Working Women

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It used to be easy to peg commercials directed by women. They featured flowers, meadows, babies, and Muzak. They cut to long product shots of super-absorbent maxi-pads or scenes of attractive women sharing secrets over herbal tea.

Look all you want at recent campaigns for Snapple, Target, Ikea, and Coors Light, but you won't catch sight of a single cooing infant or a stained fine fabric. As a matter of fact, aside from their quality creative content, there isn't much about these spots that's similar at all. Some are stylish and sleek, like Floria Sigismondi's Target work, while others, like Cheryl van Ooyen's Ikea and Snapple spots, employ quirky humor. "It's taken women ten to 20 years to get to this point," says Pam Maythenyi of online database The Source. "It used to be all feminine hygiene. It's taken the Pam Thomases and Paula Walkers of the world to change it." In the last 15 years, women like Elma Garcia, Paula Walker, Peggy Sirota, and Pam Thomas have cracked the glass ceiling of commercials directing, climbing their way to the A-list spot by spot. In the meantime, they've made room for a whole new class of incoming stars from Yuki to Nzingha Stewart to Lisa Rubisch. Of course, even as the body of work by female directors grows in breadth and depth, women directors on set still get mistaken for makeup assistants, and they have yet to see the critical acclaim that Tarsem, Kinka Usher, and even Bryan Buckley take as their due.

Although Revlon and Tampax commercials are no longer the zenith of a woman's directing career, these kinds of clients are often ground zero; they are the proving ground for the skills and techniques that win other opportunities. Strato Films' Paula Walker's classic Lubriderm spot, "Later Gator," is simple and straightforward: against a white background, a woman sits on a chair as an alligator creeps behind her and looms over her chair. Walker's recent work for Opel, in which dancers mime a trip in a minivan past a white CG city, is much more complex, but has the same serene visual sense. Souzan Alavi, a young director working out of her own production company, Manpower Films in New Orleans, finds that the old stereotypes are helpful when you're trying to break in. "There've been a couple of subjects that have given me an advantage," she says. "I did a commercial for Partners for Healthy Babies, a non-profit that teaches young women about prenatal care. It helped that I could connect with the female cast. They might have been uncomfortable if I'd been a man talking to them about pregnancy." Women also direct spots in which the action is all about style; they've directed for the Gap, Dayton Hudson and Eaton's department stores, and of course cosmetics spots including Anita Madeira's Avon work with the Williams sisters and Fatima's luscious feathery-eyelashes mascara commercial for Maybelline.

Girls Aren't Funny?

The areas that appear harder to break into are also, predictably, those that receive more money and more critical praise. Maggie Zackheim, a Satellite newcomer with experience directing comedy shorts for Comedy Central and VH1, is mystified by the lack of women who direct humor. "I know a lot of really funny women; maybe they don't want to be directors," she shrugs, then reconsiders. "In comedy, there are certain production companies that are very male, lots of SNL alums, and they don't think about hiring women; they want to hire their friends. They don't think that women are going to get a fart joke." Zackheim herself has proven that myth wrong with her Coors Light campaign, which includes a spot featuring, yes indeed, a whoopie cushion and a frantic rush to open some windows. It has also been hard for women to break into the highly lucrative business of car commercials, with a few notable exceptions. Dayton/Faris, the Bob Industries directing team that includes Valerie Faris, directed the hugely popular VW "Milky Way" spot, and of course Paula Walker directed for the Opel minivan. Aside from these unusual spots (and they are unusual - neither shows gleaming sheet metal and curvy roads), the most successful woman directing car commercials today clearly is Peggy Sirota, who's shot for Volvo, BMW, Mercedes, Buick, and Toyota. Not only does she have an impressive array of auto clients, but her stellar reel can stand up against any of the gleaming-chrome work of her male colleagues.

Getting A Break

In some cases, it's not just a genre that opens the door for women; it's a specific client or agency. One of the most impressive clients in this respect is Target. Peterson Milla Hooks CD Dave Peterson has hired many directors for the long-running campaign, and he estimates that over half have been women. Though he is hesitant to generalize about gender matters, he says that "Target is about fashion and trend stuff; we're looking to be a step ahead and there are a lot of strong women that are really great at that." (Case in point is Believe Media's Floria Sigismondi, whose own bold wardrobe is testament to her sense of style.) Peterson also speculates that women seem to come to directing via more circuitous routes than their male counterparts. The old-fashioned way was to begin as a grip and climb the hierarchy to DP and ultimately director. Peterson finds that many women directors come from design or photography backgrounds; Elaine Cantwell, one of Target's directors, had an entire reel of broadcast design work from her career with 3 Ring Circus. In the case of a client like Target, evidence of a well-developed visual sense may ultimately be more important than a demonstration of narrative ability. "Sometimes, women's heightened ability to connect emotionally makes them better able to deliver emotionally charged imagery," says Peterson.

Cheryl van Ooyen didn't have to look far for the client that would give her the break she needed; van Ooyen, a CD at Deutsch, convinced longtime creative clients Snapple and Ikea to give her a shot behind the camera. Van Ooyen has been the lead creative on the Snapple and Ikea accounts since she joined the company over four years ago. In that time, she and her clients grew close enough that they were happy to let her try her hand at directing. "There was enough trust there that they became very excited about me making the leap," Van Ooyen explains. Not only did she break into directing, but she managed to compile a big reel of comedy spots for Snapple and Ikea. Her Snapple work includes sex ed for fruit preparing to merge for mixed juices, and "Where the Bad Fruit Go" with scenes of a rotten fruit jailyard. Ikea features eccentric uses for household products, including a mother who needs a bowl to give her young son a haircut. Van Ooyen also feels she owes some of her on-the-set confidence to Valerie Faris, half of the Bob Industries Dayton/Faris duo with husband Jonathan Dayton, who directed some Ikea work with van Ooyen as CD. "Watching Valerie gave me an extra boost," she says. "You can just be a person. You're not a girl director; you're a director. Watching her handle herself with the crew and take charge was just really cool."

