Women on the Verge
Women executives in the motion picture industry
recent years, there has been a movement afoot in Hollywood. Women
actors, tired of playing the wimpy roles as girlfriend or wife and
equally tired of being paid a pittance in comparison with the
megamillions their male counterparts were making, have begun to demand
-- and get -- juicier roles and more money.
This push for more
power and stronger roles mirrors what is going on behind the scenes in
Hollywood as well. There, women, traditionally relegated to supporting
players, are pushing their way into the spotlight and carving a place
in the Hollywood power structure.
it be by propelling their way into the studios' corporate offices or
going out on their own, women are cracking the celluloid ceiling and
changing the old-school rules along the way.
On the corporate
end, women still have a long way to go. If power, Hollywood-style, is
defined as the authority to green-light a movie, then there are few
women in power. In spite of a growing list of women in high positions,
as of early 1997 there is only one woman in the United States who can
decide what feature films you'll see -- Sherry Lansing, chair and CEO
of the Motion Picture Division of Paramount. No woman sits at the very
top of the Hollywood corporate ladder.
CEOs, owners, studios
and boards are comprised predominantly or totally of men. Behind the
boards are multinational corporations -- all governed by men. As one
male executive says, "Our company has a lot of women executives in
Hollywood, but the board that governs us in New York is almost all
men." As another puts it, "It's still an old boys' network."
do so few women make it to the very top of the corporate heap? As
always, the reasons are legion. Lansing suggests that some women choose
not to try for these corporate jobs. "Many women find when they get to
a certain level of executive height in the movie business, the hours
are extraordinarily difficult," Lansing says."
are difficult and it's not as satisfying as they would like. They're
interested in having a balanced life. They choose to be producers or
directors or to have more control of their destiny as compared to being
corporate executives." Lansing believes the opportunities for women in
the industry are unlimited but that women sometimes choose not to
pursue the corporate ones. "They choose to pursue others, which is a
very valid choice."
For those who are committed to Hollywood's
corporate side, the climb upward is bound to be steep. But the
Hollywood hikers think that it's worth it. "People are in the movie
business because they can make a lot of money, theycan have an exciting
life and they can make a difference to a lot ofpeople," says Marcia
Nasatir, who was a studio vice president hired by United Artists in
1974 and was one of the first women to crack the glass ceiling.
would men want to give up those jobs?" she asks. Recognizing the limits
within the corporate structure, some women have left in order to use
their talents more fully, to find their own style of doing business.
They have become Hollywood's new cast of entrepreneurs.
of women look through that glass ceiling now, and say, `Please, I don't
want to go through that,'" explains Barbara Corday, former president of
Columbia Pictures Television. "They see men getting sick to their
stomachs and having ulcers and worrying about heart attacks and
quadruple bypasses and all that and say to themselves,`If that's
equality, you can have it. I don't want to become that. I don't want to
be one of them.'"
So instead of trying to blend in with the
high-powered corporate players, women have entered the film industry as
entrepreneurs in record numbers. In Los Angeles, 80 percent of all new
businesses are created by women. Because the film industry is fed by
independent contractors at every level, women can start at the top and
have all of the power within their own sphere.
"Since the death
of the studio system, many jobs in film are for-hire, "says Los
Angeles-based career consultant JudithClaire, who has worked in the
business since 1978. "I teach people that if they're writers,
directors, editors, costume designers, cinematographers, script
supervisors -- they're all entrepreneurs. Whatever the job, it
eventually comes to an end, and they need to find another client. They
have to operate as a business and do all the functions necessary for a
business to survive -- including public relations, marketing, financial
planning and having a good lawyer."
Many of these entrepreneurs
use a team model to support each other, even with jobs that seem to be
competitive. They share experiences and discuss strategies. "We are
part of a social change,"says story consultant Natalie Lemberg. "We
read about it everywhere -- toward home-based businesses, outsourcing,
new technology. In the courseof a day I often feel as if all the
decisions I make are very individual, but I also realize I'm part of a
Changing the Rules
the 1970s and 1980s, as women moved into Hollywood's corporate
structure, they felt they had to play by men's rules. Some were good
players but endured criticism for being too much like men. Things began
to change in1980, when Sherry Lansing became the first woman president
of a major studio -- 20th Century Fox.
continued throughout the decade: In 1981Paula Weinstein became
president of production at United Artists. Barbara Corday became the
first woman executive vice president in charge of primetime at a
network in 1981.
