What I Really Want To Do Is Direct: Lessons Learned From Anne Sweeney
Alternate Career Aspirations
When I started interning on the business and legal side of entertainment, my father told me to answer a firm “no” if anyone ever asked me if I had a script or a headshot. I had neither, but I was a musician, and soon I realized what my dad was trying to say. At any place that I worked, I was obligated to complete the task at hand. I was not, at least overtly, supposed to pursue my own creative aspirations at work or make them known. There is a tendency, amongst those of us in business and legal affairs, to act tepidly towards the creative side of the industry, to avoid acting like fans or artist wannabes. Still, there is a reason, an undeniable allure, that explains why otherwise level-headed lawyers and MBAs venture into the entertainment business.
A few weeks ago, Anne Sweeney, a co-Chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, stepped down from her corporate position to become a television director. Sweeney told the Hollywood Reporter, “What drives me now…is being immersed in the creative process.” At the top of her profession, Sweeney has suddenly shown us her cards, in the form of her creative aspirations.
Sweeney had been a favored candidate to be the next Disney CEO, so it was baffling to some that she abandoned her post. Personally, I found it intriguing, even endearing, that at 56, a top executive could give up her corporate role to pursue her creative dreams.
Women in the Industry: Leaning in, but where?
There have been numerous articles criticizing Sweeney’s move as a sort of betrayal of women in the industry (Forbes “Is Anne Sweeney Leaning Out by Leaving Disney?”; The Wrap “Why Won’t Disney’s Anne Sweeney Lean In?”).
If you are not familiar with the “lean in” jargon in the titles of these articles, the phrase refers to Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a book written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. One of the book’s central tenants, basically, is that women should strive to take active leadership roles.
Much of the criticism, not by Sandberg herself but by those referencing Lean In, was that Sweeney gave up an incredibly high-level position within the industry, with a possible CEO promotion on the horizon, in order to direct television. Articles criticizing Sweeney smacked of disappointment, as though there was a great loss for women in media, and for women in general, with Sweeney’s departure from Disney.
Although she may not be a captain of the media industry, Sweeney will move into another section of entertainment, also important and also in need of more women. Consider, for instance that Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Best Director Academy Award for The Hurt Locker, only a few years ago in 2010. Leaning in can include the ideas and creative perspectives of women, not just their business savvy and power. While it is important for women to be CEOs, it is also important for women to invade public consciousness, to tell their own stories through their eyes.
Perhaps Cate Blanchett said it best when accepting her Academy Award this year, when she thanked Sony Classics “for so bravely and intelligently distributing [Blue Jasmine] and to the audiences who went to see it and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”