Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Writer, actor, and director Issa Rae participates in the panel for the HBO series "Insecure" at the HBO Television Critics Association summer press tour on July 30, 2016, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Beyond Oscars' glare, a glimpse of women on the rise

The Oscars are embracing diversity this year. The gains for women in cinema and TV are hard fought – and just gaining momentum.

Sujata Day’s Hollywood career was transformed by a tweet.

It was 2011 – Twitter’s early years – and she had spotted a call online for auditions for a new web series. Ms. Day, frustrated after four years of commercials and bit parts that often caricatured her Indian American heritage, jumped at the chance.

Within a week, Day had nabbed the role of CeCe, best friend and sidekick of the lead character in “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” a YouTube comedy short. A month later, she was on set with Issa Rae, who starred in, wrote, produced, and directed the show. By 2012, the series had won a Shorty Award and drawn support from players like star singer Pharrell Williams.

“What a web series can do in terms of visibility, especially for women of color – it’s really amazing,” Day says. “It changed my life.”

Day’s experience demonstrates how indispensable the Internet has become for diversity in Hollywood.

The Academy Awards Sunday night will again drive a discourse about the value of diversity both on- and off-screen as well as in society. And while the Oscars made conspicuous headway this year in addressing the ethnic and racial homogeneity of their nominees, less clear has been the progress made in promoting women at all levels of cinema and television.  

Data show that opportunities remain largely limited and stereotyped across the board. But online platforms, industry experts say, are providing female and minority actors and filmmakers a means to break out of those boxes.

Social media helps budding filmmakers and actors build networks. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo serve as repositories where employers can quickly access an actor or director’s previous work. They’re also avenues for sharing original content that might otherwise never see the light of day.

The new platforms, experts say, have upped the demand for material, opening doors throughout the industry.

“What we’re seeing is a lot more of a lot more,” says Jocelyn Diaz, executive vice president of programming for EPIX, a premium cable service. “There are more opportunities out there, and more opportunities for women.”

Gendered roles

When she first arrived in Los Angeles three years ago, Marie Jamora would have disagreed.

She had come to the United States to be with her now-fiancé, leaving behind a 15-year career directing, producing, and writing in the Philippines. Despite her background in the business, Ms. Jamora says, being a female minority added to the already considerable challenges facing anyone – overseas career or not – who wants to break into Hollywood.

“You get the best of the best in this town,” she says. “And there are not as many work opportunities for female directors.”

Of the top 200 highest-grossing movies released in 2015, women directed 7.7 percent, according to the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report, released this month by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 2016, women comprised 17 percent of executive producers, 13 percent of writers, 5 percent of cinematographers, and 3 percent of composers, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found.

This month, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that their 16-month investigation of hiring practices in Hollywood found that major studios consistently discriminated against female directors. The commission is now in talks to resolve the issue. If the settlement negotiations fail, it may resort to legal action, Deadline reports.  

Such findings show how deeply ingrained gender norms remain in Hollywood, says Sarah Kozloff, a professor of film at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“There seem to be certain occupations that are just gendered male and female in the cultural mindset,” she says. “You'll have famous women editors like Dede Allen, but very few women [directors of photography]. You'll have women in hair and makeup, but sound design … seems to have just been colonized by men.”

“And this has been true essentially since the silent era,” she says.

Actor, director... and entrepreneur?

The Internet has started to change that. In the past five years, the ubiquity of YouTube, combined with the growing dominance of video-on-demand (VOD) sites like Netflix and Hulu have provided a pipeline for faces and voices once shut out of – or sidelined in – film and television.

Ilana Glazer’s and Abbi Jacobson’s “Broad City,” about two Jewish American women in their 20s navigating life in New York City, began as a web series that the pair had independently produced and starred in from 2009 to 2011. In 2014, Comedy Central picked up the show, which has since been nominated for more than a half dozen awards.

“Transparent,” the Jill Soloway-helmed web television series about a family who discovers their father has always identified as a woman, premiered on Amazon Video in 2014. In 2015 it became the first show produced by a VOD service to receive a Golden Globe for best series.

And Ms. Rae, who had created and starred in “Awkward Black Girls,” has partially adapted the series into HBO’s “Insecure.” The show has earned her a Golden Globe nod for best actress, among other accolades.

The trick, industry insiders say, is to have an enterprising attitude.

“I see an entrepreneurial economy emerging,” says Amy Baer, a 25-year industry veteran who is now president and chief executive of Gidden Media, a development and production company in Los Angeles. “Writers, directors are not at a disadvantage anymore [just] because they are not represented by an agency.”

“You don’t have to wait for someone to greenlight your idea. You can release it on the Internet,” Jamora adds. “You can make sure you have current work and you’re not just sitting around waiting for a break.”

Day, the actress, has a recurring role on “Insecure.” But she now also writes, produces, and stars in her own material. She has in motion five different film and television projects. All give voice to the female and minority experience.

“A lot of the roles I was auditioning for four, five years ago were like, ‘medical assistant No. 2,’ ” Day says. “When you can be busy with your own work and your own writing and creations, you don’t have to rely on other people to get you the job.”

'Golden age' of television

In recent years, advocates have used the attention around the Academy Awards to urge studios and executives to recognize the value of diversity in the industry.

Despite the data and EEOC findings, observers say, Hollywood has begun to respond.

This year’s Oscars boasts a diverse catalog of nominees, including Ava DuVernay for best documentary (feature) for “13th” and Allison Schroeder for best adapted screenplay for “Hidden Figures.”

Stars like Reese Witherspoon have also taken initiative to produce more stories for and about women. Her production company, Pacific Standard, is behind the HBO miniseries, “Big Little Lies,” which premiered Sunday and stars Ms. Witherspoon alongside Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley.

Just last week, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film announced ReFrame, a collaboration with 50 Hollywood leaders to advance gender equality.

“I am starting to see an industry that is awakening to making a priority for saying, ‘This is a movie to have a woman on it.’ Or, ‘This is a Hispanic story, we should find a Hispanic writer to write it,’ ” Ms. Baer says.

Some are concerned that progress has been too concentrated in television. Marvel’s decision to hire Patty Jenkins to direct a big-budget film like “Wonder Woman” is only tokenism if it remains a one-off, says Professor Kozloff at Vassar.

“Because television shows are lower budget and because they are so [much] more numerous, they will never quite have the cachet of the big-budget feature with major stars,” she says. “Will women be allowed to graduate, so to speak, from the streaming distribution channels or television to features?”

Day and Jamora, however, aren’t too worried. The television world today is full of opportunities for those ready to take them, both say.

“I’ve been constantly been surrounded by a utopia of women in color in charge,” Day says. “It’s been amazing.”

“I think it’s the golden age of American television right now,” Jamora adds. “There are a million channels looking for directors. I really want to pursue that.”

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