LOS ANGELES — Kaitlyn Yang knows it’s rare for women to work in visual effects but wanted to find out just how much company she has.
Devising an informal survey earlier this year, she painstakingly searched 24,000 LinkedIn entries for female visual effects supervisors in North America. Her tally: 30.
“So you do the math,” she said of the tiny percentage that represents. It’s not far afield of in-depth research showing women are underrepresented in behind-the-camera positions, including writing, directing and producing, despite recent progress.
A study of the 250 top-grossing films in 2019 by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that women comprise 6% of visual effects supervisors, 5% of cinematographers and 19% of writers. A center report on last season’s TV shows found similar patterns.
Yang, whose perseverance led to the creation of her own firm, Alpha Studios, is among those succeeding in Hollywood. That’s true as well of Layne Eskridge, a former Netflix and Apple TV executive who just launched POV Entertainment; writer Gladys Rodriguez, whose credits include “Sons of Anarchy” and “Vida”; and Sandra Valde-Hansen, cinematographer for more than a dozen independent films.
The four share a key credit: Each had an industry internship through the Television Academy Foundation, the charitable arm of the academy that administers the prime-time Emmy Awards.
For Valde-Hansen, the internship provided the experience of working alongside veteran cinematographer Alan Caso, who’d been part of the acclaimed series “Six Feet Under.”
Getting to learn from the man “who created the look of that show, that very cinematic look, I thought, ’Oh, this is better than getting into college,” she said. “The internship just opened up so many doors for me.”
The program offers 50 paid, eight-week summer internships on Los Angeles TV productions to college students nationwide.
“We couldn’t be prouder to have helped launch the careers of these exceptional women. They are a testament to the foundation’s crucial work,” said Madeline Di Nonno, chair of the foundation’s board of directors.
As the onetime interns have progressed in their fields, they’ve gained hard-won insights about Hollywood and the obstacles to women and people of color. Yang, who uses a wheelchair because of spinal muscular atrophy, faces other challenges. In recent interviews, the women discussed their experiences and how the industry can evolve.
THE CLUB STILL EXISTS
Bias can be subtle, or not.
Rodriguez recalled a stretch in which she worked as a writer’s assistant on shows with primarily white male writing staffs.
Men in jobs comparable to hers were “invited to play Ping-Pong, but they wouldn’t invite me, or they would invite them to after-work drinks and I wouldn’t get invited,” she said. “I was definitely not part of the boys club, so that excluded me from certain opportunities,” such as developing story ideas.
Eskridge has found that older writers can be uncomfortable with an executive who is younger and Black. That appeared to be the case with a sitcom creator she ushered into her office for a first meeting.
“Maybe he thought I was an assistant, but when I closed the door and sat down he realized I was Layne,” she said. “He was so flustered. And I think we sat there for about two minutes while he tried to gather himself. And then he eventually said he needed to call his agent and that he wasn’t going to take the meeting.”
Yang, who became more public-facing after starting her company, found she wasn’t what some expected.
One man “was very surprised that I attended USC film school, in a way that was almost questioning if my resume was made up,” she said. ”I was like, ‘You want to see my student loans?’”
(Women are well-represented at the USC School of Cinematic Arts: This fall, they’re 56% of students, the school said.)
GETTING A BOOST
Valde-Hansen said she owes a debt of gratitude to Florida-based cinematographer Tony Foresta, who took her on as his assistant when nobody else would.
“I remember walking into the (equipment) rental houses and they would literally come up to me and say, ’Oh, I’ve worked with another woman camera assistant before…’ like I was an alien,” she said. “It was unnerving at times. I was so thankful to have this one person who saw me, unlike anyone else.”
After Rodriguez completed her internship, she worked on CBS’ “Cold Case,” created and produced by Meredith Stiehm.
“It’s not that she gave me a leg up, more that she saw me and she didn’t dismiss me,” Rodriguez said. It was on the show that she met Veena Sud, a “wonderful writer who became a sort of mentor to me.”
“She was the first person that took me aside and said, ‘I’ll read your stuff if you’re writing,’” Rodriguez recalled. “I think Meredith empowered her, and she was giving back to me by empowering me.”
TRUE SYSTEMIC CHANGE
A female colleague told Valde-Hansen recently that a director wanted to hire her for a project, but the producer thought the budget was out of her league — although there was a relatively small gap between it and other projects she’d worked on.
“This has happened to me. Why? Why is that story happening, when a white man makes a movie for $500,000, it does really well, and then suddenly he’s handed an $80 million Marvel movie,” Valde-Hansen said. “That has to change.”
Rodriguez says that when studios complain that they can’t find diversity among writers, she has lists at the ready.
“It starts at the top, with execs realizing they have to do the work to look for writers of color, hire writers of color and give people chances,” she said. “Just like they would take a chance on a white director or a white writer.”
Eskridge recalls a few times when she was the “highest-ranking person of color in the building, and I’m not a president or part of the C-suite. That shows you that’s a problem.”
Yang wants the industry to think diversity for every aspect of production.
“The more down the credits you move, it’s still the same old, same old. And I don’t want to be the first one of the few,” she said.
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