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When Hollywood Calls...A Cautionary Tale and a Call for Action

Original photo by Moritz Mentges/Unsplash

I am a white female filmmaker, a director of documentary films. Women, especially white women, have traditionally done better in documentaries than in the rest of Hollywood. There is less money and prestige than in the fiction world, but the barriers to entry are lower. It’s easier to "green light" yourself.  

Things have changed. In the past few years, documentaries have become "hot" and Hollywood has taken notice. Hollywood wants in. Brand-name companies and brand-name celebrities are opening documentary divisions. Agencies have created premium documentary departments. More and more distributors are looking for documentary content.

At first, this may seem like good news: more opportunity for filmmakers, and more opportunity means a more diverse group of directors can step up and do the work. And that would indeed be a very positive development.

But even now, in the summer of 2020, in a world awakening to systemic racism and injustice and resolving to make recompense, my Deadline feed each week continues to recognize the work and hiring of white men in power, especially when the budgets and distributors are big. Without the documentary community’s watchful oversight, I fear the increased interest in documentaries will mean increased opportunity—for white male filmmakers.  

Watchful oversight doesn’t mean a diversity committee and shorts program. It means a reckoning and repair of inequity and foul play. It means not just hiring diverse directors; it means a recasting of gatekeepers, including development executives, guild representatives and studio executives at the highest levels—not the token VPs, but SVPs and CEOs, those who have authority to greenlight projects and write checks.

I've been sitting on my own story. I have been fearful. I have kept quiet. But now I choose not to be a complicit enabler anymore. I wish I could attach my name—and not write this anonymously—but I have already been threatened by people who have demonstrated their ability to make good on their threats. I am left with the imperfect choice of staying silent or sharing my story without my name. So in this moment, in this climate of change, this is my attempt to make a difference. I hope that my anonymous story, when joined with others, might contribute to the disruption of a hierarchy, tradition and system built on protecting the powerful few.

The Backstory: Seduction—Getting the Call, Doing the Work

Not too long ago, I was super-excited when I was presented with an opportunity to make a documentary for a powerful Hollywood company. This is a big company that on the surface has a good narrative but, like so much of Hollywood, was founded by white men who hired more white men to run the place.  

At first, I didn't see it as a downside that there was a Hollywood power player (from here on out, I will call him "Mr. White") at the helm of the company. I can't go into much detail about what happened lest I not only violate my NDA but also ruin my career. What I can say is that I took a risk. I made a personal and financial investment. I was "entrepreneurial" in a way that many criticize women for not being. I was sent off to explore a meaningful and time-sensitive project and not only did I dive in without a guaranteed title, contract or funding, I hired a team of people, traveled to a desolate place, and amassed a hundred hours of footage. This was all done in response to a simple ask: "Would you be willing to go and explore…?" Events were unfolding and there was urgency to respond quickly. I said, "Hell yes!" and put myself and a team on a plane the next day so as not to lose the story.

I thought the details of my credit and reimbursement would be secondary to what I could capture on camera, especially given how time-sensitive, meaningful and difficult the subject matter was. Things were changing by the moment. I used my homemade media pass to access places that were unsafe and off-limits. My team and I worked 18-hour days. We went without meals and bathrooms. The releases got wet in the pouring rain. We shed tears with those who had lost everything and faced an uncertain future. I persisted even when I lost my voice from exhaustion. I gained access and earned permission to film. I interviewed and observed and made decisions about where to focus our lens and from whose point-of-view. I did my best work. I built relationships, I made personal assurances, I earned trust on behalf of the team and the film. I found stories that deserved to be told. Back at my office, I hired editors and began to assemble, organize and create selects for the film—all without anyone’s direction but my own. I went out of pocket to pay for everything—hotels, plane tickets, crew salaries, gear. There were assurances that if I just kept filming, it would all be worked out—and I truly believed it would be. 

