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Lucasfilm needs a farm system for female directors

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As we gear up for the release of Rogue One in the coming weeks, we are seeing the second new Star Wars film since Lucas’ retirement, Kennedy’s ascension, and Disney’s purchase (and the second film starring a strong female lead actor in the lead role). Questions once again are being raised as to when we will see a strong female lead not just in front of the camera but behind it as well.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Mia Galuppo and Heat Vision’s Graeme McMillan discussed the issue in-depth recently in a piece entitled, “Why Hasn’t ‘Star Wars’ Hired a Female Director?” This is also an issue that Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy discussed recently in an interview with Variety;

“We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do “Star Wars,” they’re set up for success,” says Kennedy. “They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience.”

Kennedy says that because there haven’t been many opportunities for women to direct big movies, the Lucasfilm team is trying to identify talented helmers at the early stages of their careers. “We want to really start to focus in on people we would love to work with and see what kinds of things they’re doing to progress up that ladder now, and then pull them in when the time is right.”

What we have seen from Lucasfilm so far in the directors department for their released and announced Star Wars projects:

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12/18/15) J.J. Abrams
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12/16/16) Garreth Edwards
  • Star Wars: Episode VIII (12/15/17) Rian Johnson
  • Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Story (5/25/18) Phil Lord and Chris Miller
  • Star Wars Episode IX (2019) Colin Trevorrow
  • Untitled Boba Fett Star Wars Story (Postponed/Indefinitely) Formerly Josh Trank

Directors have been picked for six films and zero of those directors are females, a rather uninspiring .000 batting average. Now this is still a limited sample size, but it is indicative of a widespread issue in Hollywood. The number of female directors working on large studio films is minimal. There are a number of ways that you could look at it but just as a data point I decided to look at the top 50 films so far of 2016 based on domestic box office. I used the data available at Box Office Mojo and of the top 50 films (including both live-action and animation) so far this year only THREE of them have female directors. They are #14 Kung Fu Panda 3 with a gross of $143,528,619 and co-directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, #46 Miracles from Heaven with a gross of $61,705,123 and director Patricia Riggen, and #50 Me Before You with a gross of $56,245,075 and director Thea Sharrock.

This is a problem that we know Kathleen Kennedy is well aware of and concerned about. She had some terrific insight in another interview with Variety in 2015:

Kennedy also hit on the declining number of women in positions of power in Hollywood.

“In a weird way, a few years ago there were more,” Kennedy noted. “The numbers never climb significantly but more women were running studios than there are today.”

The Lucasfilm President said that while there were “complicated” reasons for the lack of female execs and content creators, there needs to be more focus on nurturing talent.

“It’s a lot to do with opportunity and there has to be a concerted effort to create the opportunity,” Kennedy said. “We need to not go to a filmmaker who’s done one movie and expect them to come in and do something the size of ‘Star Wars’ without having an opportunity to find other movies they can do along the way.”…

Kennedy also revealed that six out of eight of the people involved in developing the film were women and that 50% of her executive team is female.

“Having a balance of men and women in the room changes the story,” she said. “The dialogue, the point of view.”

We also know that Lucasfilm is one of the more progressive companies in Hollywood (well, San Francisco, but you know what I mean), employing female leaders throughout the company in all departments. As an example just check out Lucasfilm’s website and you will notice that of the 19 individuals listed as top executives in the company, nine of them are female.

At present the general practice in Hollywood seems to be to wait for female directors to bubble up from television or from the independent or small budget film scene and occasionally give them a crack at a mid-budget film.

This seems to be the approach that Kennedy is taking with female directors given her comments at a recent Rogue One Press conference. Screen Crush’s Erin Whitney asked and received the following answers.

Whitney: The Star Wars films have done a lot for female characters and female heroes, but the movies have yet to have a female director. You recently said that a woman who has no experience with blockbusters wasn’t suitable to direct a star wars movie, however multiple male directors have had that opportunity. So why is it different for women and —

Kennedy: That’s not true. This gentleman [points to Gareth] did Godzilla before we hired him to direct the movie. And that quote was taken out of context. And I, as you can imagine, have every intention of giving somebody an opportunity. So, if somebody actually moves through the process of making movies and wants to make a Star Wars movie, and shows that they have actually stepped into the role on that level, of course we’re going to consider a woman. That goes without saying.

