What Female Directors Are Telling the EEOC: "Very Sad, Disappointing, Criminal Details"

Female Application Shredder Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: Kevin Davis

Female Application Shredder Illo - H 2015

Filmmakers break their silence on the Feds' growing investigation of Hollywood hiring practices.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On the afternoon of Nov. 4, Catherine Hardwicke trekked to the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, laptop in tow, to offer testimony for a federal investigation into the lack of female film and television directors. The Twilight and Thirteen helmer had not received a letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as about 50 women have this year. She appeared voluntarily.

"When I read about it, I reached out because I want to be involved in the change," explains Hardwicke. "This is a historic moment, and we cannot let this slip away. We've got to inspire people to be on the right side of history, to make a change."

Despite spending about three hours with federal investigators, during which she described in detail how she lost out on studio directing gigs to male rivals, Hardwicke says she only got about halfway through her story and will return for a second round with lead investigator Marla Stern-Knowlton and her team of agents later in November.

"Why is my testimony so long? Because I have some very sad, disappointing, criminal details of slander and libelous and untrue statements that have been made about myself and other women," says Hardwicke. The EEOC is hoping that she is one of many women who step forward in the investigation, which insiders acknowledge is a difficult one because of the secretive nature of Hollywood and the difficulty of proving discrimination in a creative industry governed by subjective choices. In fact, the federal agency tasked with administering and enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination has set up a system so that female directors can report anonymously their own experiences of gender bias without fear of retribution.

"Traditionally, the problem has been that women are scared of getting blacklisted," says director Maria Giese (When Saturday Comes), the first woman to offer testimony to the EEOC. "But now, it can be totally anonymous, which makes it a whole new landscape. More women are becoming emboldened to go in."

More than 30 women have come forward to the EEOC so far, according to sources close to the investigation. Several who have taken part in questioning tell THR that the inquiring has been extremely detailed and thorough. Investigators are breaking down each step in the hiring process: How does an open director assignment typically get narrowed down at a studio? How did the field tighten in a specific case? What was the studio's rationale for hiring the male director for a specific movie instead of the female? Based on the initial testimony, the EEOC then can subpoena those who played a role in a case of possible discrimination and force them to testify.

"Ours is such a complex ecosystem," says Hardwicke. "There are so many layers between the agency, the producer, the studio heads, distribution. But I've never seen so thorough [an investigation]. They were trying to really understand what's going on and all the nuances."

Hardwicke brought her laptop to offer email evidence of the kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle gender bias she has endured at a swath of studios. Ironically, she didn't discuss with investigators Twilight, a franchise that often is cited as the highest-profile example of a woman directing a big hit and then not being asked back for the sequel. "I didn't love the second Twilight book as much as I loved the first," she says. "I was never fired from Twilight." Still, there has been plenty of other fodder for the probe, she says, but she declines to name the studios that have been egregious.

"My goal is not to incriminate anybody," she says. "I think that all of these issues that have happened to me and to other women, part of them are this unconscious gender bias. I don't want to blame anybody. I want the same exact people to change and be part of the change and lead the change."

Indeed, the hiring numbers are alarming. According to a recent Sundance Film Institute/Women in Film study conducted by Stacy Smith at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, of the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of directors were female. A DGA study published in September found that 82 percent of all first-time episodic television directors during a six-year span ending in 2015 were male, a statistic that speaks to the challenges of securing the ever-important first credit.

Barbara Schock, chair of New York University's graduate film program, says something is happening between the classroom, which has been gender-balanced at NYU for years, and that first big job. "There is absolutely no difference in directing ability or talent between our male and female students," says Schock, who plans to testify to the EEOC. "Producers and companies just need to get with the program and make it a company mandate to hire 50 percent women on every show/slate."

In the past, the EEOC only could sue on behalf of individuals in cases between employer and employee when the discrimination had happened in the past 12 months and there was so-called smoking-gun evidence (such as an email exchange between a studio executive and an agent saying something akin to a female director wouldn't be considered for a big tentpole movie). But now, if an investigation demonstrates a pattern of discrimination, the EEOC will be able to launch an industrywide class-action lawsuit. Penalties could include mandated hiring quotas or even financial sanctions. In a statement to THR, the EEOC says "it would be inappropriate to comment on any potential or ongoing enforcement actions."

The EEOC effort stems from similar work over the past few years by the American Civil Liberties Union, which gathered stories of females in Hollywood subjected to gender bias. Women who received initial EEOC letters are, by and large, the same as those who were involved with the ACLU, including Giese and Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans).

Giese, who spent four hours with Stern-Knowlton during her session, says the EEOC agents are asking women to refer friends, which could increase overall participation. But results will be slow. Giese estimates a minimum of five years, given that after the roughly one-year investigation, it would take another year to prepare a class action case and then a few years in court.

Says the EEOC rep, "We also encourage the industry to publicly address the serious issues raised by the ACLU [in the anecdotes collected] and to take proactive steps to address these issues."

Hardwicke, for one, agrees with that sentiment: "I want it to be that in one year, we don't have to have this conversation anymore because every agency, every studio, every network takes a pledge that they're going to achieve gender parity."