Plenty of Women Work in Hollywood

Where are all the women In Hollywood? In March of this year, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which is part of San Diego State University, released its current statistics and studies, and they weren’t encouraging. Reading from their website:

For Film:

Women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films of 2013. This figure represents a decrease of two percentage points from 2012.

For Television:

In 2012-13, women accounted for 28% of creators, executive producers, producers, directors, writers, editors, and directors of photography working on prime-time programs airing on the broadcast networks.

These statistics got pushed into the limelight alongside Cate Blanchett when, in her Oscar Acceptance Speech she said:

"Those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences - they are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people."

I actually believe, but I don’t have the numbers, that there are plenty of women working in Hollywood, because I work with them every day. I just think they’re not being counted, or even being seen.

That’s because the professional women I’m talking about work in the specific genre of “Reality” Television. From this point on in the blog post, I will refer to it as unscripted non-fiction TV, because that’s what it is, and what it should be called. The term “reality” (in quotes) was coined by journalists’ years ago as they tried to describe the new genre taking over cable TV, and the phrase stuck. No one working in the genre called it that, and when someone says to me that there’s nothing “real” about “reality” TV, I reply that I never make that claim. Also, the phrase “unscripted” (also in quotes) doesn’t mean it’s “unwritten” either, which is another contentious subject -- but I digress -- back to the women.

I’ve worked in this genre for most of my career, moving up from editor to Executive Producer and Show Runner, and now I split time between editing and producing. I personally have worked with more women than men. I’ve hired more women than men, and now that I am an editor again, the people who supervise and guide my creative work are mostly women.

 I am working on an unscripted non-fiction show right now, and as I write this I am sitting in my edit bay before my workday begins. So far on this show, which is about young people working on a luxury yacht, I have edited material for five different episodes. The show runner is a woman, the lead editor is a woman, the story producers (I like to call them writers) for four of those five episodes are women, and the assistant story producers who find footage for me are women.

These women are damn smart, too. Back in the early days of this genre, we didn’t even have non-linear editing. We didn’t have small lightweight cameras and we felt like we were creating something new and different. Can we tell a drama with this style of shooting? Can we graft a sitcom structure onto this kind of production? We thought we were breaking new ground because we could tell a story a new way. The technology has changed so much that I feel we were carving in stone back then.

Now, a generation later, I am encountering people, mostly women, much younger than me who were raised on the genre, and they are completely comfortable as storytellers when they are in my edit bay. I’m like a rock-n-roll guitarist from the 1960s who thinks he helped invent rock-n-roll, who then encounters a phenomenal kid who plays guitar better than him, and the kid says, “yeah, I grew up listening and copying all your records. But now that I know all your chops, I’m doing my own stuff now...”

These women are well-educated, smart, good leaders, great storytellers, and I enjoy collaborating with them. However, I suspect they may not be counted in the overall numbers because of a bias against the genre, even though it makes up over one-third of the television that gets produced.

And that may be why women end up working there. It’s part of the history of women in the work place. The genre doesn’t really count as television, and therefore neither do they. From my experience, I also suspect there are more people of color and more LGBT people working in unscripted non-fiction television than in other genres as well -- yet I don’t think they’re being counted either.

There’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop going on that is both positive and negative for the industry. In this genre it’s easier to break in, to find work, to rise, and it’s easier to get responsibility. If you’re a woman, or a person of color or you’re gay, there’s also a better chance that you’ll be working with other people like yourself. That’s the upside. The downside is that you’ll be underpaid, a union probably won’t represent you, and you won’t be able to take credit for the work you do.

Wait a second! Women and people of color, working and excelling, yet not being paid as well as others, and not getting credit? Why does that sound familiar?

 I am editing an act of unscripted non-fiction television this week that will be hilarious farce, and my story producer and I keep going over the footage, parsing out the lines in the exact order to maximize the laughs. I’m not saying it’s Chekhov, but it’s a comedy of manners that will be pretty damn funny when we’re done. I turned to her today and said, “we’re writing this episode, you know.” She laughed, and said, “I know, but we’re not writers.” And she did what women and people of color have done for years when faced with similar work dilemmas. She laughed, shook it off, and went back to her desk. She knows what’s up. She’s writing something that’s not writing, in a genre of television that’s not really television, invisible and making a product that makes a lot of money in the industry. She wishes it were different, of course, but she’s not quite sure what she can do.