Then, Margaret Loesch became president and
CEO of Marble Productions; Ann Daniel became president of Winkler-Rich
Productions and Dawn Steel became president of Columbia Pictures. The
tide was turning. As more women entered the industry, they began to
find ways to balance their own personal style with the demands of the
"I don't feel I ever had to change my style of doing
business,"says Betty Cohen, president ofCartoon Network Worldwide, "but
I've had to understand that dealing with men at the top is surprisingly
more about style than about substance I've learned to walk more
lightly, be less stridentand less demanding. I've learned to keep a
sense of humor about things. Not to act as though your ego is deeply on
the line over anything seems to be working better than to be constantly
drawing lines in the sand and being overly aggressive."
partner and producer at Atlas Entertainment, Dawn Steel, once known as
one of the toughest women in the business inthe 1980s, toned down her
fierce personal style for a more mellow persona, a change she
attributes not to toadying to the male bosses but to having a daughter.
"There's nothing like having a child around to clean up your
mouth. And I sure had to clean up mine. It was like, `Oh my God, she
understood what I said? That's the end of that.' I was once called the
most powerful woman in Hollywood and Ithought, `That's not what I
aspire to be. I aspire to be the most creative woman, or the person who
made the best movie.' All those things are now more important to me
Power Real but Elusive
is a tricky business in Hollywood, where women -- entrepreneur and
corporate executive alike -- walk a fine line: If they're perceived as
not having enough power, they're invisible; too much and they're
dangerous. For Sara Duvall, president and CEO of Thunder RiverPictures,
"Real power is learning to negotiate from strength. If you negotiate
with a man and can identify what he's really afraid of and what it is
that he really wants, and still have what you want, then you're there.
It's a workable, constructive, effective negotiation."
producer Marian Rees sees power as a "prickly word" and prefers the
term authority. "Authority is far more definitive. You have the
authority to say yes, being in a position to make a difference through
your own position and leadership. There might be a producer who has the
authority as the custodian of the project. But there's also the
personal authority ofthe director, writer, actors and all the people
working on the film. It's about shared power."
Women want the
power that can help them accomplish their goals. "Yes, I want it," says
Amy Pascal, president of Turner Pictures. "To be in a position of power
is to be very clear about how you feel about things. It's not clouded
by what everybody else is doing."
"There are many different
kinds of power," says Corday. "There are peoplewho have power because
of personality. There are people who have power because of their
talent. There are people who have power because of their jobs.
Certainly in this town, anyone who can say `yes' to a project has a
certain amount of power."
For Corday, as for many women, the key
to power is the ability to use it well. "I have always said to anyone
who works for me, `You already have the power, so you have to be extra
nice to people, because if they don't want to come to us, you have no
job.'" Corday has seen the abuse of power and she doesn't like it.
"With a wave of their hand, they dismiss people. `Oh, I've heard of
her, she's not very good.' Or, `That guy, isn't he over 50?'"
for men or women, can be a very evil thing," says actor Jane Wyman."It
takes away any humility anybody has. If you're powerful, you think
you've got it all made. But when it's taken away from you, that fall
down that ladder is so long and so hard, and nobody is going to catch
Compete or Collaborate
Hollywood, the quest for power is intrinsically tied to the quest to
takedown one's opponents, one's competition. "Ifthere's one thing that
predominates in the way I hear men talk inthe business," says John
Matoian, president of HBO, NYC, and HBO Pictures, and the man who used
to green-light prime-time programs for Fox Television, "it'sthe use of
sports metaphors. It's all about playing the game, keeping your eye on
the ball, going to bat for the script and winning -- winning at
anycost. It's what men learned in competitive athletics."
women thrive on competition, too. After all, doesn't everyone like to
be the best, to be on top? Not necessarily, say many women, who see the
destructive aspects of competition dominating many businesses. The
competitive model has destroyed more people than it's built.
the first wave of women had to play by the competitive rules of the
game, the second wave, who are riding on the breakthroughs made by the
Sherry Lansings and Dawn Steels of the film world, are questioning
competition as a metaphor for business.
