Director mentorships need a diversity update
Honor Society director Jazeel Gayle was presented with a chance to submit to an incredible mentorship program. The irony was, he didn't need it at this stage in his career. Here, he breaks down if mentorship is as attainable to new filmmakers as it should be.
Recently, through a close friend, I got the opportunity to join a mentorship program opening with a coveted mentor.
There was just one small issue - I didn’t need it. I felt humbled and honored, but I knew I had the reel and work experience to help me secure other jobs, where a director just starting their career could use this kind of mentorship program instead. Had the position come knocking three-to-four years ago, I would have jumped at the chance.
Can a hungry wide-eyed filmmaker who only has well-intentioned local videos on his or her reel compete with the people these programs have selected? And if not, ask yourself what do they have to do to get there?
I wondered why my chances of landing such an opening only increased as I earned more career experience...and not before? Where were these opportunities when I could have used them the most? Or, more broadly, are mentorship programs as attainable to new filmmakers as they could be?
I’m a Black, Gay, Immigrant filmmaker. The doors to fellowship and mentorship programs are wide open for me. I say this because I need to acknowledge my privilege, even in this area. Meanwhile, I have the privilege of working with women and WOC directors and hearing their conversations about the industry. Mentorships like these are a frequent topic. Through their anecdotes about applications, both successful and not, I gained a clearer understanding of the fraught entry circumstances. These programs seem to be undermining their mission statement with their selection process.
I’m a Black, Gay, Immigrant filmmaker. The doors to fellowship and mentorship programs are wide open for me.
Imagine you are a possible applicant who doesn’t live in a coastal city with a bustling production industry. You’re talented and pining for an opportunity, but your reel is relatively non-existent. You may have some things you shot for your local church, or public access channel. Your reel is going to be competing with mine. That, to me, is insane. But if you look at who’s accepted into these programs, you’ll notice their reels are all well-defined bodies of work.
I won’t name any specific program. For two reasons. Out of respect for the participants and the organizers. And because I don’t have to. Because the problem is universal. Take a look at any of those fellowships, mentorships, intensive, labs etc. Can our hungry wide-eyed filmmaker who only has well-intentioned local videos on his or her reel compete with the people these programs have selected? And if not ask yourself what do they have to do to get there? And is that attainable for them?
What, then, can mentorships change about how they accept applications and structure their programs? If barriers to entry entail too much legwork, but programs still need to ascertain the knowledge of their applicants, they can find a happy medium to pursue:
- Ditch the reel, but keep the briefs. It takes more money than a non-working director might have to shoot spec ads unless they were lucky enough to be hired for jobs early on, but every director can describe how they would approach a creative brief. How a director approaches a pre-set brief administered in the application would go a long way to separating the wheat from the chaff.
- Pair program directors with participating production companies, in roles they might want. Match directors as best you can with production companies creating content for industries they love most, to give them the most value in the shortest amount of time.
- Reconsider the application fee. This isn’t me griping. Having contenders pay for the privilege of being declined doesn’t make sense, and creates a barrier to highly talented directors who happen to come from low-income backgrounds. $100 applications paid 10 times a year means the difference between paying or not paying rent for some.
- Make diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives more than lip service. Allow for digitally remote participation for directors who live beyond major cities. Reach under-represented communities where they live and consciously expand application pools to creators of varying races, nationalities, genders, and more.
Imagine you are a possible applicant who doesn’t live in a coastal city with a bustling production industry ... Your reel is going to be competing with mine. That, to me, is insane.
The director mentorship curve could do with some flattening. Problems won’t vanish overnight, and certainly not during a pandemic, but a year’s worth of reflection across the industry can hopefully provide the space for actionable change.
Ultimately, the quality of an application’s creative ideas is up for judgment. Where applicants live, whether they can afford the application fee, and whether they have a shiny, fully edited, and sound mixed spec reel, are not.