A view from Andy Fowler

A pledge to female directors

Following the launch of Free the Bid, Brothers and Sisters is changing its director pitches to support women.

You might have recently read about Free the Bid, a US initiative in support of female directors. Well, I’ve got my own thoughts on it.

From this day forth, Brothers and Sisters guarantees that we will have at least one female director on every three-way director pitch.

There. I’ve said it. It can’t be undone.

I never thought of myself as an equality crusader but, at Cannes this year, it struck me. Blake Powell, global head of talent at Stink, played me a short film by a new barely-in-her-twenties director, and it got me thinking about why there are so many young women on film-school courses and so few become commercials directors.

Kim Gehrig, Sara Dunlop and Siri Bunford. Once you get beyond these three, you start to scratch your head a little.

All our Keith Lemon Carphone Warehouse work is shot by a male/female directing duo called Chaplin & Forbes. I believe Ne-O at Stink is a married couple.

Liz Unna, who directs through Independent, says: "Last year at the British Arrows, I was lucky enough to win a few Arrows. It was sort of shocking to see that out of around 120 nominees, four were women. Me for the Times films, Gehrig for ‘This girl can’, modern-slavery awareness by Bunford, and Selina Miles with Ric Albert for Pepsi Max. So a ‘female’ issue and a government awareness spot accounted for half of the female nominees."

One of my TV producers researched a list the other day and came up with 78 female directors across the whole industry – from big, famous production companies down to obscure content operations in a garage in Harlesden. That’s from a total pool of hundreds and hundreds of directors.

Why is that? It’s not easy to isolate the root of the problem. Is it because they’re pigeonholed? Do agencies only favour female directors for female products? Can this really be true in the year 2016?

Rattling Stick’s Dunlop made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to try to avoid scripts for female products, so sick was she of skincare and tampon projects. Now, for the first time, she says, she feels like a director, not a female director.

Now, before you say it, let’s be very clear: this is not an original idea. In Sweden, they have been successfully using this at-least-one-woman-director-on-every-pitchlist model for a couple of years. But, I figure, why the hell can’t we be just as progressive over here?

After all, some clients are demanding agencies meet their diversity goals if they want to continue working with them. Clients such as HP and General Mills – both of which publicly announced that they want their agencies to have a 50% female workforce – see it as a business essential because half their customers are women. If agencies are changing, then production companies need to change too.

What do I hope to get out of this? I can’t control what other agencies do but I hope, by taking this stand and pledging to give female directors a chance, it will inspire other agencies. And if enough agencies join us, it will force production companies to hire more female directors to their rosters because, if they have only male directors, they will be fighting for just two of the spaces on each pitchlist. And that doesn’t make financial sense.

Most importantly, it’s hard to develop a reel without being given the opportunity to do so, and hard to be good at pitching if you can’t ever get into the room. If this initiative catches on, a wave of female directors will get more opportunities to pitch than they ever had before. 

At first, it might be a struggle to fill that slot on some pitches, so it will involve taking a few chances and believing in someone’s potential. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take for the good of the idea. I honestly don’t think the creative product will be negatively affected or the options presented to the client will be any weaker. If anything, they will be better because they will be more varied.

Unna feels that the one-in-three rule should only be a short-term measure, like a jump-start for a car with a flat battery. If the industry corrects itself and we embrace the diversity of talent available, there’s no need for a rule like this in the future.

I’ve had excellent phone chats in the past couple of weeks with Gehrig, Dunlop, Bunford and Unna, and they all fully endorse the idea. If anyone should understand the struggles of the female director to break through, it’s them.

Finally, yes, I know we have too many guys in our agency creative department. And, no, it’s not acceptable. And, yes, I’m doing something about it. I’m aiming for a 50/50 gender-split creative department by 2018.

Andy Fowler is executive creative director of Brothers and Sisters