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“Why Is It So Difficult To Find A Female Cinematographer For Small Micro Budget Start Up Projects?” Asked And Answered

Let’s learn about why it’s a tough subject.

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Women In Media online groups connect above and below the line women and the people who love making movies with them. I participate in FB groups across the spectrum as a multi-hyphenate creator. I am not there to let my perspective flow, I am usually there to read and learn and expand my understanding through the generous contributions of others.

I read a fascinating thread in which filmmakers shared their concerns openly and held back from challenging differing opinions (quotes with permission):

Actress, writer, and producer Mahogany Zachary: “Hi everyone! I’m curious, and would like to get some feedback on this… Why is it so difficult to find a female Cinematographer for small micro budget start up projects? I was talking to a fantastic Director today, who has been in the biz for 10+ years. She said, “when trying to hire female crew, women get very offended when asked to work for less than their rate, because they often think the low offer is coming from misogyny and don’t always understand that it’s just coming from a lack of resources”. Is this true? I just saw an interesting documentary on Netflix called This Changes Everything. I’m sure many of you have seen it if not check it out. I hate hearing that a majority female crew is difficult to find. I have a FANTASTIC DP that I work with and HIS day rate with cam and equip is $600- $800. He heard about what I was doing (creating an all female show) and was willing to drop his rate to $150. But I’m passionate about an all female crew so I declined. I would love to see things change regarding women behind the camera unfortunate I don’t have a million dollars YET! But I’m working on it😊 HA this has turned into a novel.”

Is this an overall problem for this one creator or an industry-wide issue?

From LAist: Here’s the bad news: part of the reason is that there aren’t that many women shooting the kinds of movies that get recognized at the Oscars. Of the 250 top-grossing films of 2018, only 4 percent had a woman cinematographer. 

That figure is from the latest Celluloid Ceiling Report from professor Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University. Lauzen’s been conducting the annual study since 1998 — when the percentage of women cinematographers working on the highest-grossing films was also 4 percent. The number has varied since then, but has yet to improve significantly.

“I’ve never understood why there aren’t more female cinematographers,” cinematographer Morrison told The Frame. “This industry is all about empathizing and channeling emotion into visuals. It’s everything that women do well.”

That inequity can become a self-perpetuating thing. Whether or not a woman gets the opportunity to work on a film often comes down to whether she’s got the right experience. But how do you get that experience without the opportunities?”

Why Don’t Female Cinematographers Get Hired On Big Movies?, Monica Bushman

I saw This Changes Everything at an event just before the pandemic. The doc takes a deep look at gender disparity in Hollywood through the testimonies of female filmmakers. Actress Geena Davis rallies Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon and others in this powerful documentary. The stats are staggering and the history of the activism is upsetting because no matter how powerful a movement, the progress is glacial. But I was inspired by learning the many ways how women in Hollywood are pushing for more representation in front of and behind the camera.

From The Guardian: “In the US, female collective Cinematographers XX was founded as a way to make women in the field more visible. The names of experienced DPs are listed on a website with links to their work. In the UK, Illuminatrix works on the same principle, and there’s also the International Collective of Female Cinematographers, who “provide each other with community support and industry advocacy”. There’s no longer any excuse to argue that female cinematographers are hard to find.

If Rachel Morrison does stand at the podium on Oscar night, hopefully that will create the new popular image of a female cinematographer. Holding an Oscar is always a good look.”

‘Ever heard of a woman cameraman?’: why female cinematographers get overlooked, Pamela Hutchinson

But famous faces do not represent the industry in the ways they think they do. Every day indie creators hold the stories, the trends, and the truths behind the sub-economy of the entertainment industry. The talent and skills developed in the fiery arena of indie creation will be the backbone of the next generation of award-winning masters of their arts.

After this question from Mahogany Zachary was put online in a safe space for creative discourse, the varying answers opened my eyes to what’s happening in the micro-budget world:

Production designer, Molly Coffee: “Women do not need to apologize for knowing their worth and demanding it. We all make exceptions and work for below our rate for the right projects but that is a personal choice. You either aren’t finding the right community or you aren’t making a compelling argument. Women don’t owe you any explanation and I hope that you will see that every day, bc of the struggles, women have to make thoughtful career choices bc small missteps are held against us so we have to work harder and be smarter.”

Lynn Gettman: “Camera is a really hard dept.. it’s not always woman friendly. …I totally understand what you are saying. From my limited experience, camera people are always busy. Whatever size or type of production (film, commercial, music video etc) it doesn’t exist without camera. Beyond the sexism, women are better at setting boundaries. We take time off when our show is down. Or we are juggling a family. …As quick follow up…. I think some reasons are institutional and situational.”

Shauntae Lymas, a person who is no longer a camera woman: “$600-$800 only takes care of daycare if they have kids. And that’s for 1 month. It’s one of the reasons why I stayed poor as a camera lady.”

