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Interviews

Ashley Williams Talks Make Her Mark 

Ashley Williams Talks Make Her Mark

The Hallmark family of networks isn’t just telling stories for and about women. It’s also empowering women to be the architects of those stories behind the scenes. As we’ve watched over the last couple of years, Hallmark leading ladies like Alison Sweeney, Lacey Chabert, Kimberley Sustad, and Nikki DeLoach have expanded their reach to writing and producing. Fellow leading lady Ashley Williams isn’t stopping there.

Via her Make Her Mark Women’s Directing Program, Williams is shepherding a generation of female directors into the craft of making Hallmark movies. The first director from that program, Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe, makes her debut next weekend with Hallmark Channel’s hotly anticipated POstables/Hynies/Earpers-trolling Shifting Gears, which stars Katherine Barrell, Tyler Hynes, and Kristin Booth. This week, I chatted with Williams about the project, and I’ll have that for you in part two of our conversation next week. First up, we talk about how Make Her Mark came to fruition, and the village making it a reality.

Williams is a director, herself, having helmed two features and a short film that had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, so she comes with a director’s POV, and as she started working at Hallmark, she recognized that directing was predominately a man’s world among its films, so she sought to change it.  “I only started doing Hallmark movies probably seven, eight years ago. And I just noticed that the majority of them, I mean, everyone that I was in, was directed by the most loving, kind, generous Canadian older man,” she shares.

“I don’t have a bad thing to say about these men. They were always just absolutely expert at shooting within a 15-day mold. It’s really hard to shoot 110 pages in 15 days. And they learned how to knock it out and really still make the stories emotionally resonant, and keep audiences happy. And I just started to really admire the task and the form.”

“I started to study it from a directorial standpoint. That was when I realized there aren’t actually a lot of female filmmakers, and it’s not just in the Hallmark world. It’s everywhere. But because Hallmark produces a hundred movies a year, there is an opportunity to create a training ground where women can learn what these, most of the time, men, have figured out.”

“When I approached the team at Hallmark, they said, ‘Oh, we know. We are all over it. The problem is that we need an incredibly experienced director to be directing these movies, and there just aren’t a lot of women who are as experienced as we need.’”

The year she approached Hallmark, only eight of those 100 annual titles had a woman director, which grew to 23 in 2023. “We’re doing so much better. But we also do women no favors by just handing them a job without training them properly. So that was really the ethos behind it. How do we set our women up for success behind the camera?” she wondered.

“Because I, at the time, was being mentored by so many incredible, incredible people, I had this idea of, ‘What if we brought on an up-and-coming female filmmaker who hasn’t been given the opportunity to direct her first feature yet, but maybe has directed a short, or maybe she just got out of film school and has always had ambitions to direct, but just hasn’t been given the opportunity?”

“What if we take her and we pair her with a mentor who is seasoned in the Hallmark form and she were to shadow – you basically stay in the shadow of your teacher for all of prep, shooting, and post, you essentially bear witness and watch how this person directs. And then we hire her?” 

“First of all, we also pay her to shadow, which is very unusual. Shadowing is usually for somebody that has extra time and doesn’t need money so they can pay their bills. We give them a stipend during their time where they’re shadowing, and then we employ them. We give them a job and their directorial debut and their mentors or a mentor is their creative producer on set with them every step of the way of their directorial debut.”

“Once you shadow for seven weeks, you really kind of have figured out a lot, but once you’re actually there doing it, it’s different. So really the job of the mentor for her directorial debut is to have her back, whisper in her ear every once in a while, communicate with the network about how it’s all going, and just basically ensure her success so it’s going so well.”

Williams is excited that later this month the formal submission process will launch, and she says it’s been a lot of work to bring it all together, but so worth it. “In late March, the submissions will open so that anybody in North America can apply to this program, in the US and Canada. We would not be a diversity and inclusion program if we were hand-selecting people and not doing a truly authentic application process,” she points out.

Shifting Gears

“We really do want representation from all different audience members. We know our audience loves to see themselves. So we want to make sure that we represent that, in terms of the inclusion aspect of the application process.”

As part of her immersion into the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space and getting the program on its feet, she spoke to other organizations about their programs. “I interviewed the heads of every diversity and inclusion program in the industry – the head of the HBO program, the half initiative, Film Independent, all of them basically sat me down and gave me advice. And their number one thing was, ‘You cannot run this program by yourself because if you do a good job in getting the word out, you could have a hundred thousand applications, so how are you gonna sift through that? So I did need the support,” she says.

“And [Hallmark Media SVP of Original Programming] Randy Pope and [Hallmark Media VP of Production] Jimmy Holcomb have been helping me with the financial aspect of the program. And Randy Pope has been helping me with every aspect of the program. They’re really the ones helping to support me. I keep saying it’s not a diversity and inclusion program unless people from everywhere are being considered. And we can’t do that unless we can sift through all of their applications in a responsible way. It’s a big undertaking and one that I am so honored to have done.”

“When I first pitched this idea to the Hallmark executives I was saying, ‘I want one woman a year to have her directorial debut. And it was actually [Hallmark Media EVP of Programming] Lisa Hamilton Daily who said, ‘Let’s do three.’ That was her saying, ‘I really believe in this program.’ She’s the entire reason. We’ve had four shadows so far. These are some of the most inspiring women. I’ve had the most awesome time.”

“There is a lot of work involved, which I honestly hadn’t quite anticipated. I’ve probably watched 50 short films. I’ve interviewed, just myself, probably 40 women after searching through all the resumes and [Hallmark Media development executives] Laura Gaines and Kelly Garrett have been working with me very closely, as well.”

“Since I interviewed a lot of those programs, they have disappeared due to lack of funding. And honestly, they were opportunities for employment but not training. I also think a lot of the programs were set up to give women jobs without making sure that they were set up for success. So unfortunately, some of the women who came out of those programs directed their first episode of television and will probably never direct again.”

“That’s really why I was so intent on making sure that there was what I call a reciprocal shadow program. So you shadow and then you are shadowed. We want to set women up for employment for the next 20 years. We want to go slow and steady and be calculated about it and make sure that someone is advocating for her and that she has all the information that she needs in order to nail it.” 

“That was really important, because the program could have just been, ‘Let’s hire more women.’ And, by the way, we’re always trying to do that, but it’s really about, ‘Let’s create new directors who will have longevity in this industry.’ Whenever somebody comes into the program, I always say, ‘I want you to thank me in your Oscar speech in a couple of years because the Hallmark Channel gave you your first directing debut.’”

Williams adds that she also applies to similar programs, hoping to get back behind the camera. “I still apply to every single directing program, and I get rejected six to eight times a year. And that’s part of the game. Part of what I do as an up-and-coming filmmaker is try to put myself out there and reach and ask, and I’m rejected regularly,” she explains.

“You just gotta keep trying. Every time I’m rejected, they ask me to please apply again next year. I’m still a newbie at this. And I’m forever a student. I’m so, so happy to be applying and to be considered.” 

Shifting Gears premieres Saturday, March 23rd, at 8 pm/7c on Hallmark Channel in the U.S., where you can also stream it live on various outlets. As of publishing, the film doesn’t have an airdate in Canada yet. ICYMI, you can catch the rest of my interviews with Williams, Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe, and Tyler Hynes here. Here’s a sneak peek of the film.

[Updated 4/24/24: Applications are now open through May 6th for the next admissions to the Make Her Mark program. Apply here.]

Photo and video courtesy of Hallmark Media.

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