Whites, Camera, Action: How Can Hollywood Unions Promote Diversity?

Whites, Camera, Action: How Can Hollywood Unions Promote Diversity?
Illustration by Tim Gabor

For years, Maria Giese has been stirring up trouble at the Directors Guild of America. Unapologetically outspoken, the seasoned director has long insisted that something untoward has been happening behind the doors of the venerable Hollywood union.

In regard to disrupting the status quo that perpetuates Hollywood's lack of diversity, she says of the union: "They don't want change to happen."

Giese has long been at the forefront of advocating for diversity in Hollywood films — in front of and behind the camera. Last year, her broader complaint about Hollywood's exclusion of women and minorities was validated; after she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013, she learned that the organization would issue a letter to major studios requesting action on the question of gender parity.

The ACLU's involvement calls public attention to gender discrimination in the film industry, Giese says, "and creates a foundation for change."

What has remained unclear, though, is the role that the DGA — as well as the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — can and should play in promoting the interests of their members of color and female members.

For a labor union, promoting diversity can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, advocating for one group of members could be interpreted as advocating against another group. On the other hand, says director Victoria Hochberg, "When you have an entire class of members who aren't working, that's a problem that the union needs to address."

For unions such as the DGA, WGA and SAG-AFTRA, though, one of the biggest roadblocks to pushing for diversity is the party sitting across from them at the negotiating table. Unlike most American labor unions, the film industry's guilds represent workers who do not have contracts, salaries or much protection under the law; independent contractors typically are not protected under Title 7, which bars workplace discrimination.

Plus, the level of competition in film is unusually high; many working in the industry — and involved in the guilds — toiled for decades to realize their dreams and are protective of their opportunities.

As a result, film and TV executives wield an inordinate amount of power. To force any element of change, unions would need to take drastic measures.

However, the DGA has attempted in the past to take action to advance diversity. In the early 1980s, the DGA's then-president was approached by a group of six women who had discovered that only 0.5 percent of Hollywood directing jobs were going to females. The guild, outraged by the finding, sued Hollywood studios.

Hochberg — who has since won two Emmys and two DGA Awards, despite the odds against her — was one of those six women. She says the DGA of today doesn't seem able to act in a similar way.

"They won't sue, because I believe they don't think it's possible to sue," she says.

In the absence of any other formal organization that is willing to aggressively push for more diversity, it's up to Hollywood to police itself. Unsurprisingly, it's failing to do so.

In 2014, just 1.9 percent of top-grossing Hollywood films were directed by women, and only 4.7 percent had black directors at the helm, according to research by Stacy Smith at the University of Southern California.

Union membership rosters reflect the same underrepresentation: Much like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, whose members continue to choose mostly white and male Oscar winners, the WGA and the DGA are heavily white and heavily male.

Because the role of a union is to promote the interests of all its members, things become muddled when one demographic can lock down Hollywood's most coveted jobs at a far higher rate than any other.

"It is tricky in terms of what the union can do," says Adam Moore, the national director of diversity at the Screen Actors Guild. "We represent 160,000 members. What we're looking to do, for all our members, is make sure everyone has equal opportunity to compete for a job. We're not advocating for the hiring of one of our performers over another. We're not advocating for one group over another."

Things become even more muddled when, in the viciously competitive film industry, those in the unions' top ranks are vying for the same independent contracting jobs as the members whose interests they're charged with protecting.

With Hollywood buzzing over the industry's persistent failure to let talented women and people of color rise, Hochberg says the guild — the only entity ostensibly responsible for ensuring the fair treatment of film directors — is in a compromised position.

"The [DGA] doesn't hire people," she points out. The organization can only advocate on behalf of its members, but those members, like the rest of the power players in Hollywood, are predominantly white men. If the DGA advocates for a minority of directors, "Can the guild then be accused of representing only a portion of their membership?" Hochberg asks. "That's a sticky one."

The DGA declined to comment for this story. The WGA did not respond to the Weekly's requests for an interview.

The DGA, WGA and SAG-AFTRA do, however, negotiate basic contracts with the studios and other companies that employ their members. Most of those agreements have weak diversity clauses and little apparent accountability.

The Writers Guild's basic contract, for instance, states that the plan for increasing diversity "is temporary [...] is not intended to maintain a racial balance, is not intended to require the employment of any particular person or person of any particular race or national origin for any particular employment opportunity, but is simply designed to create training and employment opportunities for persons of all protected groups."

The WGA agreement states further that the document's diversity clauses are not "subject to arbitration," meaning that companies can't be penalized by the guild for failing to hire women or people of color. In other words, these diversity requirements appear to amount to little more than suggestions.

These creative guilds spend more time in the spotlight than the labor unions representing Hollywood's so-called "noncreative workers" — including grips, sound editors and transportation workers. These more middle-class unions are an important entry point for good jobs, the ones politicians point to when they're giving tax breaks to the industry.