They see that
competition between companies also can lead to competition within
companies, which ultimately leads to wasted energy, inefficiency and an
inferior product. Producer Janet Yang uses the collaborative model of
management. "So much ofthis business is built on hype," says Yang,
formerly a partner with Oliver Stone in Ixtlan Productions and now a
producer at Manifest Film Company."It's like children: `My father is
bigger than yours.' It's about who got the most nominations,
whose movie cost the most."
"I emphasize collaboration and
delegation," says Lansing. For her, this model not only works well on
the job, but makes it possible for her to have a more balanced life.
"I've tried to find timefor my personal life. I've managed to do this
by delegating and by starting early and not having any distractions
during the day."
The collaborativemodel also
emphasizesefficiency. "I think of efficiency as balancing a career, a
marriage andfour kids," says Sheri Singer, vice presidentof original
movies at Lifetime Television. "The juggling is easier if there is a
team supporting the boss."
Many men find this teamwork
approach refreshing. Richard Rashke, who has written television movies,
sees competitionas getting in the way of art and productivity. "Women
have had a lifetime of dealing with people in a more noncompetitive
way. It's easy to explore story ideas with them. With men, it's
difficult to get past the competition to a feeling level. Men get
nervous as soon as you start talking about things on the feeling
I'm developing a story with a woman and feel awkward and nervous about
the inevitable sex scene, I feel confident that I can ask her to help
me. I can say, `I'm really scared about this scene,' and know that will
be accepted. But I couldn't do that with a man. First of all, there
wouldn't be an opening, and if there were an opening, I'd be put into
the position of`mine's bigger than yours.' It's not always
spoken, but it's there."
But being a woman does not necessarily
make you a proponent of the collaborative system. Some women have
foundthat while the collaborative model removes the need for
politicking, it can be ineffective. It can also create discomfort when
there's conflict, because conflict seems inconsistent with the warm,
nurturing atmosphere that is supposed to be part of collaboration. Some
women find that trying to emphasize teamwork and accessibility can
interfere with their effectiveness.
Canadian producer Brenda
Greenberg's desire for an open-door policy got out of hand. "The
project can eventually suffer because I can get to the point that I'm
so debilitated by trying to be accessible that I can't function
anymore. I have to learn the ability to say, `I'm a little busy right
now. I know I said I have an open door, but it's gotta close right
Greenberg sometimes finds a conflict between the desire
to be effective and the desire to be well liked. But sometimes well
liked has to win. As Canadian producer Andrea Shaw points out, "Being
well liked, for many women, may be one way we keep our jobs."
Quiet on the Set
are also rethinking the rules in film production, particularly on the
set. There are many metaphors of the badly run set. It's been described
as a dictatorship run with an iron hand by the director or producer, a
dysfunctional or nonfunctioning family, a war zone, a caste system with
the emperor at the top and the coolies doing his (note gender) bidding.
Andrea Shaw says, "The worst sets are like a barnyard. Cocks
crowing, bulls pawingthe dirt, pigs snorting. It's all about marking
territory and creating behind-the-scenes drama as a way of dominating.
People get hurt for no good reason. On those sets I learned how not to
This is not to deny that there are certain aspects of
the set that are intrinsically hierarchical. "That hierarchy never goes
away," says cinematographer Brianne Murphy, A.S.C. "There's the
producer above everybody, andthen there's the director, and right under
the director is the director of photography. The director of
photography is in charge of the entire technical crew and nothing
disturbs that hierarchy. It has to stay that way. There's a chain of
command that has to be adhered to."
But the hierarchy can be
benevolent, and collaboration is essential. "I tell my crew immediately
that I can't do the job without them, that I need their cooperation,"
continues Murphy. "I tell them I expect them to be in earshot of me and
that I won't scream. So they'd better be quiet so they can hear what I
want, which works very, very well."
On a badly managed set, the
atmosphere can pit one group against another. "It can become extremely
stressful. Every single day they're after you." Murphy believes some of
the stress and inefficiency is unnecessary. "People can't figure out
why I'm so quiet on the set, but I'm fully aware how hectic things are.
It doesn't help to get hectic along with it or someone will say, `She's
acting just like a woman.'"
