lena dunham girlsDepending on who you ask, female directors are either stepping into the spotlight or struggling to get behind the camera. The reality is a little bit of both.

In January of this year, the Sundance Institute, together with Women in Film Los Angeles, released a study called “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Women Independent Filmmakers.” The results of the study, conducted by researchers from USC’s Annenberg School, were not pretty. According to the study, only 4.4 percent of the top 100 box office films released between 2002 to 2012 were directed by women. That’s pretty abysmal. Researchers found that women fared better in the indie world than inside the studio machine, even after the likes of Amy Pascal and Kathleen Kennedy speak out about the need to hire more women.

Until that happens, women directors will always have television.

Female directors have better luck landing TV gigs, although there is still progress to be made. The good news is that a record eight women are up for directing awards this year. In the category of Outstanding Directing For a Drama Series, Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad) and Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland) are competing against David Fincher (House of Cards), Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire), and Jeremy Webb (Downton Abbey).

jane campion camera 2On the comedy side, Beth McCarthy-Miller (30 Rock), Lena Dunham (Girls), and Gail Mancuso (Modern Family) face off against Paris Barclay (Glee), and Louis C.K. (Louie). If the nail in the coffin of the “women aren’t funny” argument need to be hit one final time—consider it done.

Jane Campion is nominated in the Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or Movie category for Top Of the Lake. Allison Anders joins her for Lifetime’s June Carter Cash biopic Ring of Fire. Rory Kennedy’s work on the HBO documentary Ethel nabbed her a nomination for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.

Despite this year’s Emmy love, the statistics regarding female directors are still not great. The Center for Study of Women in Television and Film found that during the 2011 – 2012 primetime season, only 11 percent of all television directors were women. A recent Los Angeles Times article stated that out last season’s 3,100 episodes of television, only 15 percent were directed by women (based on DGA data). Women go out for these jobs and are more than capable of excelling at them (as evidenced by this year’s nominations); still, numbers don’t lie. There needs to be a bigger push to even out the playing field.

ring of fire june carterAllison Anders had been working on a June Carter Cash film until Walk the Line came along. When Lifetime approached, she jumped at the chance to tell Cash’s story. Anders, who got her start in the indie world with films like Gas, Food, Lodging; Mi Vida Loca; and Grace of My Heart; has years of experience directing both features and television. “In the independent world people think of hiring women directors,” she says. “If it’s a genre film you have a better shot of breaking through. Are women considered for blockbusters? Probably not. Why don’t they ask Kathryn Bigelow who she would suggest? Women recommend other women.”

The Sundance/Women in Film study in January also found that women tend to push for other women. Anders has a point about the studio world. Kathryn Bigelow, an incredibly talented director, is often the only woman whose name gets tossed out for big budget studio fare. Why don’t Pascal and Kennedy ask Bigelow who she would recommend? There are plenty of capable women out there.

cagney laceyIn 1985, Karen Arthur was the first female director to take home an Emmy when she won Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for Cagney & Lacey. A few years later, Patricia Birch took the stage when she the Variety/Music category for Celebrating Gershwin. Women finally broke through in the comedy world in 1993, when Betty Thomas won for Dream On. While the number of nominations seems to be growing, the last time a female director took home an Emmy statue was in 2009, when Marina Zenovich won Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming for her documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.

It’s anyone’s guess who will win at this year’s Emmys, and when you speak to the women nominated, you get the sense that the thrill doesn’t simply come from their own nomination (though it definitely is a thrill); it comes from the fact that they’re nominated alongside so many fellow female colleagues.

Beth McCarthy-Miller cameraHaving cut her teeth on shows like Modern Family, Saturday Night Live, and The Mindy Project, Beth McCarthy-Miller earned her eighth Emmy nomination this year for directing 30 Rock’s “Hogcock!/Last Lunch.” She’s never really “felt that anti-lady thing” when it comes to getting work, but acknowledges that there is still a ways to go. “I’m hoping in another few years we’re not even talking about the female director issue,” she says. “That would be great. I think the DGA and the networks made a big push to get more women in and I think we’re seeing the rewards of it.”

Michelle MacLaren, who has directed episodes of hit dramas Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, is up for her third nomination for Breaking Bad. Lesli Linka Glatter, nominated for Homeland, has been recognized for her work on Mad Men in the past. These women are not directing little-seen dramas for obscure networks—they’re proving themselves time and again on some of the most beloved dramas in television history.

There is a distinct high that comes from collaborating
with other women to create ‘female’ moments
that have never been seen before.
-Lena Dunham

It’s been 20 years since a woman won in the comedy directing category (remember Betty Thomas, way back in 1993?), and it would be nice to see one of the nominated women walk up to the podium this year. Lena Dunham made history this February when she became the first woman to win Best TV Comedy Director at the DGA Awards. If she takes home the Emmy, she would be the youngest person to win in the comedy series directing category. Dunham recently said “there is a distinct high that comes from collaborating with other women to create ‘female’ moments that have never been seen before.”

It seems that all the female nominees—in both comedy and drama—would agree. Established female directors can help and support other women trying to break into the field, and hopefully change the statistics. Perhaps 40 percent, or 50 percent, or even 60 percent of television directors will be women in the next few years, rather than the current 11 percent.

Gail MancusoGail Mancuso, twice-nominated for directing Modern Family, says she never thought of herself as a female director. She simply thinks of herself as a director. Still, “if you look at the numbers it is pretty dismal, but I’m optimistic about the future,” she says. “I try to do my part as far as mentoring. I like to help. I’ve been very fortunate and I think it’s part of our job to help and mentor other people.”

How Mancuso broke into directing is inspiring. She was an assistant director on Roseanne when their regular director left to shoot a pilot. Mancuso mustered up her courage, walked up to Roseanne Barr, and told her she wanted to direct the episode. “She said, ‘Go ahead,’” Mancuso says in a pretty spot-on Barr impression. “I was nervous but ready. I’m still scared, and I still get butterflies but that’s part of the fun.” Years before Lean In, Mancuso got the guts to go for a job she wanted, despite having never directed an episode of television.

So what will Mancuso do if she walks off the Emmy stage holding a statue? “I would take such good care of that girl,” she jokes. “I would put the statue in the front seat of my car and I would put a seatbelt on it when I drove home.” In the meantime, she’s “drinking Coppola wine—Director’s Cut.”

Related Articles:
Emmy Stats: Lena Dunham & Seven Other Women Vie for their First Directing Award
Emmy Spotlight: Director Allison Anders on Staying Smart and Forging Ahead
Emmys: Back from the Dead – Evolution of the TV Movie and Miniseries
Emmy Spotlight: Finding Treasure with Antiques Roadshow EP Marsha Bemko
Emmy Spotlight: Sundance Pres. Sarah Barnett Talks Restless & Living in ‘What’s Next’

Dina Gachman

In addition to SSN Insider, Dina Gachman's writing has appeared in Forbes, Bustle, The Hairpin, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her first book, BROKENOMICS, will be published by Seal Press this April. You can find her on Twitter @TheElf26.

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