Whitney: Can you name any female directors that you think have potential to direct a Star Wars movie?

Kennedy: There are many. And I’ve talked to most of them. There are many out there.

Now I don’t work in the entertainment industry and I am not an expert in the development or selection of directors but it strikes me that the way things work now is very similar to the worst-run of sports baseball franchises, so I hope you will pardon this analogy. If your goal as a baseball executive is short-term gain (i.e. attempting to get into the playoffs in a particular year you can make moves to improve your team either via expensive trades or veteran free agent signings that can help you significantly in the short-term) but do little to help your team long-term, you can even hamper your team long-term. In some ways plucking the occasional female director for a big studio film is similar to this practice–you may get that one director for that certain film you wanted (say a Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel) but where is the female director in your next four or five films?

A well-run baseball team builds through the draft, developing its talent from short-season ball to A-ball, then AA and AAA, then some call-ups to the majors until those players prove they deserve a spot on the 25-man roster.

In my view what Lucasfilm needs is a farm system to develop female directors, or in this case maybe a Moisture Farm System.

The Directors Guild of America has a program that takes a limited number of applicants on as Second Assistant Directors for hands-on and paid training including health benefits.

Disney itself has a director’s program on its television side, the Disney|ABC Directing Program which has been going since 2001, but that program has some rather obvious problems.

The two-year professional directing program, which spans two television seasons based upon ABC’s production calendar, recruits experienced directors on the cusp of making the transition into episodic directing. The primary goal of this program is to afford Program Directors access to develop relationships with DATG executives and productions. Those selected to participate in the program become part of the Disney | ABC Directing Program directing talent pool. DATG executives, executive producers and/or producing episodic directors select individuals to shadow on an episode or episodes of produced television. Shadowing assignments are not guaranteed; however, if an assignment is secured, the program director will shadow production and shooting. Observing post-production is solely at the discretion of producers. Drama assignments typically run three or more weeks, and comedy assignments usually run one to two weeks. Directors on shadowing assignments will receive a paid stipend in the amount of $950.00 per week when actively shadowing on any aspect of a production. The duration of an individual’s participation is at the discretion of DATG executives, executive producers and/or episodic directors.

So the primary goal is to develop relationships, not talented directors? That seems misguided. The non-guarantee of work and pay is also a huge problem if you want to attract folks, especially given the cost of living in Los Angeles.

So what should Lucasfilm do?

In an ideal world Lucasfilm would set up its own Moisture Farm System for directors that builds internally from folks in various production roles who want to step up towards the goal of being film and television directors. By focusing on current employees you can ameliorate some of the guaranteed work/pay/benefits problems that seem to plague ABC’s program by splitting time between current production roles and program training. A likely necessary component would be allowing employees within the program to take a limited number of sabbaticals to work on micro-budget or low-budget films for set periods of time to garner further experience.

Of course herein lies the problem. Lucasfilm is not churning out enough film and live-action television content to stock the system with talent and have work for them to get experience and build their skills as directors.

The only proactive solution that I can envision is for Iger to allow Lucasfilm to run point on a program that would be Disney company-wide and cover both film and television production. There would need to be guaranteed work, salary and benefits for participants, and participants should only be terminated or reassigned by the program administrators.

Whether the program is a shadowing program, a lower level position, or a hybrid of both is something that someone more familiar with production and union rules would need to figure out.

This would be a financial loss in the short-term for Disney, as there is no way to get this type of program up and running on the scale necessary to reach the goals Kennedy and others would have without willing to operate this program in the red, at least initially.

There are no easy or quick fixes for the lack of female directors in Hollywood. The only way to change that is for a major studio or group of studios to join together and proactively work to promote that goal. Sounds just like something the Rebels at Lucasfilm would be good at.

A contributor to MakingStarWars.net, Pete is also the co-host of the Rebels Report Podcast and editor of RebelsReport.com. Pete has a midi-chlorian count roughly equivalent to Tallisibeth Enwandung-Esterhazy.