Collaboration on the set helps to
spark creativity. Actor-director Jodie Foster sees this as essential.
"You have to be sensitive and interested and fascinated and allow
people to fly. Otherwise you break their spirit, and then they won't go
for anything. So it's like good management. A good parent wants to
protect her children and make sure they're on the right path but still
kind of allow them to fly out."
For some, collaboration seems
like a sign ofweakness, that the director lacks vision. But some of the
best films, whether directed by women or men, have used this
collaborative model. Some women would say that thecollaborative set is
the only way to create a great film.
"To get your best work,"
says director Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein,"there has to be trust, and you
have to let everyone know they're very important, that they are
A Lone Voice
one of the most significant ways that women collaborate in the industry
is by networking with each other. "As one person, you're one
lonevoice," producer Janet Yang argues.
two, you're not yet a threat. When women first entered the business,
they were very much on their own. Other women were threats to them.
They did not work together. They had to be real ball-busters and get
out there and be tough as nails.
I have found, almost uniformly at this point in time, is an abundance
of support from other women. There's immediate networking. There's
enough there that we don't feel one person is taking someone else's job
away and enough so that we can really help each other. And there's
still enough to go around."
While there may be enough jobs to go
around, the market is still tight for women. Hiring in the film
industry has often depended on whom you know and who has access to
insider information. A lot of jobs are never advertised. And things may
get worse now that California is planning to repeal its affirmative
action laws. Even with affirmative action laws in place, women's
careers still lag way behind men's.
"You all start out the
same," says oneexecutive who asked not be named. "Men and women usually
start as secretaries or in the mail room. Or you've been to film
school, produced your first short film. But a year goes by and you're
still at the same level and you begin to see that the men's careers are
moving. Or they're doing their second and third films, and even though
your first film won awards, you can't get anywhere."
one job leads to another, the moves for many women may be lateral or
backward rather than up. Or, the next job may not be there--justb
ecause no one ever noticed her good work. Not noticing may be the main
form of discrimination in the entertainment industry, as in many
men do not realize that the most qualified person for the job may be a
woman, or that there are only two women in their 20-person department,
or that their film has only five women on the crew, or that they have
no women producers, or that they've never hired a woman writer or
Of course, men do notice their fellow men. Producer
Polly Platt describes the ways in which men look out for one another.
"There is some kind of network that keeps the men who are biggies from
falling down and losingtheir jobs. Not that they don't fail. They do.
But there seems to be a safety net for men. It fascinates me the way
they simply fail upward."
Statistics show that women are apt to
hire other women, but bringing women into the corporate offices is not
enough to change the entire industry. A quick look at the credits of
most film and television shows indicates that women are still not well
represented on the crews, many times serving only in what are known as
the "female professions" of makeup, costumes and sometimes as a second
Andthere aren't yet enough women in the
business to counteract the effect of men not taking notice. So how can
women break up one of the most stubborn of old-boy clubs? The Canadian
government has set affirmative action standards that give that country
one of the best records in the world for women in the film industry.
government is apt to be less sexist in its pronouncements," says
TrinaMcQueen, president of Discovery Channel, Canada. "They do set
policy. For example, our Canadian Television Commission requires every
television station to have equity in hiring or they losetheir license.
It also has policies on stereotyping."
Hollywood, however, is
adamantly against any kind of censorship or government regulation. In
the film industry, as in industries in general, women in the board
rooms are essential if there is to be equality.
Salhany, head of United Paramount Network, clarifies this necessity.
"As women become represented in the real position of corporate
ownership andcontrol (and I don't just mean a token seat on a board),
the decisions that are now made in board rooms and golf courses and
locker rooms will also be made on shopping trips and in women's locker
rooms. But that day is a long way off."
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Linda Seger is an author andinternational script consultant who has worked withTri-Star Pictures, MGM/UA, ABC and CBS.
From When Women Call the Shots, by Linda Seger Copyright 1996 by Linda Seger; Copyright 1997 National Associationfor Female Executives Inc.
Linda Seger. Web Thinking: Connecting, Not Competing, for Success
Linda Seger. When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women inTelevision and Film
Related article: Women in Film: Identity and Power, by Douglas Eby
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