Noncreative workers mostly are represented by IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. IATSE's members include art directors, costume designers, make-up artists and hairstylists, studio lighting technicians and set painters. Interestingly, the middle-class unions and other "below-the-line" guilds, such as the Animation Guild and Motion Picture Editors Guild, do not even keep track of their diversity numbers.

But with Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee boycotting the Oscars, and stars including Viola Davis, Heather Graham, Shonda Rhimes, Jack Black, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Lawrence and Chloë Grace Moretz slamming Hollywood's white male culture for clinging to a world gone by, those in power soon may be unable to ignore the critics.

"The DGA needs to take steps to broaden the pool," Giese says. Otherwise, the status quo of who is portrayed onscreen — and in what manner — will remain.

Speaking to Elle magazine, actor Viola Davis recently commented that thanks to mainstream Hollywood standards, "We've been fed a whole slew of lies about women.

"If you are anywhere above a size two, you're not having sex," Davis added. "You don't have sexual thoughts. You may not even have a vagina. And if you're of a certain age, you're off the table.''

Will Smith will boycott the Oscars, whose acting nominees this year are all white.
Will Smith will boycott the Oscars, whose acting nominees this year are all white.
Photo by Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

In explaining his decision to boycott the Oscars, whose acting nominees this year are all white, actor Will Smith told Good Morning America, "The nominations reflect the academy. The academy reflects the industry [Hollywood] and then the industry reflects America. ... There is a regressive slide toward separatism, toward racial and religious disharmony, and that's not the Hollywood that I want to leave behind.

"It's a systematic bias," the actor added, "that needs to be addressed across the industry."

Long-standing rules for membership to the three big creative unions work like this: Those vying for entry must accumulate a certain amount of work in their desired field — acting, writing or directing. That work typically must be done for one or more companies with whom the guild has an agreement, companies known as "signatories." All major film studios and TV networks are signatories, as are dozens of other lesser-known companies.

To elbow his or her way into the Writers Guild of America, for instance, a writer must complete 24 "units" of work that are accrued in different ways, depending on the type of work. Steady writing work on a week-to-week basis with a guild signatory accrues two units, for example, while a completed screenplay for a guild signatory accrues the full 24 in one fell swoop.

The ways in which writers land these highly coveted jobs vary but often involve connections, chance or timing. Writer Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect, New Girl, 30 Rock) stumbled upon her first union job with the help of a particularly well-connected friend.

"I started writing when I was trying to be an actor," she says, "and I happened to be friends with Tina Fey, who happened to have her show 30 Rock coming out. So Tina, who happens to be a mentor to me, gave me my slot and hired me."

Cannon is now paying it forward: As the head of her own still-under-wraps show, she's seeking talented writers whether or not they have representation or even lengthy résumés. She's taking on, as a force of one, the unspoken Hollywood rule that connections are key. "I've been going to agents and going to [comedy] shows [to look] for people who might not have an agent," she says.

The majority of her hires so far? Women. "I have to stress, these are not just 'funny women,'?" Cannon says. "These are writers who are funny, who happen to be women."

In seeking out talent, Cannon says, she "would never have thought to go through the union. I feel like the guilds are, just to be frank, people I pay money to. [I would go to them] only if something really egregious happens."

Talent manager Kris Koller agrees.

"Typically, the times that [my] clients deal with the unions is when they have actually procured work," he says, referring mostly to actors on his own roster. "To speak to what the unions do for their members, it's mostly protection. They are trying to make sure that their members aren't being taken advantage of by productions.

"I feel like, in the actual process of getting work," Koller adds, Hollywood's unions "don't appreciably do anything for or against members."

This mentality sets Hollywood unions apart from most unions in America. In a recent statement about racial and economic justice, the AFL-CIO wrote, "If we are to succeed as a movement, the full range of working people's voices must be heard in the internal processes of our movement." By contrast, Hollywood unions focus primarily on minimum salaries, residuals and creative control.

"If you're a carpenter and you're out of work, you put yourself on a list, and when people need carpenters, they call the union," says director Rachel Feldman (Lizzy McGuire, Picket Fences, Doogie Howser, M.D.). "Our guilds don't work like that. They're basically there to protect you financially.

"They do have a purpose," Feldman adds, "not to mention health benefits, not to mention pension. It's something I'm going to be able to depend upon in my dotage."

In the past, Hollywood's big-name unions took a more active role in advocating for diversity. The union with the worst diversity numbers, the Directors Guild, has the most contentious past — and present — reputation when it comes to advocating to bring in talented women and minorities.

It's been a problem within the guild for decades, culminating in the crisis in the early 1980s when the six women approached then–DGA president Michael Franklin.

Franklin "saw that the members were not being fairly advocated for or represented, because they were not working," Hochberg says. Franklin and the rest of the DGA's board members set up meetings and networking events, and when qualified women still couldn't get past the directing barrier, they agreed to sue studios on behalf of the women.

There was just one problem: "Ten years earlier, during the civil rights movement, [DGA members of color] had asked the guild to do something similar, and the guild refused," Hochberg says. Nonwhite directors, she says, "were rightly upset."

