Ashley Williams Inspires Big Changes at Hallmark

Ashley Williams

Heavy/Hallmark Hallmark's Ashley Williams is the force behind the Make Her Mark mentorship program for women directors

The Hallmark Channel premiere of the movie “Dream Moms” officially marks the on-air kickoff of a network-wide initiative spearheaded by longtime actress and director Ashley Williams called Make Her Mark. The ambitious project aims to not only increase the number of female directors overseeing the network’s original movies but make Hallmark the film industry leader with “50/50 parity,” she said during a Facebook Live session on May 12, 2023.

When Williams brought the idea to Hallmark executives, just eight out of its 100 movies that year were directed by women, she said. That disparity has been common in the filmmaking industry, despite a small amount of growth in recent years.

In February 2022, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism released the results of its “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” report, which found that during the previous 15 years, the ratio of men to women directors overseeing feature films was 11 to one.

Streaming platforms have made more progress, but the playing field is still far from equal. In 2020 and 2021, USC researchers studied films made by four major streaming platforms and found Amazon led with 37.5% female directors. At Disney+, 29% of movies were directed by women, HBO Max came in with 19.5%, and 18.1% of Netflix’s movies were directed by females.

At Hallmark, Williams knew it would be a major undertaking to not only increase the number of female directors in such a male-dominated field but also to formalize a process for properly training and empowering women to take the reins. But it made sense, she thought, to dream big and make it happen at a network that’s so popular among women viewers. Luckily, she said, Hallmark leadership agreed.

Hallmark’s Crystal Lowe Becomes First ‘Make Her Mark’ Director-in-Training With ‘Dream Moms’

To kick off the Make Her Mark program, Crystal Lowe — best known to Hallmarkies for her role as Rita in the “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” mystery series — was named in February 2023 as the inaugural participant, invited to shadow established director Jessica Harmon on the set of “Dream Moms,” a movie starring Tamera Mowry-Housley and Chelsea Hobbs as moms who rediscover their passion for performing after losing themselves in the chaos of motherhood.

Joining Williams for the Facebook Live session about their experience on the film, Harmon and Lowe celebrated the thoughtfulness with which Make Her Mark was created and how they felt like the program set them up for success. Lowe, who’s been interested in directing for years and has made her own film shorts for practice, said initially she worried that she’d be seen as a nuisance as she watched Harmon’s every move, but her fears were quickly put to rest.

“Jessica was just an open book,” she said. “She did what a real mentor is supposed to do which is, you know, show me everything. She even threw me into the fire a couple of times and said, ‘Okay, you’re directing this scene, you’ve got 20 minutes, go prep.’ I was like ‘Oh god, Oh god,’ but you know, it was all done under the safety of having this mentor that was 100% backing me. So it was a great place to jump in.”

Harmon said that earlier in her career, she learned the ropes by shadowing other directors at Warner Bros. and eventually was offered an opportunity at Hallmark to direct. She now directs five movies a year with various networks and production companies. Harmon said she’s found Hallmark crews in particular to be open and eager to help women shadow and learn.

“The crews are really open to this and really accepting and really supportive, especially of this particular initiative,” she said of Make Her Mark. “On ‘Dream Moms’ we had an amazing crew that really, really wanted to help Crystal to succeed from the jump. So it was a really safe environment that Hallmark had provided.”

Throughout the movie shoot, Lowe posted Instagram videos about the things she was learning, from how high-tech cameras operate to the art of “focus pulling.” But Harmon said Lowe didn’t only shadow her for the 15-day shoot, but was very involved in the full seven-week process of creating the movie.

“It’s three weeks of prep, three weeks of shooting, one week of editing is what we do,” she explained. “She was there for every second of that entire process.”

The next step in the Make Her Mark process is that Lowe will be granted the chance to direct her first Hallmark movie later this year and Harmon will be present as the Creative Executive Producer “to make sure that she’s taken care of, that she feels safe, that she’s ready to go,” Harmon explained.

According to the February announcement about Make Her Mark, Hallmark and Williams spent two years developing the program.

Wonya Lucas, President & CEO of Hallmark Media, called the program “our gift of opportunity, experience, coaching, and guidance for such deserving and talented women in our field” and added that she hopes that “one day, when (Lowe) accepts her Emmy or Peabody or Oscar, that she fondly remembers that Hallmark Media gave her that first shot…and then she pays it forward.”

Ashley Williams Recalls First Indication of Disparity in Directing

Ashley Williams

HallmarkAshley Williams in “Sister Swap: Christmas in the City”

Williams, who continues to act in addition to directing, told Harmon and Lowe during their Facebook Live session that she learned at a very young age that there was a disparity between men and women working behind-the-scenes.

Appearing in the soap opera “As The World Turns” when she was 15, Williams was curious about how the “big broadcast cameras” worked and asked one of the male camera operators if he’d show her how it was operated. His response, she recalled was, “Why don’t you stick to wearing your bikini.”

Williams said, “It put me in my place at a time …where I sort of took my cue. What I heard was like, ‘Boys are directors and girls wear bikinis’ in some weird way.”

Williams added that it took a long time and experiences with some “incredible” female directors to realize she, too, had it within her to explore her curiosity and start experimenting with filmmaking. In 2020, she wrote an essay for Women & Hollywood about a pivotal moment in her career, when she was replaced by another actress in a FOX TV pilot, and a dear friend told her she, too, was destined to be a great director. She went on to begin experimenting, shadowing and, eventually, directing her own films.

When Williams approached Hallmark about setting new goals for empowering and training women directors, she said executives there were “wonderfully on board.”

“That was something we all wanted to change together,” she said, “but we had to make sure we did it right.”

As for reaching a goal of 50 percent of movies directed by females on the network, Williams is optimistic that Hallmark will make it happen through the Make Her Mark program.

“I think we’re right on track, guys,” she told Harmon and Lowe, who were clearly impressed by the 50/50 goal. “I think it’s going really, really well. So that’s exciting.”

“Dream Moms” premieres on Hallmark Channel on May 13 at 8 p.m. Eastern time

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