The Producers & Directors

Five alums working in showbiz share their struggles and victories.

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Mills alums create change behind the scenes in the film and T V industry, showing the world through their eyes.

By Dawn Cunningham ’85

Film and television shape who we are as a culture and how we view the world. At their best, they can help us understand ourselves, move us to empathize with others, and inspire us to create change. At their worst, they can dehumanize others and promote hatred. 

The goals and perspectives of the directors and producers who work behind the scenes make all the difference. But these perspectives have long been constrained by the narrow demographic of directors and producers: the overwhelming majority have been white men. 

A team of researchers led by Kate Karniouchina, dean of the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy, recently examined 2,386 motion pictures widely distributed in the United States between 1994 and 2016. They found that women directed less than five percent of these films, and people of color (POC) directed less than 11 percent of them.1

In addition, Karniouchina and team discovered “women and POC direct films that generate similar revenues to films directed by male, nonminority directors when they are given the same opportunities. However, they are not currently being given the same opportunities. Biases against female and minority directors begin with project assignment and ‘build’ throughout the process to include decisions about budgeting and exhibition.” 

The underrepresentation of women extends to a wide range of behind-the-scenes roles. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in 2022 women comprised only 24 percent of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films; 31 percent of those working on broadcast programs; and 37 percent of those working on streaming programs. 

In the past decade, a convergence of diverse social movements—including #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, and #MeToo—has spotlighted the lack of diversity and gender equity in the industry and helped instigate change. Many studios and media companies have made it a priority to hire women and people of color, and a number of grants for independent films promote underrepresented filmmakers. And beginning in 2024, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will implement new representation and inclusion standards for the Oscars’ best picture category—standards that apply to a film’s creative leadership and project team as well as its cast. 

Professor Emeritus of Film Studies Ken Burke, who was on the faculty at Mills from 1987 to 2013, says: “The more options there are for women to produce stories, to write and direct those stories on-screen, to participate in the technical aspects of making the story come alive, the better understanding audiences can have of perspectives that male writers/directors might not be best able to comprehend or convey.” 

In the pages that follow, five Mills women share their experiences as producers and directors. They have all been affected while building their careers by the industry’s inequalities and biases. Yet they are succeeding, in varying ways, in drawing diverse people or perspectives into the creation of the films and videos we watch.

Rosanne Cunningham ’90, Executive Producer 

At Mills, Rosanne Cunningham (who is the sister of this article’s writer) developed an interest in cinematography and directing. She designed her own major in film, video, and electronic music; Burke was one of her advisors. Soon after graduating, she started helping directors with low-budget music video productions. “I did everything,” she says. “I would help scout for locations. I would help with the art department.” 

She and a director with whom she frequently worked landed bigger and bigger music video projects that enabled her to hire production assistants and managers. She quickly rose to the role of producer and then executive producer—roles in which she has helped directors develop creative ideas. Cunningham’s credits include producing commercials, MTV and ESPN specials, and music videos for Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and scores of other hip-hop and R&B artists. 

“I fell into production because I needed work,” Cunningham says, looking back at the reasons she became a producer rather than a director. “A lot of people who start directing at a young age have come from money, and I did not. They have contacts who can invest in their vision.” 

She adds: “Women often go into production because people see it as a more feminine skill set than directing. I was definitely pushed in that direction. And the truth is that it’s harder for me to pitch my own creative ideas than to support others. Directors have to be able to sell themselves and have a healthy ego.” 

In the past, women and people of color were also disadvantaged when seeking jobs in the industry because, as Cunningham explains: “This business comes down to networking. Directors hire people they’re friends with, and it’s been a boy’s club.” Especially on commercial projects, “male producers could rise quickly by getting chummy with male clients,” she recalls. 

Stereotyping posed another hurdle. “Black directors who were good at hip-hop music videos couldn’t easily cross over into mainstream work. They were stereotyped as being able to do a certain genre,” she says. “Women were also stereotyped in a certain way. You had to work extra hard to break those stereotypes. 

“But times have changed since I first got into the business,” she says. “Now is a good time for minority directors as well as for women. People are looking for much more diversity.” 

In her current role as executive producer at Robot Film Company in Los Angeles, Cunningham has pushed to hire more women as directors. For a recent MTV series she executive-produced that involved multiple short videos, four of the 11 directors selected were women. “The women were so buttoned-up and so organized,” she says. “All had these beautiful storyboards and shot lists, while not one of the male directors did. The women were so much better prepared and worked a lot harder.” 