This where it gets tough. The Writer’s Guild of America agrees that what she does isn’t writing, and although they’ve raised the idea of story producers and editors getting credit as writers and getting union representation; the idea has been left on the negotiating table during the last two WGA strikes.

The Motion Picture Editing Guild is doing a good job. As I write this, the editors on “Last Comic Standing” are getting union representation after a short strike, although the editors are getting the contract, not story producers.

And then there are the directors, who aren’t really directors, but they are called field producers, unless it’s a big enough network show, and then they are called directors and represented by the gets complicated.

But it’s all worth examining and analyzing, and it’s time for Hollywood to recognize the redheaded elephantine stepchild that’s sitting in the middle of the living room, mostly because of the money it brings in. The cable networks depend on the fast money they can earn from reality shows, and they often provide the liquidity they need while they’re waiting for the bigger expensive dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men which require a lot of money up front but take more time to produce.

There are several camps of “unscripted” non-fiction. First, the competition shows, which include both Survivor and The Voice. Then there are the lifestyle shows that appeal to men first and women second, like the shows about fishermen and ice-road truckers, working cops and people searching for aliens or ghosts. Then, there are the lifestyle shows which appeal to women first and men second, which include the shows about rich housewives, Mormon families, little couples, and young people working on yachts.

I believe that female storytellers are well represented in all three of these sub-genres, but they are especially well represented in the last one.

Part of the problem is built into the genre itself. I believe that much of unscripted nonfiction which in a broader sense can also be called “melodrama,” which has its own historical baggage. From Wikipedia comes this definition:

melodrama is a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions, often with strongly stereotyped characters.

I’ve also heard melodrama described as relying too much on conflict between similar characters in a limited context. Two rich housewives arguing about a party is melodrama, because there doesn’t seem to be much at stake besides their vanity and pride. However, if one is a CIA spy in danger, or a Queen on Game of Thrones, or one of the housewives is battling cancer, then it suddenly no longer qualifies as melodrama, because emotions and problems aren’t being exaggerated. The drama of the underlying situation is doing a good enough job creating obstacles that the characters must overcome, and it’s now a “higher” form of drama. Until that happens, it’s just melodrama. It may be incredibly popular, but it’s still just melodrama.

However, melodrama can become art -- like the plays on Anton Chekhov, which are biting melodramas about an upper class world worth laughing at, which is why he called his plays “comedies.” 

Some unscripted non-fiction melodramas are very good, a lot are decent but average, and some are crap -- but that’s true of all movies and TV. The ultimate truth is that doing good original storytelling is hard work no matter the genre in which you work. Some of it is great, a lot of it average, and some of it is bad, and the success of any of it has little to do with the quality. But generally, unscripted non-fiction melodramas are dismissed as entertainment fodder, the digital equivalent of the tabloids, like today’s newspaper, which the fishmongers will us to wrap tomorrow’s “catch of the day.” 

And maybe for that reason, women end up here. It’s not because women are better at melodrama -- that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that since it doesn’t get the same respect as other genres, there’s a subtle message that this is the genre where she ought to go -- where she can go -- and get work. Maybe where she herself decides she should go.  She won’t upset the status quo. She’ll be tolerated. She won’t have to fight some larger societal battle. In this way, women may be half guilty of perpetuating the work situation that employs them and at the same time limits them.

Times are changing however, and it’s only a matter of time before all workers in the genre will be recognized for their work and how much money it brings into the industry as a whole.

Nora Ephron comes to mind when I think of the people working in unscripted non-fiction. Nora Ephron was a great writer, a great screenwriter, and a great director. However, she got her start writing for those crappy tabloids. People still turn their nose up at them, but if you wait long enough, that rough-and-tumble world, full of crazy characters and crazier stories, looks quaint in the rear view mirror, and people wax nostalgic for the good old days of tabloid journalism. That’s when the tabloids were good, right?  It’s also a world where she learned how to drink, how to take a punch, and how to write a story -- a world she wrote about and celebrated in her Broadway play, Lucky Guy

.What this genre needs are a few Nora Ephron’s to make a big splash in other genres.

Read about the work done at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film: