An Actress's Thoughts

Directors’ First Steps

The Directors’ First Steps

Since 2000 the German Film Academy has annually been presenting the First Steps Awards to the graduation films of at the German-language film schools in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
To quote from the official website: “This award presents the high creative protential of the newcomers to the industry and also eases their “first steps” in the profession.” Today’s evaluation of 16 years of nominated films aims at checking if this is true in three categories out of a total of seven: Feature Lengh Films, Medium Length Films (up to 60 mins) and Short Films / Animated Films, i.e. the fictional films.
The first three figures show the distribution of nominations and awards for the three fictional categories for the past 16 years for the main film schools in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Most awards were won by the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg Ludwigsburg, which also had been nominated the most. A look at the three film categories paints a different picture. Most nominations for feature length were received by the DFFB in Berlin (29 nominations), followed bei the HFF Munich (17). The Filmakademie Ludwigsburg and the HFF Munich lead the field for medium length films, and for short and animated films there are four film schools on top with 11 nominations each: the Filmakademie Ludwigsburg, the Media School Hamburg, the Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln and the Hochschule der Künste in Zurich, which has not been nominated in any other fictional category. We may assume that the basic financial situation for graduation films differs considerably from school to school.
Independent productions outside of film schools account for a total of 13 nominations, among which were 6 feature length films – with one award in 2003 for the film FREMDER FREUND (Foreign Friend) by Elmar Fischer. Eight film schools that don’t belong to the International Association of Film and Television Schools CILECT received a total of eleven nominations, six of which for the category short / animated film and only one for full length films.
The lenght of a graduation film does not automatically determine the following career. Marc-Andreas Borchert, whose short film KLEINGELD (Small Change) was nominated in 2000, has worked for television 20 times or more after that, and Anne Høegh Krohn who was nominated in the same year for her feature film FREMDE FREUNDIN (Foreign Girl-Friend) has since only directed one television movie and one for the cinema. So it might be useful to analyze the nominations and following careers of directors in relation to their gender as well.
The fourth figure shows all nominations from 2000 to 2015 (= 16 years), broken down to women and men directors. The fifth figure shows the same distribution, only this time percentaged, with a reference line at 42 % which has been the mean share of women among graduates at all German film schools over the last years. The figures for nominated documentaries are included as well. And figure 6 shows the share of women for nominations and awards for the three fictional categories.

Nominated films that were directed by women are just as good as those by men if the jury decisions are anything to go by, on the contrary: films directed by women made 34,3 % of all fictional nominations, but 40,4 % of the awards. This is something not only to be found among graduation films, as was discovered by research of the Institut für Medienforschung (Institute for media research) of the University of Rostock into the festival run of films:

“Only 1 in 5 films (22 %) between 2009 and 2013 were directed by a woman. These films apparently are of a high quality, since films by women receive awards more often and also have much more successful festival runs. This success is quite remarkable if we take into account that not only are women underrepresented in film productions but also as a rule films by women are less well equipped financially. (…) On average a film directed by a women gets 660,000 € of funding whereas a film directed by a man gets 1,000,000 € on average.” (Elizabeth Prommer / Skadi Loist, Wer dreht deutsche Kinofilme? Genderreport 2009-2013“, February 2015).

And what about the aforementioned ”Easing of the first steps“ for young directors? To find out I compared how many films for cinema and TV and how many TV-series the nominees directed in the first seven years after being nominated for the FIRST STEP AWARD. As a source I used the biographical data on the FIRST STEPS website, comparing and sometimes complementing it with data from crew united, Filmportal and IMDB.
The first thing that is quite remarkable is the fact that quite a large number of nominees are on zero; 17 of 43 female directors (= 40 %) and 28 of 93 male directors (= 30 %) did not direct any film for the cinema or television nor any episode in a TV series. Short films and documentaries as well as commercials and music videos were not taken into acount. The majority of the others shot their next film for cinema within seven years (female directors with 1,1 films on avery, male directors 1,0). The big difference is due to television. Male directors on average shot 0,9 TV movies over the seven year period, female directors only 0,5. For TV series the numbers are 0,5 and 0,3 respectively. To put it in words: men get nearly twice as many jobs directing for television as women do. Top of the list Hannu Salonen shot as many as nine TV movies within his first seven years after graduation, among them three TATORTE (Crime Scene, cop drama) and two POLIZEIRUFE, but no film for the cinema screen. Vanessa Jopp who graduated in 2000 just like Salonen and who won the FIRST STEPS AWARD with her film VERGISS AMERIKA (Forget America) shot one TATORT and two films for cinema in the seven years.

Where do these differences come from? Are the ambitions of male and female directors different? And more important: What are the consequences of this? Television is considered as the entrance medium to professional directing. The first Diversity Report 2014 of the Directors’ Association has shown comprehensively women directors are clearly and strongly underprepresented in public television. Why is this so? What motivates broadcasters / commissioning editors to give a project to a newcomer, to a no-name, be it a TATORT or any other television movie? Is it the charism? The quality of the graduation film? The film school? Connections? Is gender the first criterion?

I asked Hannu Salonen about the start of his television career that brought him the first three of his to date eleven TATORTs: DER VIERTE MANN (the fourth man, Berlin 2003), FEUERTAUFE (baptism of fire, Leipzig 2004) and STERNENKINDER (still born children, KIel 2005), and his only a few years after graduating with the non cop-story film DOWNHILL CITY. This is his answer:

My development is indeed quite remarkable, when you take DOWNHILL CITY and my short films prior to that into account. Those films can be assigned to art house cinema, they weren’t commercial films at all. DOWNHILL CITY was quite successful at festivals, what I personally saw was the more difficult aspect of art house cinema: in the end the films were only seen by few people, by a quite elect and so far also elitist audience. I discovered the filmmaker in me who wanted to reach the masses – not along the lines of “no matter what the cost”, but in a manner that combines entertainment and standard for the films. From then on I wanted to reach as many people as possible.
But there is another thing that tipped the scales in favour of “commercialsim”. My background, my finnish Heimat. I grew up close to large, dark forests and viking tombs – this was my spiritual home. And it was always mystical, exciting and dark. Nature played a big part in this – and still does today. This world that we are not able to control rationally has always fascinated me. It was only after my “art house period” at the DFFB film school that I found my way back to my roots, where I had been making genre films practically from childhood days, possibly mixed with Bergman and Tarkovsky, and however: it were always films that did not portray evey-day life, but rather had a mythical narrative and often ended bad and bloody.
So in this respect it is not really a surprise in the end that I stayed “at home” or rather returned some day. In a nutshell: the director of DOWNHILL CITY was and remained a fairy-tale teller.

Hannu Salonen. Beim Tatortdreh mit einem Team des Aktuellen Fernsehens des Saarländischen Rundfunks. Foto: SR/M. Meyer

Hannu Salonen. On Set of Tatort with a team of Aktuelles Fernsehen of Saarländischer Rundfunk. Photo by SR/M. Meyer

That a director wants to show his films to a bigger audience and consequently decides to leave art house cinema and turn to television is quite comprehensible. At the same time it is good news that he succeeded and got offers to direct TV movies, TV cop dramas right from the start of his career.
Who it was that enabled him, a newcomer, to shoot his first prime-time copdrama and how this came about I was not able to find out unfortunately. Nobody I spoke to from the broadcasting or the production company, neither the production manager nor the author (those were the people I had been advised to ask) had any clear recollection. Maybe it was a fortunate coincidence, maybe there were other reasons, in any case Salonen went on to direct lots of cop dramas and other television movies and still does. This year his third feature film for the cinema premiered – to a small, special audience. As far as I could find out VARES – SHERIFFI (Vares – the sheriff) has only been shown in cinemas in Finland so far.

There will always be directors, men and women, that have a better start than the rest for a number of reasons. However, when men get more directing jobs for television than women in the first seven years of their professional life, then we may assume some sort of structural discrimination, something we also encounter in other areas of society. Low shares of women in governing boards and management, for editors of newspapers and radio / TV, in talk shows and conference panels are just some examples for gender imbalance. This form of female poverty unfortunately is reproduced by the film industry and public television in front of the camera as well, who don’t present a 50:50 gender balance in their fictional casts that would more truthfully depict the situation in this country.
WINNETOU (8 men and 1 woman in main cast) will be remade and possibly also DAS BOOT (all-male main cast) – even the TV series WEISSENSEE mainly centred around – very different and complex – male characers. Films and series with surplus female characters to balance this are not to be found. Are women really less interesting for film and TV plots, or is this the result of a bad habit?
Is this because of the structures or the way, new plot ideas are found? Be this as it may, we very often see man als the makers and women as the ornament or patient listeners. So we don’t really think of women when there is something we want to be done.
In this context I would like to go back to my blog text Ask yourself: What would DRadio Kultur do? about a weekly radio show in Germany. All-female editing staff offers a programme that covers socially relevant and popular topics and has been inviting a vast majority of male guests over the past years. At the moment the ratio is 1 to 3,5 – without the need to do so becauser there are enough female experts around – if only someone cared to look for them. But what is happening instead? Maybe something like this: “So we are planning a discussion on topic ABC, which men could we invite?” or “Let’s try for some diversity, so how about taking a middle-aged and an older man.” “Oh yes, someone with practical experience and an academic, possibly a professor?”
And what might happen in television? “Here’s the new script, who will be our man (sic!) to direct it?”

There are alternatives of course. Let’s learn from the way some major orchestras have been dealing with overcoming the male bias. In order to not discriminate musicians because of their gender auditions are held with the musicians playing behind a curtain or a sceen, so that the decision about whether to hire someone is based on muscial merit. This approach has led to a substantial rise in the share of female musicians in the orchestras. Also we know of literary competitions where writers have to apply anonymously, and some publishers even have manuscripts checked gender-neutralized, both led to a rise in the share of female writers. Is this a path public television could go as well? Why not? There are a number of arguments in favour of anonymized submissions of scripts and plot exposés, not only from a gender point of view.
As regards the hiring of directors this would be more difficult, because there you can’t really anomymize the applications. There are a number of measures against discriminating female directors that are being discussed currently. Not only for feature films (cinema) but also for television there is some commition, not least because of Pro Quote Regie: the head of programme for ARD (first channel, public television) Volker Herres has announced the goal of a 20 % quota for female directors for the TV movie slots TATORT, POLIZEIRUF and Mittwochsfilm (Wednesday movie). This is a first step, and an important one. Others will have to follow, also at the ZDF (second channel, public television).
Which brings us back to the FIRST STEPS AWARDS. Boosting young directing talents generally and women in particulary are very important for the future to provide diverse cinema and television for the audiences, this is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the First Diversity Report by the German directors’ guild BVR. And it makes total sense to not only nominate those elaborately and expensively trained film school graduates for an award, but give them a proper start-up for their professional careers. So what about guaranteeing every nominated graduate, man and woman, the job of directing a regular TV movie within their first seven years – preverably within a shorter time-span even? We can deduce from Hannu Salonen’s example (nine TV movies within his first seven years) and the average value of 0,7 films / 7 years for all male nominees that quite a large number did not direct a TV movie at all. This guarantee of course is an offer for all directors who are interested in working for television in the first place. Whether there are differences between women and men – art-house versus commercial projects – might be an interesting question for a future survey among students and alumni.

Another question that needs to be investigated thoroughly is that about the (in-)compatibility of job and family for directors. Very often, and maybe as a reflex, the low share of women in directing is explained by “they start a family”. But how many female directors are mothers? In what age do they have their children, and do children lead to them having to turn down TV and cinema jobs? And what about the situation of male directors who are the fathers of young children and want to spend time with them? Do they experience a setback in their careers or even a premature end to it?
This of course is not only a challenge for directors but for people in all areas of the film / TV industry (I wrote about this last year: (Cinema, Career, Children), and combining family and work is next to equal pay for women and men perhaps the most important challenge on the road to equal opportunities for women and men in the film and TV industry of today.

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