The job qualifications for directors are similar across film and series, though the leadership position varies significantly. Consider skills that are necessary and sufficient to direct and the criteria needed to evaluate those abilities.
Industry groups have been using criteria to determine funding of stories by directors/writers/producers for quite some time. Different criteria are used by groups within and outside of North America to showcase films or select candidates for funding. For example, look at the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Diversity Standards which has compulsory requirements for exhibitors, distributors and festivals as well as for funding.
What criteria are important to bringing your story in film or in a series to life? For directors, the criteria may include any or all of the following attributes: training (e.g., education, participation in lab/fellowship at Sundance Institute or another notable independent outlet), prior work experience across the last three years (e.g., episodic directing, pilots, independent films, commercials, music videos), size and impact of previous projects (e.g., ratings, box office, distribution deal in independent space), other roles outside of directing (e.g., 1st AD, cinematographer, actor, writer), point of view of previous stories (e.g., novelty, technical precision), inclusion on screen, reception by critics (e.g., Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic), nominations and awards for story, directing, actors of content directed (e.g., festival recognition, competitive funding, critical acclaim, prestigious industry groups such as BAFTA, AMPAS, Golden Globes, DGA, WGA, Critics’ Choice), leadership style in pre-production and on set (e.g., ability to execute vision, temperament, collaboration, decisiveness, flexibility, hiring inclusively of unit heads/seconds, use of intimacy coordinators if relevant to story), prior history of concern (e.g., hostile work environment, microaggressions or insensitivity to a variety of communities, inappropriate humor).
Many decisions in Hollywood focus on the success of the last project. Taking into account only the last “hit” or “failure” results in a decision based on a small sample size. Studies have proven that this type of decision-making can be unstable and can lead to outcomes that either unfairly favor or disenfranchise the candidate. It’s important to consider every candidate’s full body of work, spanning from their training in the space all the way through their most recent film, episode, commercial, or music video.
One note of caution: Given the historic inequities in Hollywood, many of the above indicators could favor the status quo (i.e., work experience). As such, those filmmakers and content creators outside of the status quo are often framed as a “risk,” or as bringing less-than-ideal experience to a particular job. It’s important to think through how to counter the bias of one group being advantaged in employment routinely over many others (e.g., gender, people of color, LGBTQ+, disability, any and/or all intersections of these characteristics). It is simply not true that only cisgender white men offer artistic talent and leadership skills. Films directed by men do not score any higher or lower on average in critics’ ratings than those directed by women. The same is true for people of color in comparison to their white peers. As a result, it is important to consider a variety of attributes that include more than just recent work experience. Doing so ensures that new voices, and/or talent that’s been overlooked based on identity, can compete fairly their cisgender white male counterparts. Consider the following points when developing your criteria for hiring directors:
- Historical inequities in education and access limit the ability of some individuals to meet the standard you’ve set.
- Design qualifications with this in mind (e.g., do not ask for more than is needed to establish that an individual is qualified).
- Use terms such as “required” and “preferred” to differentiate what skills are needed for the position (e.g., previous work with motion capture) versus what is optional or helpful for a candidate to have (e.g., general understanding of motion capture techniques).
- When creating your criteria, be cautious that being overly specific can lend itself to tailoring criteria to one specific person. Instead, use language that allows for you to capture skills and experience but allows for multiple qualified individuals to compete for the job.
- As noted earlier, stay away from terms like “risky” or “inexperienced” to describe directors, or phrases such as “they can’t handle” the job at hand. These are all phrases that research has shown can marginalize and exclude directors who identify as women/non-binary, underrepresented racially/ethnically, LGBTQ+, and/or with a disability.
How will you identify candidates for these positions? It is imperative to cast a wide net and exercise intentionality. Build a candidate pool that reflects the inclusion profile you want to meet. In other words, if you hope to assemble a roster of ten candidates, the aspirational goal for a breakdown should be: 30% women/non-binary individuals, 20% underrepresented men, and 20% underrepresented women/non-binary. These are based on percentages of individuals in the US by Census and market availability data.
