee in any genre.
The only way to combat opportunity hoarding and various -ism’s has always been to beat a dominant opponent at their own game, whether it be sports, music, poetry or film. Progress comes in fits and starts and creation belongs to all. It transcends gender, race, and disability. A concerted effort focused towards mastering a commercial genre in writing or directing can be achieved by creating (or co-opting) your model of choice. Inevitably, your unique voice will come through despite any perceived genre limitations. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-Jew raised in India who resided in New York for most of her life, is mostly remembered for her screenplay adaptations of Edwardian English period films for Merchant Ivory films such as “Howard’s End”, “Remains of the Day” and “A Room with A View”. Adaptation is the key.
The solution for women and people of color gaining fair employment also lies in the death of long-held beliefs confronted by new realities, the literal death of old-boy network members, and the death of previous generation’s prejudices that become cultural anathema.
On Jan 26th, 2014, Shonda Rhimes, the African-American creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal was given the Directors Guild of America’s Diversity award. When asked if it had been a struggle making diversity happen on her cast and crews, Rhimes said “I’m profoundly honored to receive this award, but also a little pissed off because there still needs to be an award. There’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award. It’s not because of a lack of talent. It’s because of a lack of access. People hire who they know. Well look at us. Both Betsy and I like the world that we work in to look like the world we live in. We’re also proud that the DGA recognizes a problem and are trying to fix it. The DGA, by the way, is the only guild giving out this type of award in an attempt to draw attention to the problem, which I think is kind of badass.” (Bahr, 2014). Right on, sister. Write on.