Training Grounds

Though, like van Ooyen, many women directors arrive at commercials directing via unconventional paths, most begin the road to directing with film experience. Fatima, Yuki, and Liz Friedlander went to film school to learn their craft. Lili Zanuck, producer of Driving Miss Daisy, is one of many producers-turned-directors, a category that includes Francine McDougall and Maggie Zackheim. And then there are music videos. For all her artwork and spot success, Floria Sigismondi is probably still best known for her explosive arrival on the scene as a director of Marilyn Manson videos. Propaganda newcomer Nzingha Stewart was signed after proving herself with videos for Rah Digga and Ol' Dirty Bastard, just as Crossroads saw Nancy Bardawil's talent in her Goo Goo Dolls, Veruca Salt, and Hole videos. It's remarkable how many women get their start at MTV shooting shorts or promos. Barbara McDonough, Maggie Zackheim, Lisa Rubisch, Caitlin Felton, and Melissa Bolton have all found a voice behind the camera there. Bolton, now signed with Shelter Films, has directed some run-of-the mill work for Kraft salad dressing and Sarafem, the PMDD medication, but it is her pre-Shelter work for MTV that shows her style. In one spot, a jailed teen gets a quarter to make his one phone call; he shuffles desultorily toward the payphone and dials TRL, requesting a Kid Rock song. "It was one of the best experiences I could have had," says Bolton of MTV. "It's a place you learn and build a reel. I figured out who I was as a director; it allowed me to focus on my voice. I think I've got a slightly sarcastic view of the world. Now I've gotten pegged for the packaged goods. If you look at the MTV stuff, it's really different from the commercials."

The Lucite Ceiling

Given the successes, at first it seems hard to imagine that there are still barriers for women directors. On the other hand, it is also remarkable that for all the great work, there is no female equivalent of Pytka. As Pam Maythenyi notes, directing is like every other business: it's harder for women to succeed than men. "Is it still difficult to become a woman director? Yes. It's still difficult for women in all businesses to rise to the top. I read somewhere recently that the glass ceiling has become the lucite ceiling; it's impenetrable." Maythenyi points out that among the 5,000 or so directors she has cataloged, only 261 are women. Yuki, a rising director with DNA who graduated from Art Center in 2000, noticed that the dearth of women begins early, in film school. "At school our film department was like 85 percent male," she recalls. "I remember being in class and there would be 20 guys and maybe two women. We used to get comments like `Why are we reading this article? It's written by a chick.' " After film school, the next challenge is to prove your technical skills, which may also be difficult. "A lot of the women were not really getting asked to work on the set, and if they did, it was craft service or maybe wardrobe or makeup," she says. "It was assumed that you wouldn't know the technical stuff." In response, Yuki decided to educate herself in film tech by hanging out in a local Claremont Camera rental house; once she could prove her expertise with the camera, she began getting offers to be camera assistant.

Almost every female director is so adamant to deny that gender is a restricting factor in career success that it's hard to tell if they're trying to convince the interviewer or themselves. Maggie Zackheim is one of many to posit that gender bias is almost a state of mind. "If I give it that kind of power, it will wear me down," she explains. Nonetheless, most women have encountered antagonism that made them wonder if men face the same obstacles. "I've been asked questions that I know guys would not be asked," says Francine McDougall, Production League of America director of Sugar and Spice (with New Line Productions) as well as spots for Kellogg's, Mother's Taffy cookies, and PlayStation. "I was doing a comedy with special effects and they were giving me the third degree on how, exactly, I was going to do it. It just made me think." Unfortunately, this kind of conflict doesn't end once the project is won. "If a woman is fighting for her vision, she's seen as difficult," McDougall insists. "If a man is fighting for his vision, he's artistic. You've really got to be careful how you play the game, and men don't have to be careful." Yuki concurs. "You don't want to be seen as weak or submissive; but then some people just get really tough and they kind of overdo it, to the point where it's unpleasant for everyone."

In some cases, there just isn't a way to be accepted by everyone. Sigismondi remembers a time early in her career when she was shushed by a camera assistant. "I think sometimes it's hard for them to take direction from a young person or a woman," she says philosophically. Souzan Alavi recalls, "On my first commercial, the female talent asked if I was the makeup artist, and then the video assistant guy thought I was the production coordinator." Another female director says that yes, it is Different For Girls. "I've had to throw producers off my set because they're so condescending and rude. If you call them on it, they get ruder. They don't do that to the Marcus Nispels." Fatima is more blunt: "It's all about how much money they'll trust you with," she says. "I mean, if I looked at work and didn't know who the director was, could I tell if it was a woman? I could tell by the budget or company. You might see a beautiful car commercial, but would they entrust a woman with that budget?" While clients and agencies seem to have endless faith in a woman's organizational capabilities - note the plethora of female producers commanding large budgets - they seem less willing to stake money in her artistic vision.

Luckily for the spot world, neither the up-and-comers nor the A-listers seem daunted by the challenges of the business. "It was not as difficult as I thought it was going to be," says Yuki of launching her still-fledgling career. "In the end it comes down to your work." Observes Shelter's Melissa Bolton, "People will say that one agency or another is a boy's club, but what does that mean now? It's not 1986 anymore. I like golf, I like beer. The same stigmas don't necessarily apply."

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