An Asian woman with long brunette hair, a blue blouse, and a black leather jacket standing next to a white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, a patterned blouse, and a checked blazer, against a cityscape of Los Angeles.
Rosanne Cunningham ’90 (left) and Haley Moffett ’90 (right)

Haley Moffett ’90, Executive Producer 

A studio art major, Haley Moffett found work in an art gallery in San Francisco after college but struggled to pay rent. Cunningham, her roommate at the time, invited her to help with a music video in Oakland as a production assistant. “I didn’t know what it entailed exactly, but it was for this hip-hop group called Digital Underground,” she recalls. “It was totally chaotic and crazy and fun, and I fell in love with music video production.” 

Moffett worked her way up through the production ranks, fending off casual sexism along the way—such as the time in Houston when she was negotiating rental rates with a lighting house employee who assumed she reported to a male producer. “He said, ‘Tell your producer that this is the best we can do.’ And I said, ‘You’re talking to her,’” she says. “I remember him laughing and my being really humiliated. But you just work through it and over time you develop a thick skin.”

To further develop her skills and knowledge as a producer, Moffett enrolled in the Producers Program at UCLA, pursuing an MFA in film and television. “The program was fantastic, mainly for the connections,” she says. In 2004, she and friends she met at UCLA co-founded RockCorps, a pro-social organization that produced large-scale concerts featuring stars like Rihanna and Lady Gaga exclusively for young volunteers. “The whole idea behind it was to motivate young people to participate in volunteering in their community and then be celebrated for it,” she explains. “We would produce these concerts for them, and then we would shoot multi-camera concert specials.” 

Today, Moffett is head of production at Artifact Studios in Los Angeles, which creates documentaries for public television as well as commercials and video game content. As ideas for projects come up, she says, “I’m really glad when I’m able to influence a project’s direction, to bring a perspective as a woman, and help shape what we’re putting out there in the world.” 

Moffett uses her network and online resources—such as,, and—to seek out women and people of color for a range of positions with Artifact Studio projects. “We want to develop and hire underrepresented creators and below-the-line workers to build more diverse crews,” she says. “But this can sometimes be a challenge, especially when it comes to post-production roles, including editors, animators, and sound designers. It’s incumbent on the industry to invest in training people.” 

Directors can have a huge influence on the diversity of the rest of the crew. “Female directors often hire female DPs [directors of photography] and heads of departments, like the art department or wardrobe department,” Moffett observes. Research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film concurs: Films with woman directors employed substantially more women in other behind-the-scenes roles than films with male directors. 

“I’m excited for the younger generations of women,” Moffett says. “They’re going to really kick ass and have these really amazing, diverse teams that tell stories representing different people’s perspectives.” 

Anonymous, News Producer 

One alumna interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous so she could speak freely about her experience grappling with both sexism and racism in the industry. 

Within a year of completing her studies at Mills in the mid 1990s, she landed a job as an assistant producer in a network newsroom. “I was given extraordinary opportunities. I saw the world and covered some of the biggest stories of my generation,” she says. “But while I and other young women would do all the heavy lifting that went into building shows, older white people—mostly men—got all the credit and the pay. 

“There were very few producers of color,” she adds. “There was one African American producer, no Asian producers, and no Latino producers. The narrative across the board was shaped by white people.” 

A pullquote from anonymous, saying, "I can finally pitch projects that I care about and have people listen and say, 'Let's do that. Let's tell that story.' But that's been 30 years in the making."

After years at that network, she says, “I took a leap of faith and went somewhere else, to a place where my voice was valued and recognized as a person of color… I can finally pitch projects that I care about and have people listen and say, ‘Let’s do that. Let’s tell that story.’ But that’s been 30 years in the making.” 

As a news producer, she explains, “I find people to be in the stories, hire the camera crews, watch the footage that we’ve shot, and figure out a way to tell the stories that humanizes people and helps folks to learn something new and different.” 

Her storytelling talents have earned her an Emmy. She’s particularly proud of her work covering the events of summer 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. “Summer of 2020 was life-changing for African American journalists as a whole,” she says. “We were able to tell our stories in our own words and document what was happening in our lives.” 

“The landscape is different now than when I started out,” she adds. “There are women directors, there are women of color running major networks. There are so many Black creators: we’re artists, we’re producers, we’re prolific writers. No longer are our narratives written by other people.” 