Assistant director and producer, Amanda Nevarez: “I’ve found that when someone says their rate is 1 thing but then deep cut their rate “as a favor”, it’s either they take it until something better shows up or they really need the extra funds. In every industry, women have to work twice as hard as a man just to get paid, let alone, the same rate. If they’ve trained rate, they know to turn down the jobs that can’t afford to pay the standard rates for reasons that add up to not being paid enough to deal with.”

DP and camera op Katherine Ray: “We have a rough time getting work, so when you add in the costs of gear etc… we might not have the luxury of being able to flex our rate like our male counterparts can. There is a financial nut that has to be met every month if we are working or not. We often also have to work in other rolls in the camera dept just to make ends meet and there again doesn’t allow for wiggle room in rate as a DP. We do our best to help when we can but the honest truth is so many of us just cannot afford to.”

Producer, actor, and director Heidi Elizabeth Philipsen-Meissner: “I would suggest to a camera op who wants to get more DP credits (we are all looking for opportunities to advance) and giving points or backend. Or just get out there and raise a bit more. I’ve been in your shoes and know how hard it is to raise money (and how people expect everything from the producer, but don’t understand how the indie producers rarely make a dime and put everything on the line to push the envelope). Just keep on. Head to film fests. Be the great negotiator you are and up your pitch to make that compelling argument. I go to the studios when I want to make my full day rate. But that doesn’t meant I don’t have an “activist” rate in which I feel as if I’m part of a movement to get things done for women in film. And then make sure that the script is amazing and worth the while for everyone. Make sure it’s the best organized shoot ever so that no one ends up regretting they came on board for a lower rate…”

Actress, writer, producer Shannon McClain Robertson: “When I was an indie producer, myself and the other producers raised money specifically to pay our DP and his team their rate. They work so hard and it’s grueling work. And they threw in a lot of freebies as far as equipment so we were happy to pay them their rate to keep them happy. We wouldn’t have had a film without them.”

Cinematographer Rachel Garcia-Dunn: “I’ve been shooting for 20 years, and have 15 features under my belt. I’ve been in the union since 2008 and can count the number of union shows I’ve done on one hand. The biggest issue is the it’s usually director’s choice when it comes to hiring a DP. At a networking event, if a male DP approaches a male director, it’s seen as networking. If a female DP approaches a male director it’s perceived as flirting. 85% of my clients in the last 20 years have been female. And the 15% who were male hired me because they could look beyond their zipper, and see the quality of my work. There are lots of great female DPs out there, but when they talk to you at a networking event, you have to look at them as more than just a piece of tail. I’ve dropped my rate down to minimum wage to shoot all kinds of projects – that’s the minimum to qualify for roster days to keep current ($210/12) and have thrown in the gear to boot! But after the pandemic my discount days are pretty much over for a couple of reasons. I won’t get offended if offered a low rate, but won’t do deep discounts anymore to try to avoid the shit shows that don’t know what they’re doing. If they don’t know the true value of the services offered, they won’t want to pay those rates. Which is totally fine, they need to find someone just starting out who is hungry to build a reel. Which is an other reason for minimal discounts. For many years, I was after the footage more than I was after the cash. However, I’ve been building my reel for 20 years now, and I’m no longer in need of footage unless it has amazing production design, huge explosions, or famous faces. If you’re looking for inexpensive collaborators, look to people at your own skill level to form a partnership with, and hopefully you can grow together – but it has to be symbiotic. After all, it’s hard to buy a Ferrari when all you can afford is a Chevy. (www.racheldunn.com)”

There were dozens of additions to this conversation that won’t be found here, voices left off because this is a deeply broken systemic issue and we could list quotes for days. Truly talented, hard working, and generous artists and engineers donating their time to the conversation and offering resources is the very point of engaging in groups like these. I cannot recommend enough to keep CONVERSATION about these touchy subjects available for community members. Don’t shut down differing opinions, welcoming every voice in a group allows for everyone to form their own strategy on how to move the needle forward. We all play a different part in the movement and thus, in situations where people feel free to share openly, we can adjust our perspective on what struggles and concerns look like from our peers across the country.

I’m inviting female cinematographers to write essays on their experience for TheDrillMag.com, stay tuned for this platform offering deeper dives into the issues at every level that need to be addressed, but ultimately just need to be HEARD first. Message me at IG @JennicaRenee for more info.

Important notes:

Jennica Schwartzman, Managing Partner at Purpose Pictures Productions, Co-Founder of Little Sister Entertainment, and a member of The Producers Guild of America, SAG/AFTRA, and Moms-In-Film LA, loves tackling a project from idea to distribution as a multi-hyphenate actress-writer-producer. Jennica has been published in the Producers Guild Magazine "Produced By," Legacy Arts Magazine, Paragon Road, Bustle, and she is a guest writer for the acclaimed entertainment industry websites MsInTheBiz.com, FilmmakingStuff.com, Artemis Motion Pictures' #WomenKickAss Forum, and WomenandHollywood.com. She has been invited to speak on film festival panels and is a workshop teacher for The International Family Film Festival's Road Scholars intergenerational filmmaking camp. Jennica has produced ten feature film releases. Jennica and her husband /producing partner /writing partner Ryan have two kiddos and reside in Hollywood.

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