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Women on the Verge

by Linda Seger

Women executives in the motion picture industry

In 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. 

Whether 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."

Why 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."

The pressures 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.

"Why 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.

"A lot 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 big trend."

Changing the Rules

In 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. 

Changes 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 business.

"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."

Now a 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 than power."

Power Real but Elusive

Power 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."

Television 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?'"

"Power, 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 you."

Compete or Collaborate

In 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."

Some 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. 

Although 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 level.  

"If 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 now.'"

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

Women 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 produce."

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 valued."

A Lone Voice

Perhaps 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. 

"As 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. 

What 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."

Even when 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 others. 

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 director.

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 assistant director.

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.

"The 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. 

Lucie 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.
 
Books: 

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

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Related article: Women in Film: Identity and Power, by Douglas Eby



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