Inside the Secret Project to Boost Behind-the-Scenes Jobs for Women in Hollywood

12/12/2019 by Stephanie Theobald

A dedicated agency, a new pool of female tech talent created with Shondaland and even a self-help book are turning the tide: “I still hear — from both genders — about women not having enough strength.”

When Zoe Lister-Jones talks about her “crazy utopian dream,” the Life in Pieces star is not referring to the ideal of 50 percent female representation among film directors. The actor-filmmaker, who just wrapped a remake of The Craft, is referring to the lack of women on below-the-line crews — in lighting, sound, electrics, camera or even transport — something that even a cursory glance at any closing credits makes abundantly clear.

Lister-Jones made headlines in 2017 for her directorial debut, Band Aid, with a crew made up entirely of women. This year, she wrote and directed Woman Up, an ABC comedy pilot using “approximately 75 percent women department heads.” She also brought to The Craft several of Band Aid‘s female department heads, including in cinematography, editing, production design and art direction. “There’s still not enough awareness around below-the-line women in non-traditional roles,” she says.

Lori Dovi, a union sound mixer for 25 years (Suicide Squad, A Single Man) founded International Women Working in Film last year to create “a safe space” to help women find work. She applauds WarnerMedia’s new Diversity and Inclusion Interim report, which shows women making up 23 percent of “behind the camera” jobs on scripted shows in 2018 and 24 percent in film but is dubious of what’s included in those numbers. “The head count of women on set is often kept up by hiring women in traditional roles: script supervisor, hair and makeup, costume, production secretaries,” notes Dovi.

Figures published by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative this year indicate that of the 266 directors of photography in top-grossing movies from 2016 to 2018, 258 were male and eight female. Of 534 camera operators, 529 were men. Of the 276 key grips who supervise lighting and rigging, 272 were men. And of 281 gaffer jobs, not one was filled by a woman across three years. Only 7 percent of the 2,005 members of the Hollywood sound union (IATSE Local 695) are women.

Lulu Elliott, founder of U.K.-based Reel Angels, the world’s only agency to represent female crews in camera, sound and lighting, says, “I still hear attitudes about women not being good at tech or that they don’t have enough strength. But this is work about stamina and technique.” She adds, “I personally have seen gender bias from both genders.”

Seasoned DP Nancy Schreiber (Mapplethorpe) believes one solution is to hire more female department heads and for those heads to pay it forward. This year, she worked on Starz’s P-Valley: “All the directors were women, and I made it my business to diversify the crew — because I could. My camera department had more women than men.” As a DP, Schreiber also oversees the grip and electric department: “Peyton Brown, the daughter of my key grip, Ray Brown, was a grip, and she was amazing. Then I kind of bugged the gaffer about having some women because he didn’t have any at the beginning. So he called around, and one women, Ellie Evans, has now become a right-hand electrician to him.”

While Lister-Jones says tactfully that outside of the indie world, “scope and scale starts to intimidate those making the hiring decisions,” the tide seems to be slowly turning. Elliott adds that male allies are starting to step up. This year, Ben Davis, DP for Captain Marvel and Marvel’s The Eternals, took on from Reel Angels Svetlana Miko and Agnieszka Szeliga as “C” camera operators without having worked with them before. Says Elliott: “Ben says he recognizes he’s got a position of power and he needs to take more responsibility. People need to start taking risks, take a day to try out a new person. It’s not that hard.”

Melanie Ragone, who has survived in the “old boys’ club” of the grip world for eight years (Walking Dead, Captain America, Hunger Games), is on a mission to spread the word to women about her job: “If you like to fix things, take things apart and put them back together, then you’d be a good grip.” Next year, she’s self-publishing Film Crew Field Guide for Women, a “B.S.-free advice book for women trying to break into below-the-line film and TV jobs.” She believes it’s time to bring in fresh ideas: “I’ve worked with some key grips and I’m like, Really? They stick with the same formula.”

Veteran DP Schreiber has learned to stay optimistic. She has just finished working with a mainly female crew on a secret project for a new organization for below-the-line women, the Women’s Production Group. The enterprise was created by Shondaland head of production Sara Fischer, Paramount TV head of physical production Debra Bergman and Fox executive vp feature production Dana Belcastro in collaboration with Time’s Up Entertainment.

Ngoc Nguyen, interim executive director of Time’s Up, confirms that this “exciting joint project” will be out in the spring and will “shine a light on the existing pool of talented women in production” as well as “promoting career pathways for women new to the industry.”

This story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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