Anna Mastro had managed to build a pretty impressive directing portfolio. Her reel included Walter, a full-length independent feature film starring Andrew J. West and Justin Kirk, as well as the short film Bench Seat, a film festival hit. Her credits also included spots for Cover Girl, MasterCard and NASCAR; award-winning music videos for Train, DJ Havana Brown and Victoria Justice; and a Royal Crush series of branded content for Royal Caribbean that earned tens of millions of views.
For all that experience and success, Mastro couldn’t break into the one genre that was especially appealing to her: episodic television. “Episodic directing, to get into, is extremely challenging,” Mastro said. “Even if you do one. I had done an episode of Gossip Girl, and then I did a movie, and it still took this program for people to give me more shows.”
Mastro finally got her chance when she discovered the recently launched Viacom Spectrum Director Development Program, which offers on-set job-shadowing of working Directors Guild of America (DGA) directors to a hand-selected coterie of women and minorities, who are vastly under-represented in the directorial ranks.
Getting that first opportunity is a common problem – of nearly 4,000 episodes of episodic television reviewed in the DGA’s current annual report, women directed only 16 percent of them. Once the guild began including basic cable shows in its 2010 industry-wide report of hiring practices in episodic television, a team led by Viacom Senior Vice President of Labor Relations Brad Hazzard, alarmed by the low representation of women and minorities, initiated the company-wide conversations that birthed the Spectrum Director Development Program.
“These numbers were an absolute wake-up call,” said Hazzard. “Viacom has always had an extremely important and positive relationship with the Directors Guild, and given our emphasis on global inclusion and diversity within Viacom, there was no other option for us other than to do what we can to correct the situation.”
This alarm led to the creation of Spectrum, a wide-ranging initiative that encompasses most Viacom brands and incorporates both dramatic and non-dramatic programming, a characteristic that makes it unique among similar talent initiatives at CBS, Fox, NBC and others. The first class, which included Mastro, formed last fall.
After applying for the Spectrum program and attending a Los Angeles mixer at DGA headquarters attended by more than a dozen senior executives from MTV, CMT, VH1 and Logo, Mastro shadowed director Jamie Travis on an episode of MTV’s Faking It, shot on location and on set in Los Angeles. Travis, who had directed the show’s pilot, helped Mastro adapt to the particular set dynamics of episodic television, helping her understand, for instance, how to interact with actors who are together for every episode, even as the director constantly changes.
Shortly after this experience, MTV’s Awkward contacted Mastro’s agent to book her for an episode. She also connected with the head of MTV’s Finding Carter, who offered her a slot directing an episode of that show.
Her first episode, Awkward episode 520, served as an induction into the sometimes hectic world of episodic directing, where tight shooting schedules compound the urgency of resolving any production challenges, which in this case included a rash of crew illnesses and a script that required a number of babies, who were unfamiliar with the quiet-on-the-set decorum of a production shoot. Episode 214 of Finding Carter, shot in Atlanta, presented its own challenges: a one-hour, 58-scene show shot over six days.
The satisfaction of running an episode, however, outweighed any stress that accompanied the shoots. She was able to apply the actor-interaction skills she had picked up during her shadow experience to direct Jackson Rathbone of Twilight fame in his first television appearance, underscoring her capabilities as an able director who only needed a shot on set to prove herself.
Aside from the shadowing experience, the Spectrum Development Program has various components that help program participants such as Mastro go from an on-set spectator to actual director. In order to improve the chances that a candidate will be selected to shadow a DGA director on a show, the program hosts mixers where participants can mingle with executives. To encourage network participation, the program contributes to a director’s compensation if a show follows through and hires a shadow.
Meanwhile, Viacom has taken various other steps to increase diversity behind-the -camera, a fact reflected on the most recent DGA report, in which Viacom’s BET swept the top three spots on the “Best Of” list, and eight other programs from Nickelodeon, MTV and VH1 made appearances.
With her first few episodic shows cut into her reel, Mastro has continued to book more work. She’s scheduled to direct an episode of the CW’s Jane the Virgin this season.
Entering the competitive episodic directing world via Viacom seemed to particularly resonate with Mastro. “I’ve always wanted to work at MTV,” she said. “MTV informed our entire generation and made us want to go out and direct music videos, so it’s really important for me to be able to work there and give back to the next generation and make entertainment that they’re going to love.”
Spectrum, which Viacom’s Labor Relations Department runs with the support of the company’s Office of Global Inclusion, will continue to evolve its efforts to highlight women and ethnic minority directors. Recruitment for a much larger 2016 class of program participants across nearly all of Viacom’s basic cable channels is now underway. “Viacom has been very clear in its business objective, in its dialogue with its employees, and with peers and with the industry that we are diverse,” said Hazzard. “We hold diversity as one of the most important tenets of our business model. If you’re going to do that, then make sure that from behind that door, it’s being done. Not only does the content have to mirror that, but who produces the content.”