Maria Giese looks to take her Hollywood crusade for female directors to a global level

Maria Giese. 

Every studio in Hollywood knows who Maria Giese is, yet she has not directed a feature film since the mid-1990s. Branded a notorious trouble maker, she is the kind of woman that will wind up on a black list if she speaks her mind, and that is precisely what she did.

Giese is a filmmaker and director that had her feature debut in Cannes, was signed to the William Morris Agency and had the promise of the Hollywood dream at her feet. Her passion was to create meaningful work. Yet the stark realisation, as her career and that of her female peers stalled, was that she was being thwarted from doing that work basically because of her gender. Suspecting that this issue was bigger than her own career travails, she became an unrelenting activist that took on Hollywood and instigated the biggest industry-wide federal investigation for female directors to date, ushering in a wave of change.

“One of the key reasons that I have been successful in affecting change for female directors is that I have been fearless about it. I had hit rock bottom, I couldn’t go down any further, I could only go up,” she tells IF.

By her own admission, Giese was on a crusade; it was moral and personal but most importantly, it was universal.“I was fighting this battle for all women as a collective and it is far more energising to do that when we realise that these are universal problems to be solved, not just private battles for our careers which women often struggle with in isolation.”

Giese will be a guest speaker at The Power of Inclusion summit, being held in New Zealand next month and comes armed with motivation to take the battle for gender parity global and create a unified front.

Triggered by a series of events in 2011 that surrounded what Giese saw as the Directors Guild of America’s inability to adequately support female directors, she knew it was time to fight.

“When I took on the DGA I was completely fearless about it and dug in with court house research. I started writing articles exposing what I saw as corruption and misuse of diversity programs and showed that none of the programs were effective in any way. The number of women directors had actually gone down over that period and I had exposed a serious problem in my union,” she explains.

Her agitation caused a lot of blowback from the DGA and she failed to get the galvanising support of other female directors to stand up the guild, as they were reluctant or feared blacklisting.

Back in 2012, Giese’s research found that only 4 per cent of studio features were directed by women, and only 14 per cent of episodic TV shows featured female directors, while in the most lucrative category of directing commercials women only represented 1 per cent.  They numbers spoke for themselves – inequitable, grossly unbalanced, and wholly discriminatory – and Giese understood to them to be clearly breaking the equal opportunity law known as Title VII. Given the political structure of Hollywood boy’s club, Giese knew there was only one way to attack: in the lingua franca that the industry is underpinned by – litigiously.

Armed with evidence she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). After an 18-month investigation in May 2015, The New York Times published the ACLU’s 15-page letter to the EEOC and to other government agencies, calling for an industry-wide federal investigation into systemic discrimination against women directors.

The EEOC’s findings are confidential, but the shifts have been seismic in terms of industry outcomes and the investigation is ongoing.

“Since 2015 we have seen extraordinary change. We went from 14 per cent of female directors in episodic TV to now 25 per cent and the numbers are moving up.”

Giese adds that fellowship programs and female director attachment programs had also been mandated. Most powerfully, her union the DGA has instated two agreements that compel any member company in Hollywood to agree to inclusion for diversity hiring for women and ethnic minorities.

“We are also seeing the diversity tide turning and seeing companies making their own decisions to do that and how to more effective in inclusionary and equal opportunity practices,” she adds.

“What I am really interested in now is international efforts. I’m very excited about coming to New Zealand to participate in the summit because what we need to do is create an international coalition of women filmmakers and work in solidarity to unify our efforts,” she says.

In Australia, despite progressive efforts from screen agencies and Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiatives, gender parity for directors is far from equitable. Industry-wide, the proportion of female feature directors is at 17 per cent, a figure has remained largely static since the 1970s. In the last five years the number of female directors working in television has shifted upwards to 30 per cent from 26 per cent, while the proportion of women directing documentary has been stable at 38 per cent.

Giese believes that is important that the disparate gender parity work and equal opportunity laws that have been introduced in each market be compared at a global level.

“Countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden, that have been creating many kinds of mandates, from 50-50 gender hiring down to various other levels, need to be compared. There isn’t a real uniform understanding of it and we can go a long way to organise this and challenge other markets to adapt to the change,” she advises.

The Power of Inclusion summit itself follows the NZ Film Commission’s creation of the 125 Fund, an investment fund celebrating the 125 years since New Zealand women won the right to vote. The fund is open to dramatic features in any genre and offers an investment of $NZ1.25 million each for up to two projects where the director and at least one other key creative is a woman.

The summit will address the issues surrounding the #MeToo movement, which Giese believes are among the symptoms underlying the problem of employment discrimination in the entertainment industry.

“I think #MeToo has been incredibly powerful in terms of shining a light into the ways our industry functions that keeps women shut out and disempowered. Sexual harassment and abuse are a result of power imbalances and those power imbalances can be corrected through employment equality.”

She cautions, however, that the movement became largely trial-by-media. “We really need to battle this through the law and numbers and keep it strictly to that. Then we can go a lot further in illuminating sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.

“It really comes down to money and economics. If women are not included in our economic system equally, we become ‘other’ and we are second class and in my view we are second class and have been treated as an underclass which then makes it easy for employers to trade jobs for sex.”

Giese was most recently featured in the documentary, This Changes Everything, covering Hollywood’s struggle with gender inequality and misuse of power, which Geena Davis (also a speaker at the Power of Inclusion Summit) executive produced and was directed by Tom Donahue.

“What I love about the film, This Changes Everything, is that it was directed by a man and he explains this from a male perspective. He brings men into the conversation, which is critically important because this it isn’t a feminist issue, it is a civil rights issue. And all of us that care about these issues need to work together and we need our male allies.”

The Power of Inclusion Summit will be held October 3-4 in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.