Free the Work matches Hollywood bigwigs with women, minority creators

"We've been brainwashed for centuries by the white male gaze," says director Alma Har'el. She's looking to change that.

Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
Expertise Abrar has spent her career at CNET breaking down the latest trends on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, while also reporting on diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Credentials
  • Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Abrar Al-Heeti
3 min read
Alma Har'el

Alma Har'el is pushing to make Hollywood more diverse through her platform Free the Work.

Emma Holley

For the new movie Honey Boy, which hits theaters Nov. 8, Shia LaBeouf translated his experiences as a young actor, and his struggles with mental health, into a powerful screenplay about hope and struggle. Behind the lens, director Alma Har'el has dealt with her own personal challenges.

Har'el, who immigrated to the US from Israel 12 years ago, started her career by directing music videos for bands like Beirut and Sigur Rós. When she transitioned to directing commercials in 2012, brands often told her she was the first woman director they'd ever worked with. 

It alarmed her and got her thinking. 

"There has to be something that can be done to break this systemic problem and reverse-engineer hiring practices so women could be considered," Har'el said. 

So, in 2016, she launched Free the Bid, an initiative asking ad agencies and brands to pledge that at least one female director be considered for each major ad campaign. Through the push, HP went from having no female creators to 59% female creators in 18 months, Har'el says. And DDB ad agency in Chicago saw its numbers for female directors jump from 5% to 30%.

Har'el soon began to look beyond the ad industry to film and TV, where women and minorities are vastly underrepresented. In 2017, of the 167 English-language films in the top 200, only 21 directors were women, according to this year's UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. Additionally, only 7.8 percent of the top movies had minority writers. 

This week Har'el launched Free the Work, which she describes as a "talent discovery platform for underrepresented creators." She spoke about the project with an enthusiasm tangible even over the phone, her voice growing stronger as she discussed the need for greater diversity. 

Companies can use the free, membership-based site to search for creators ranging from directors to editors to composers who might not otherwise have a fair shot at landing gigs. They can search for people in specific genres and see all their key work. Additional features such as personal accounts are available with a paid membership. Businesses also get access to software that tracks their hiring practices, and can use that data for analysis and goal setting. Free the Work is currently available in more than 20 countries. Founding partners include Facebook, AT&T, Ford and Amazon Studios.

The platform can be helpful for companies that want to boost their diversity hiring, but don't know where to start, Har'el says.

"Even the well-meaning people that are looking to hire don't necessarily have the time, resources or urgency to search for new talent," she said.

Now more than ever, it seems, audiences are demanding more diversity. Of the top 200 films in 2017, those with casts that had 31 to 40 percent minority actors made the most money at the box office, according to the UCLA report. Films like Crazy Rich Asians, which earned more than $285 million globally, and Black Panther, which raked in more than $1.3 billion, are proof that people want to see a greater variety of content.

"People are literally demanding to hear new stories," Har'el said. "We've been brainwashed for centuries by the white male gaze, and it's been controlling our view of the world, our view of ourselves and the stories we hear."

The push for diversity is ramping up across industries, from the corporate world to Hollywood to Silicon Valley. Initiatives like Time's Up, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California and Project Include are working to boost representation and inclusion of women in these sectors.

Free the Work's site features playlists curated by individual creators that touch on themes they're passionate about. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross has a collection of "WOC Directors Who Triumph Comedy TV," for example, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison has a list of "International Bad Asses." Users can click to see a creator's profile and all their work. 

Har'el's goal with Free the Work is to eliminate excuses about lack of diversity from the film and television industry, and to show that there's an abundance of female and minority talent available.

"This is supposed to stop the limitation of our misconception that all the good women and people of color are already working," Har'el said. "We don't want to hear that sentence anymore."