Emelie Coleman Mahdavian ’08, Director and Producer 

Emelie Mahdavian attended London Film School and worked in the film industry before coming to Mills to study music and philosophy. After graduating, she earned a Ph.D. in performance studies from the University of California, Davis. For her dissertation, she directed a feature-length documentary, After the Curtain, about the lives of female dancers in Tajikistan. 

In 2019, Midnight Traveler, a film she produced, wrote, and edited, won a Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival, a Peabody Award, and an Emmy. The film was directed by Hassan Fazili, an Afghan refugee who used cell phones to chronicle his family’s flight to Europe. Mahdavian set up contact points along the family’s route to collect their footage and edit it. After the film’s release, she was selected for the prestigious “40 under 40” list published by the DOC NYC festival. 

A white woman with shoulder-length red hair and eyeglasses, seated, wearing  a black Grateful Dead T-shirt and black jeans, looking into the camera against a dark background.

Bitterbrush, which she directed, premiered at Telluride Film Festival in 2021 and won a Special Jury Prize at Visions du Réel in Switzerland. The documentary focuses on the friendship between two women range riders—and their dogs—as they herd cattle across a remote, mountainous Idaho landscape. Mahdavian met the range riders, Hollyn and Colie, while she was living near their cabin one summer, just before she joined the University of Utah’s Department of Film and Media Arts, where she is now an assistant professor. 

“Both women faced tough choices by virtue of the industry that they picked,” she says. Ranching, like filmmaking, has been male-dominated. “The three of us bonded over this. The things that they experience on a ranch—when they’re trying to convince others that they know how to run a ranch, that they know their job—are not that different from things that I experienced on a Hollywood set.” 

“The way I encounter it is people talking down to me. They don’t know I have a Ph.D. and an Emmy. Then they’ll turn to men who are younger than me and address them with a great deal of respect. When you’ve been around the block a few times, you recognize that this is just sexism. You have to fight to be treated right,” she explains. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve reached a point where I feel proud of my work and my ability to see something in advance and then actually realize it.” 

Mahdavian was drawn to making a film about friendship between women because, as she says, “It’s not something I’ve seen represented in a way that has the texture of an authentic female bond.” Such friendship will also feature in her new documentary project, about a women-led science team that is studying the rapidly melting Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. During winter break, she stayed with the scientists on the glacier’s ice shelf, bringing a specially assembled camera kit and doing all the cinematography herself. 

“I want to tell their story in a way that might be less tested but that I feel is true to who they are,” she says. But the less tested a film’s approach, the more difficult it can be to finance the project: “Often commercial viability is measured in terms of proven successes of comps [comparable films] and similar titles and past work,” she points out. 

Mahdavian has had some success with finding grant support and distributors for her films—Bitterbrush, for instance, is distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Still, “it’s a struggle to create a degree of equity and sustainability for yourself and your creative team,” she says. “The industry is not structured to support the artists. It’s structured to sustain the industry itself.” 

This structure poses a conundrum for those who seek to bring diverse perspectives to filmmaking. “How can our approaches to storytelling be commercially viable and at the same time not just recast the same story, but rather fundamentally alter story structures in ways that allow us to imagine different futures?” Mahdavian asks. “How do we make work that allows us as audience members to engage with other visions of the world?” 

Meg Smaker ’12, Director 

The Quarterly first featured Meg Smaker in spring 2016, after she won a Student Academy Award for her short film Boxeadora. She had just graduated from Stanford University’s documentary film MFA program, and her career as a director seemed ready to take off. 

In January 2022, her first feature-length documentary, The UnRedacted (originally known as Jihad Rehab), premiered at Sundance Film Festival. She was hoping for a distribution deal and better access to funding for future projects. Instead, she’s been caught in a national controversy that has upended her plans and prospects. 

The UnRedacted focuses on four Yemeni men residing in a rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia for former extremists. Previously imprisoned in Guantánamo for 15 years, they’d been accused of involvement with terrorist activities—though they were never charged or convicted. Besides interviewing them, the film depicts them in counseling sessions and classes as they prepare to re-enter society and follows up with them after release from the center. “The film is intentionally open-ended,” Smaker says. “It’s not saying rehabilitation works or doesn’t work. It’s not saying these men are good or bad. The audience can make up their own mind.” 

Smaker first heard of the rehab center during the five years she lived Yemen, where she taught firefighting. She left Yemen to attend Mills and then Stanford, and after her studies, she began exploring the possibility of making a documentary about the center. “I wanted to give people an opportunity to hear from these men and their perspective,” she explains. 

