Ryan Murphy's American Equality Story: The Showrunner's TV Directors Are More Than 50 Percent Female Now

Ryan Murphy's American Equality Story - Photographed by Joe Pugliese - H 2016
Photographed by Joe Pugliese

The 'American Horror Story' creator will receive THR's inaugural Equity in Entertainment Award at the Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast for his 10-month-old Half foundation.

Ryan Murphy knows what it's like to feel like an outsider. In 1999, when the first season of his TV debut Popular aired on the WB, the lack of diversity behind the scenes stunned him. "I walked onto the set, and it was all straight white dudes in their 50s," recalls Murphy, now 51 himself — but back then a gay white dude in his 30s. "I remember feeling like a stranger in a strange land, and it was my own show."

There may have been an evolution since the days when all showrunners looked like Steven Bochco and David Milch, but the changes have not been reflected in the director's chair. Says Murphy, who is THR's inaugural Equity in Entertainment Award honoree: "When you see who men choose to mentor, for the most part it's people who look like them — but 2 inches shorter and 20 years younger." After hearing former publicist Nanci Ryder speak at THR's 2015 Women in Entertainment breakfast, Murphy realized that he was in a position to make a dramatic impact on that front, and in February, he launched Half. The foundation mentors TV newcomers who are women, people of color and/or members of the LGBTQ community toward occupying at least 50 percent of the directing slots on his sprawling roster of series: American Crime Story, American Horror Story, Scream Queens and the upcoming Feud.

Ten months later, having gotten the green light from his boss, Fox Television Group chief Dana Walden, Murphy has more than delivered on his promise, with 60 percent of his directing gigs going to women, dwarfing the industry standard: a paltry 17 percent. "He's already surpassed his own targets," says Walden. "This past season, the majority of episodes on all three of his shows — and, in the case of Feud, all of the episodes — were helmed by female or diverse directors."

Outside the foundation, Murphy has boosted inclusivity across the board. "I sat down with every department head on every show that I make and said, 'You need to hire 50 percent women when you can,' " he says. "If you don't have them, like the grip department, train them."

There are luminaries in the mix as well. Jamie Lee Curtis, star of Fox's Scream Queens, had directed only once prior to her turn behind the camera on the show. "The discovery, for me, is that I'm a director and have been my whole life," says Curtis, a zealous photographer. "I have a movie in development at Paramount, at Amazon, and I will now say, 'Why don't I direct it?' instead of 'Who are we going to have direct it?' "

Angela Bassett, the Oscar-nominated actress who's been part of Murphy's repertory company since 2013's American Horror Story: Coven, previously directed 2015 Lifetime telepic Whitney — but says offers did not roll in until she tackled a recent episode of AHS: Roanoke. "You wonder when the next opportunity will come," says Bassett, who hesitated when Murphy asked her to take a stab at AHS. "I'm not like Ryan, I'm more of a two-item juggler," she says with a self-deprecating laugh. But the experience changed her outlook. "I'm still an actor for hire, but now it's about taking meetings to let people know I'm just as excited about directing."

But it's the up-and-comers who've seen the most dramatic change. "I thought I would have been able to move into TV much sooner," says director Maggie Kiley, a Half participant whose first TV job was a Scream Queens episode after she helmed (and sold) three indie features with such stars as Allison Janney, Jesse Eisenberg and William H. Macy. "I'd shadowed other directors on series — but nothing. This program is so unique because there's Ryan, willing to hand you an episode because he believes in you." Adds Alexis Korycinski, who tackled a gruesome episode of Roanoke: "What's tricky is, it's taking a really targeted approach to force us in. I think it will take a few years of mandating this before all shows are pulling from a big pool of women and men." Others are taking similar measures. 

Each episode of Ava DuVernay's OWN drama Queen Sugar has been directed by a woman, and Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg recently announced the second season of her Netflix drama will do the same. The challenge now is communicating these opportunities to people who feel the door is closed to them. "I'm mounting a college tour to speak to women and people of color in 2017," says Murphy, who also is launching a thus-far self-financed scholarship to get aspiring directors into film school. "What I'm trying to do is reach out to people and say, 'We need your stories.' "

This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.