Given the limits on his time, Mr. White didn’t watch all my selects, but he loved what he saw. He loved my choices—the stories and people I had found. Like so many documentary filmmakers, I was doing the work because, God willing, we were going to make the world a better place, to shed light on a community in peril. Back in a comfortable boardroom, weeks later, we used those selects to sell the film to a deep-pocketed distributor. Because trust and access take time, I was asked to do the actual, boots-on-the-ground work. I would continue to be the patient one—waiting for the camera to lose its allure. I was to continue to make the heartfelt promises and seek vulnerability and truth. And truthfully, I was excited to collaborate regardless of how limited Mr. White’s time would be, in part because I knew the film would have an audience and a platform just because Mr. White's name was on it. I cared more about the film than anything else. It was great to be a part of the brand, and part of the team.  

Betrayal: All Work, No Credit

After we sold the project for a large sum, it was time for me to be reimbursed and to do my deal. But months after being told that my work was valuable and valued, I was fired. I was asked to relinquish the footage, dismantle the team and walk away.

What happened?  

I had the audacity to ask about a title. A question that I hoped would lead to a conversation, even if not a "yes." I didn’t demand the title or quit because I didn’t get it. I asked to talk about it and I was fired. I made the mistake of trusting that all the goodwill and promises up to that point counted for something. But even in the touted climate of inclusion and "women directors," I had gone too far.  Even when I had done the work, and they had "loved" the work, I was expected to work without a commensurate credit. (I later heard that I was not the only one who had been approached initially, but I had been the one desperate enough to take it without clear terms. The other director could smell a rat right away, asking straight up, "You want me to ghost-direct?") 

Mr. White wanted to be the director, regardless of his actual involvement and his limited bandwidth. We had discussed that he had fiction films and TV shows to direct—all in the next 12 months. He wouldn’t have time to be in the field. Or in the edit room.   

And me? I had been desperate enough to want the work—to need the work—and ultimately, to do the work without a contract. And perhaps naive enough to think that if I did the work—"the" work of a director—and did that work well, the rest would work itself out. How could it not? The industry wasn't that blatantly unfair.   

But I was up against Mr. White, and those around him who wanted to protect him, who wanted the credit all to himself. And while it was understood and discussed that Mr. White was not going to put boots on the ground very often, even as the time-sensitive subject was unfolding, he liked the idea of putting his name (solo) on something new and worthwhile. It was a curiosity. Maybe he'd even donate his salary, he once mentioned. There was a whimsy to his curiosity. This project was a trifle compared to most. Nonetheless, Mr. White wanted the credit (and the press, industry adulation and awards), and those around him wanted him to be happy. "Couldn’t you just produce it?" was the idea. "Think of the long play," I was told. "Just do this once," I was told, "and maybe we can do a development deal with you for something else." 

But all those work-around offers went away when I countered with "co-director." With that one suggestion/request, I had made the team who protected Mr. White and his brand-name uncomfortable. I had crossed a line. I was uppity. Suddenly, my phone calls stopped being returned. 


"They Own the Truth"

To make matters worse, just weeks after my firing, I was threatened that if I didn’t hand over the footage and all of my work, the company would start to say bad things about me. The company executive had called my agent (actually my agent’s boss) who relayed the message,

"The truth doesn’t matter here. They own the truth."

That's the way unjust systems work and thrive. It's not lies vs. truth. It's power vs. truth. And if they have the power, they get to do whatever they want, say whatever they want, truth be damned. 

I was gutted. But I took the threat to heart and signed the agreement. I relinquished the material.  I sent the releases and the contact information for all the people whose stories I had gathered, whose trust I had nurtured. Several months later, I was reimbursed for a portion of my costs and my time. 

The film has since been released. While I have never watched it, I have heard that the new "producing" team made use of the heartbreaking footage I captured. Turns out, I cast the lead characters. My footage is in the trailer and most of the film. I have learned that the edit room was another inequitable place, with a diverse team of women, including women of color, watching the footage and editing—but with a brand-name white male editor (who never watched most of the footage) getting the credit. Mr. White ostensibly was never told, or was too busy to ask. It was the white male executive Mr. White hired to run his division who made that decision. But as my grandmother used to say, "The fish rots from the head."