- Use both existing and new strategies to create this candidate pool.
- Seek input from agents and managers, stipulating that the names they provide should reflect the diversity of the candidate pool you want to create. Send lists back if they lack the inclusion that you need. Or go to a different agency or set of agents.
- Use industry databases to identify potential candidates (see below).
- Research industry training programs (e.g., labs, fellowships) to find talent.
- Seek candidates who have complementary skills/experiences (e.g., documentary directors for fictional or episodic content; music video and commercial directors for episodic series).
Engage specific organizations to inquire about potential candidates. Here is a list of resources for identifying content creators by gender (women, non-binary), underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, LGBTQ+, and with a disability (listed in alphabetical order):
- Amplify Database https://www.amplifydatabase.com/
- Aboriginal Films and Filmmakers https://guides.library.ubc.ca/c.php?g=307204&p=2049476
• Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) https://www.capeusa.org/cnwf
• Film Fatales http://www.filmfatales.org/directors
• Free the Work https://freethework.com/
• Latinx Directors https://latinxdirectors.com/home
• Lights! Camera! Access! (provides connections to people with disabilities working in entertainment) http://einsofcommunications.com/lights-camera-access-2-0/
• ReFrame https://www.reframeproject.org/
• Sundance Institute Indigenous Program https://www.sundance.org/programs/indigenous-program
• The Alice Initiative https://www.thealiceinitiative.com/
• The Topple List of Culture Creators https://www.toppleproductions.com/the-topple-list
• Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity https://www.writeinclusion.org/resources
• Women of Color Unite’s JTC’s list https://thejtclist.com/
1. Consult with other decision-makers to agree on the selection criteria and their order of importance.
2. Appoint an individual or committee to ensure the criteria is applied consistently.
3. Review each candidate’s application materials in their entirety.
When interviewing potential directors, come up with a standard list of questions to ask each candidate. Asking each candidate to answer the exact same questions, in the exact same order, is a good way to level the playing field. Interviewers should be especially careful about their use of language during the interview process, whether those conversations take place via Zoom, on the phone, or in person. Studies show that priming or activating stereotypes can cause women and people of color to underperform—even in contexts in which they normally excel. This is a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Drawing attention to historic inequities for women directors or people of color in the industry can activate stereotypes that can actually cause decreases in performance. Also, solo status in a group (i.e., tokenism) may cue thoughts and feelings that create an additional cognitive load for the candidate and thus may heighten the likelihood of underperformance.
• Avoid phrasing like “we really want to hire a woman director for this” or “we think you have the right background to tell this story.”
• Make sure that, to the extent possible, the people in charge of conducting interviews or hearing pitches reflect a diverse and inclusive population.
When you are ready to decide who to hire, first examine the criteria-based scores. Is there one candidate who scores highest? If so, examine how you feel about hiring this candidate. Often, our “gut” feelings about hiring someone who is similar to us on an identity dimension are positive; we like to work with people who are similar to us. Your gut feeling about someone who is not like you may be exactly the reverse. You may feel reluctant to hire someone who is different, even though the criteria you’ve used are in their favor. This is a downside of relying on “how we feel” when making a decision.
• Are you concerned about the person’s ability to lead a team or show leadership on set? If so, ask yourself what traits you think a “leader” should exhibit. Often, perceptions of leadership align with masculine traits like being “tough” or “dominant.” Consider whether your conception of a leader is flexible enough to include other leadership styles.
• Are you concerned about working closely with someone you don’t know well? It may be appealing to work with long-standing collaborators or people who are familiar to you. However, think about your end goal for the project. Who have your criteria shown to be most qualified? Perhaps you need to establish clear ways that you will communicate with or get to know the person better before starting production.
• Are you concerned about working with someone who is culturally different from you? Navigating cross-cultural communication may create apprehension, especially when the stakes feel high. Recognize that the likelihood of miscommunication is higher when there are cultural differences in communication. Make clear your expectations for communication, and work with the other person to understand their communication requirements. Create a plan for how you and the person you are working with will resolve miscommunication, failure to meet expectations, and other issues.