The board's lawsuit went forward a year later, this time including both women and minorities. The suit was thrown out by a judge in 1985, though, who found that the DGA was not the harmed party but the party doing the harming. The upper echelons of the DGA were populated, the judge said, primarily by people in a position to hire others in the guild.

"The DGA was not a proper litigant," Hochberg says, "because they include within that organization people who discriminate."

Director Maria Giese has long been at the forefront of advocating for diversity in Hollywood films — in front of and behind the camera.
Director Maria Giese has long been at the forefront of advocating for diversity in Hollywood films — in front of and behind the camera.
Photo by Danny Liao

For the next 10 years, however, the numbers of female directors grew — only to all but collapse by 2014. During that time, government discrimination laws changed as well, to the point that statistics alone were not enough to prove discrimination.

"You have to show intent," Hochberg says. "You have to show an email that says, 'Let's not hire those women.' Nobody's going to write that email. And before emails, no one was going to say it."

Today, there's no clear way for women and minorities to break in. It's up to those on the inside to proactively pull them in. But Hollywood is in full resistance. As the Weekly reported last year, women hold fewer leadership roles in Hollywood today than in such heavily male pursuits as the U.S. military or high-tech fields.

Some accuse current DGA president Paris Barclay (Scandal, Empire, Sons of Anarchy), who is black, of refusing to open doors for women and of inflaming long-brewing tension between guild members representing people of color and members representing women.

The guild denies this charge on its website: "There is a misperception that DGA contracts allow studios to fulfill all their 'diversity obligations' by hiring minority males. This is not true."

In their basic agreements with signatories, both the WGA and the DGA outline steps that the signatory must take to ensure diverse hiring. The DGA agreement includes the following steps: development programs for underrepresented television directors; regular diversity meetings between signatories and the guild; and reports to indicate how well these regulations are working.

"The Employer shall work diligently and make good-faith efforts to increase the number of working racial and ethnic minority and women Directors," the DGA contract reads. If signatories don't comply with the agreed-upon regulations, they face fines of up to $12,500. Those agreements were long-fought, according to the DGA, and were only agreed to by the TV networks in 2014.

In a startling exception, film productions — the very productions in which women and people of color are most underrepresented as directors — are exempt from these requirements.

"It is understood that any alleged breach involving Directors of theatrical motion pictures shall not be subject to any grievance and arbitration procedure," the agreement reads.

Similarly, the basic agreement between the WGA and its signatories states that signatories are not subject to penalties if they fall out of compliance with diversity expectations.

Again, the precedent for immediate action on the part of the guild exists. When women began advocating for change in the DGA 35 years ago, guild representatives promptly instituted a "set-aside," which mandated that a certain number of TV shows be set aside to be directed by women.

The fact that today's guilds are less prone to act against powerful studios and networks contributes to a dearth of film and TV roles for women and people of color.

"We encourage diversity, of course, but it's not what you are, it's what you can play," Moore, of SAG-AFTRA, says. Actors are not supposed to be hired because of "age, race or gender identity," he adds. "It's supposed to be, 'Can I convincingly play this role?'?"

SAG-AFTRA does not have numerical quotas for diversity, Moore says, nor do the WGA or DGA at this point in time. But the actors union does encourage networks and studios to use language in their casting calls that could be interpreted broadly: For example, a desired character might not have a race or even a gender specified.

The hope, Moore says, is that by not specifying these characteristics, the industry will begin to see the potential for casting a wide array of actors. Just because "it doesn't say a particular gender or race," he says, "doesn't mean they can't do it."

Moore says he feels that roles are slowly improving for women, particularly on television.

"I think there are more and better jobs for women than there have been in a long time," he says. "But it's different on big studio films versus streaming versus network." With big studios, he says, the inclination is to cast women as "the young mom, and then we don't see you again until you're a grandma."

But for Hochberg, who has seen the DGA — and, by proxy, much of the rest of the industry — fail to change in 35 years, the stalemate is "heartbreaking."

"There is a kind of global paralysis here in the film industry," she says. "There's an interlocking system, and one thread of that tapestry cannot be altered without all the others working together. I don't think one part of that structure can be changed unless it's all changed at the same time."

Moore says the film industry, which is far behind other American endeavors in embracing diversity, is in a unique position to speak globally. "We have a responsibility to reflect the world around us," he says. "What we create here means something here and around the world."

Yet as Hochberg notes, the stories we do see onscreen — repeatedly, stories created by, about and for white men and boys — are told by such a small pool of filmmakers that the awards shows will necessarily reflect the industry's fairly extreme distortions.

"At some point," she says, "I'd love to see some white guy getting up for Best Director. He gets up, and he pulls a Marlon Brando. He says, 'I'm not the best, I'm the best of a portion of the people who really are qualified to do this work ... and therefore I'm not going to accept this Emmy or this Oscar until the playing field is level. Because this is not true. I'm not the best.'

"Well, I think I'm dreaming to hope for that," Hochberg admits. "But wouldn't it be fun if that happened?"


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