For all that I have seen and felt in my career, I remain deeply shaken. I misjudged the degree to which it is still the case that women, like others without power, who dare to ask for what they might deserve are seen as risks to the "team," risks to the hierarchy. I failed to understand just how ardently power is protected.

The reality no one wants to admit? It’s nearly impossible to direct multiple films in a year. How is it done?

A-list, brand-name directors with seemingly prodigious output outsource the actual work to an uncredited, unnamed team—many of them women and underrepresented minorities who leap at the chance to do the work, as I did.  

The insidious part in all this is that many Hollywood elites and white male executives are "nice people" who have signed up, in concept, to support diverse filmmakers. Especially now, when inclusion and diversity are "vogue," they claim to be "all in" on Instagram. But in my lived experience, this has become part of the image game. An empty hash-tag. A banner on Twitter. Somewhere, deep down, self-protection is deeply ingrained. How could they make real change, because then they might lose out? 

Distributors don't care; name-brand directors help with publicity and awards. Festivals want brand names because they drive ticket sales and big-donor backing. Audiences don't care, because they don’t know. And the institutions policing themselves don’t understand what they are supposed to police: good, established directors assuming roles they don't understand while other people do the actual work. While I'm sure they all want to do the right thing, the system— their system—doesn’t support it. Starstruck guilds are run by the very perpetrators doing the thieving. Their portraits hang in the lobby.  

DEI Is Not a Hashtag

So, in spite of my fear, I am adding my voice to the conversation—to the outrage and the outing. It's time to have it be okay to ask questions, and for those questions to result in a conversation and change. REAL change. Not through Instagram or Twitter or a toothless "diversity committee," but a real conversation with real accountability about what—and who —is standing in the way of diverse voices being hired, and paid, and credited.  

Who is building the team? Who is in the field? Who is directing the shots? Who is supervising the edit? Who is being greenlit—and who is greenlighting? And who owns the intellectual property? 

Maybe a nameless team of diverse voices already are directing but not getting the credit for it because someone more important, established and influential wants his name on it. Could that be it? What is the title given? Associate producer? Assistant editor? This is a potentially awkward, embarrassing, challenging, conversation, to be sure, but it’s essential if we are to do more than pay lip-service to equity in documentary filmmaking.  

Even though I must remain anonymous, I ask you to please join me in putting our industry on notice and being a voice for change. Stand firm. Look at a production company’s roster. Who is actually calling the shots? Are there any women or people of color anywhere in the upper ranks? Who is giving notes? Are they yes-men who protect power and take credit for your work? Again, it deserves repeating, who owns the backend?

While it may be hard to turn a job away, especially in this terrifying climate, please don't accept a false or lesser credit. And please don't go into business with those who perpetuate those who would ask you to do so. Despite this alarming industry trend, know your worth. Think of those who are coming up the ranks with you and after you. Reach out to the DGA. Reach out to IDA. Both organizations are aware of this issue and have pledged to address it. If you are a distributor, consider your own brand and the long-term damage of protecting the status quo. If you are a development executive, stop protecting and start standing up. If you are a festival, ask questions about the nice white guy who has recently decided he wants to branch out but also made three features last year.

Don't just be part of the conversation. Be part of the CHANGE, even when it is uncomfortable. And when Hollywood calls, make sure they know that there is not only integrity and "do-goodery" in documentaries, but also increasing oversight. Celebrities can executive-produce all they want, but don’t pretend they are also directing (unless, of course, they actually are). And if something like this has happened to you, please put it out there. The only way things will change is if we stop being quiet.

And, finally, a plea to Mr. White, and others like him, as you stake your claim in the documentary world: please don't be greedy; be collaborative. Play out the scenario in your head. If you give credit where credit is due, how much does that actually cost you? Does it really hurt your brand? Or could it possibly even help?  (And please don’t come after me now - because the whole truth hurts.)

There is at least one award-winning, hard-working, available documentary filmmaker who doesn’t want to take anything away from you and your status, but who does want to be respected by you, and to have the credit she deserves. I know I'm not the only one.