ReFrame Launches Program to Boost Careers of Experienced Female Filmmakers (Exclusive)

Jeong Park
Desiree Akhavan, part of ReFrame's new program, helmed the 2018 Sundance winner 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post.'

The gender-parity coalition's Rise will sponsor seasoned female directors, who, unlike many of their male counterparts, find themselves stalled mid-career: "It's not just how you fill the pipeline, but how you move through the pipeline as well."

When the gender-parity industry coalition ReFrame launched two years ago, one of its three key aims was to change the trajectory for female directors who had scored their big break — and then gotten stuck, unable to transition to steady studio careers like so many of their equally talented male counterparts.

Now the group — born out of a partnership between Women in Film and the Sundance Institute — is ready to reveal its remedy: ReFrame Rise, a two-year program that provides high-level industry sponsorship to help experienced female filmmakers advance to the next stage in their career. "It's not just how you fill the pipeline, but how you move through the pipeline as well," WIF Los Angeles executive director Kirsten Schaffer tells THR of the program, which Hulu is co-sponsoring with a three-year commitment. Plenty of programs already exist that help underrepresented artists break into the business, but Rise was inspired by "looking at where the numbers are most egregious, and it makes the most sense to focus on women who've proven they have the talent and skill set to do bigger budget films and television shows."

Each woman in the inaugural cohort of eight has between five and 25 years of experience, and all have either completed at least one award-winning indie or directed major TV series. And yet, many are or are on their way to becoming among the 80 percent of female directors who only get one studio movie opportunity per decade. They were chosen from 175 filmmakers who had been recommended by ReFrame's industry-leader ambassadors and partner companies and invited to apply.

In their personal statements, the directors expressed frustration at not being able to make the next career leap — from directing episodes to helming pilots and creating series, from television to features, from indie to studio pictures — despite having amassed credits that would likely get a male counterpart meetings with high-level decision makers, instead of junior creative execs.

That's where the sponsorship comes in. Each director will be paired with three sponsors who include production company presidents, top filmmakers and award-winning producers including Paul Feig, A Star Is Born producer Lynette Howell Taylor and Michael De Luca — in other words, individuals with the clout to pick up the phone and get their directors into the right rooms with the right people. Unlike mentorship, which is about offering guidance behind the scenes, sponsors will be called on to be proactive and advocate on behalf of their Rise director. "Sponsorship is knowing someone's work well enough to recommend them. To say to a colleague, 'Have you considered so-and-so for this project?' " Schaffer says.

ReFrame is currently working to match Rise sponsors with the right director. Sponsors will be prepared to help steer a career in various ways according to their director's goals, which could include needs like, "I have a great TV agent but not yet a feature agent. Can you help me?" or "I don't know how to work my brand," suggests ReFrame director Alison Emilio.

Looking ahead, the ReFrame leadership anticipates expanding Rise to women in other traditionally underrepresented roles — such as cinematographers and composers — by incorporating lessons learned from the director-focused pilot. "Our goal is to move the numbers," Schaffer says. "The intervention will occur in those areas where the numbers are the lowest."

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ReFrame's First Class
Collectively, the eight directors (including Desiree Akhavan, above) have helmed some of the buzziest indie films and worked on top TV shows. 

TINA MABRY

The Mississippi Damned director got her TV break on Queen Sugar and also helmed Queen of the South and Pose.

SYDNEY FREELAND

The Navajo filmmaker helmed both 2014's Drunktown's Finest and 2017's Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.

PATRICIA CARDOSO

The Real Women Have Curves helmer's recent credits include episodes of Queen Sugar and Tales of the City.

ZETNA FUENTES

The prolific TV director has three Daytime Emmy noms and credits including The Deuce, Ray Donovan, The Chi and Jessica Jones.

MEERA MENON

Her 2013 film Farah Goes Bang won the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca, and she helmed the 2016 financial thriller Equity.

HANELLE CULPEPPER

With CBS All Access' upcoming Picard, she'll be the first woman to direct a Star Trek pilot in the franchise's 53-year history.

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR

The Saudi filmmaker's first feature, Wadjda, earned a Spirit nom; her follow-up Mary Shelley starred Elle Fanning.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.