New Effort Aims to Boost Hollywood's Female Union Membership

Steve Dietl/Netflix
'Mudbound' cinematographer Rachel Morrison

After electing a president of its board, the eight-year-old non-profit Women in Media is looking to get more females hired in the industry.

After electing its first president of its board of directors, the advocacy group Women in Media (WIM) is looking to boost the numbers of unionized female crew members in Hollywood.

Next month, the nonprofit — which provides networking opportunities, professional development and advocacy for women in above- and below-the-line positions on film productions — will be holding a panel for members and non-members on "navigating the unions." Representatives from IATSE Local 600 (International Cinematographer's Guild), Local 728 (motion picture set lighting), Local 700 (Motion Picture Editors Guild), Local 80 (motion picture studio grips, crafts services, set medics, marine department and warehouse workers), and the Directors Guild of America (assistant directors and unit production managers) will be present.

The goal of bringing WIM members and event attendees together with union representatives, recently elected board president Priya Sopori says, is to help women navigate the "catch-22" of union membership in Hollywood. "Anyone peripherally involved in the industry understands that in order to be a part of union projects, you need to be a union member; but in order to be a union member to begin with, you need to be involved in union projects," Sopori tells The Hollywood Reporter.  

The April 27 event is part of what executive director Tema Staig calls a "multi-pronged" effort to get more women hired on studio shoots. (Studio shoots are union projects.) This year, WIM will also hold "Hire These Women" lunches, one of the group's signature events, which brings potential employers and female job candidates, union or non-union, together. WIM will also ask more project managers and directors to take its "#ReelChange" pledge, which asks directors to hire at parity, seek out female candidates from outside their circles, recommend women for positions, pay equitably and create a fair environment on set. And the organization will continue to promote its crew list database as a way for union projects to vet potential crew workers.

Though few studies measure representation in below-the-line positions, across the top-grossing 100 films of 2017, women comprised 14 percent of editors, two percent of cinematographers and three percent of composers, according to San Diego State University professor Martha Lauzen's 2018 "Celluloid Ceiling" report. Some below-the-line unions are majority-women, while women are in the minority in others: The Costume Designers Guild, Local 892, for instance, tells The Hollywood Reporter that their membership is about 80 percent women, for example, while Local 728, for L.A.-area studio electrical lighting technicians, says women comprise 5.5 percent all members retired and active.

While studies have shown that female directors tend to be correlated with more women in other positions on set, WIM isn't waiting for studios to bring on more female helmers. "For years, the focus has been on getting more women above the line: It’s always been the general thought that if we have more women writers, directors, producers, it will all trickle down. But that clearly hasn’t worked," Staig says. "We have to push from the top down and the bottom up — it’s really a numbers game."

Besides, Staig says, below-the-line crewmembers can become future employers. She points to Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke and Avatar director James Cameron, who both began their film careers in below-the-line production designer positions.

The union effort comes after the organization elected Sopori, a partner at Greenberg Glusker, LLP, as president of its board in February and received 501(c)3 status last summer. In her new role, Sopori said she aims "for us to work with both unions and women crewmembers on how to make it easier and more accessible to female crewmembers."

In addition to the union push, 2018 will also see WIM members attending traditionally "male-dominated" networking spaces, Staig says. In early April, the group will have a booth at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, which attracts employers and below-the-line talent with its gear on display. And in May, the group will attend an open house and barbecue hosted by J.L. Fisher — a producer of film equipment including dollies, booms and bases — and the Society of Camera Operators, the International Cinematographers Guild and the American Society of Cinematographers.

"It’s got to be many ways of attacking this problem," Staig says.

Though it was founded in 2010, WIM has rapidly grown its resources for would-be employers since early 2017, when Staig created a Google spreadsheet of female crewmembers to help a male friend hire more women on upcoming projects. Since then, the list has expanded to include 2,000 people across 26 positions and become an online database that can host résumés, reels and Soundclouds (for composers and sound editors) and provides whether members are union or nonunion, their location and languages they speak.

"IMDb, as great as it is, it’s not the greatest source for women, because women tend to have a more circuitous road in the film industry," Staig explains. "[IMDb] lacks music videos and commercials and you can’t see someone’s reel — you can’t get the full picture."