It took a year of negotiation, but she got permission from Saudi authorities to film, as well as agreements from both Saudi and Yemeni detainees to be interviewed. She says her years of living in Yemen helped the Yemeni men feel comfortable opening up to her. 

Meanwhile, Smaker had to secure funding for the project—a challenge that proved greater than gaining access to the center. “No one in Saudi Arabia ever told me I couldn’t do this project because I’m a woman,” she recalls. “But in the United States, potential investors said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to be able to pull this off as a woman.’” She was advised to team up with a male director—advice she declined. 

A white woman with long blonde hair and eyeglasses posing against a wall of black painted bricks. She's wearing a gray shirt and a red blazer. And a quote from Meg Smaker: "After you watch a documentary film, when it's done well, you feel like your world has been broadened just a little, because you can explore a space and a people and a time you might never visit in your real life, but you've still had this experience with them."

Early on, the only investors who believed she could succeed as the film’s director were other women. Smaker says she “was always fundraising because we never had enough money. There were times when we just had to put our expenses on credit cards.” 

Despite the obstacles, Smaker completed Jihad Rehab, and it was selected for screening at festivals around the world. The press reviews after the Sundance premiere were glowing. The Guardian’s reviewer wrote: “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.” 

However, a few Muslim documentary filmmakers had begun raising objections to Jihad Rehab even before the premiere. Some opposed the idea of a white, non-Muslim woman telling the stories of Muslim men and asserted the film would be Islamophobic or an instrument of Saudi propaganda. 

“At first, I thought this was all just one big misunderstanding, and that once they saw the film, they’d realize what it is,” Smaker says. She and her Yemeni American executive producer offered to preview and discuss the film with objectors before it was fully edited, a suggestion that went unanswered. At Sundance’s request, Smaker submitted the film for an independent ethics review, which it passed. She renamed the film The UnRedacted to allay concerns that the term “jihad” could be misunderstood. 

Yet after the premiere, the backlash gained momentum. Critics claimed that the film framed its subjects as terrorists and endangered them. In addition, some said that by attempting to humanize the detainees for a Western audience, the film was normalizing whiteness. Sundance apologized for premiering the film, and other US film festivals cancelled screenings. 

Festivals in other countries, however, stuck with it. The UnRedacted won awards at the Rome International Film Festival and the Warsaw Film Festival. It also gained prominent defenders. The podcaster Sam Harris featured Smaker on an episode, and The New York Times and The Atlantic published in-depth articles praising the film and criticizing its censorship. Los Angeles Times television critic Lorraine Ali, a Muslim woman, wrote about her admiration for the documentary, saying, “The question now is how to move forward promoting authenticity in authorship without siloing diverse filmmakers.” 

Today Smaker is self-distributing the film, raising support through GoFundMe and holding screenings and talks in independent theaters in the United States and abroad. “I just want people to watch it,” she says. “Then I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I worked for a long time to be a documentary filmmaker. But now no one in the industry will touch me with a 10-foot pole.” 

She remains proud of the film, the perspectives it illuminates, and its ability to spark conversation. She says, “After you watch a documentary film, when it’s done well, you feel like your world has been broadened just a little, because you can explore a space and a people and a time that you might never visit in your real life, but you’ve still had this experience with them.” 

Producers vs. Directors: Who Does What?

Among the various behind-the-scenes roles in the film/television/video industry, producers and directors have some of the greatest influence over what stories are told and who gets to tell them. 

Producers typically manage all logistic and budgetary aspects of a film, broadcast show, or video from start to finish—including hiring crew members. A project may involve several types of producers, with differing levels of responsibility. Executive producers recruit and supervise key members of the project team (including the director and the producer) and handle business affairs. In the case of television series—including broadcast news—many producers are frequently also a show’s writers, with considerable control over story development. 

More women work as producers than in any other behind-the-scenes role: They make up 31 percent of producers in film (but only 25 percent of executive producers) and 44 percent of producers in broadcast and streaming programs (but only 33 percent of executive producers). 

For other genres—including feature films, documentaries, and music videos—directors typically have primary responsibility for shaping the way a story is told. They control a project’s creative aspects, including the work of the cast, cinematographer, and editor. On some projects, the director may also serve as a producer or recruit the producer.  

  1. The team also included Mills economics professors Siobhan Reilly and Lorien Rice and business professor Carol Theokary, as well as University of Utah marketing professor Stephen Carson. The results of their research were published in an article, “Women and Minority Film Directors in Hollywood: Performance Implications of Product Development and Distribution Biases,” in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2023.