In the 20 years since Women in Film was founded, Hollywood women have gone from being secretaries to having them. But as the 2,000-strong nonprofit operation (not to mention the 10,000 members in 25 chapters worldwide) pats itself on the back for improving the employment, position and depiction of women in the industry, it’s rolling up its sleeves in preparation for the next 20.
“We still have not succeeded as far as we might,” says Harriet Silverman, who came on board as executive director three years ago. “Based on the fact that we’re 52% of the population, we believe we should also have equality in the workplace. But we comprise only 20-30% of the film and television industries.”
Fueling WIF’s fervor are statistics like those recently published in Premiere Magazine that revealed that the average box office gross of 1992 movies directed by women was $ 46.7 million, compared with the $ 32 million for men. Yet the average cost of 1992 movies directed by women was $ 18.5 million to their male counterparts’ $ 28 million. Of the 1,800 films released between 1983 and 1992, 81 were directed by women.
WIF plans to even those figures by increasing the organization’s visibility, membership, communication with international chapters, advocacy and community involvement and number of programs and services. But its strongest role will be re-educating women to support one another through mentoring and apprenticeships.
“Just as women have nurturing strengths, they tend to be envious and competitive,” says Silverman. “It shouldn’t be, ‘I did it the hard way, so I’m going to punish you because you don’t have to.’ I feel strongly that if we start helping each other, good things will happen.”
Women are also learning that they don’t have to be outwardly strident to navigate a man’s world, as exemplified by WIF’s polite persistence.
When Gil Cates, a producer/director who also is dean of UCLA’s school of theater, film and television, last year created a school board of advisors (consisting of 66 men and a handful of women) comprising entertainment industry professionals, Silverman sent him a letter suggesting it reflect the campus population. “He told me he loved the letter, brought it home to show his wife and invited 20-odd more women to be on the panel,” Silverman says.
“I believe that the radical times of the women’s movement were long ago even though there’s still injustice,” she continues.
“Women do not get immediate respect in this business and we’re thought to be hard-nosed or bitches if we come across as aggressive, having presence or being decisive.
“But we cannot beat all men on the head, because one out of a hundred locks the door and attempts rape. We just have to keep raising people’s consciousness, but not by being resentful and angry.”
The result is hard-earned support from men, who comprise 10% of WIF’s membership.
“The way in which they work is intelligent and productive,” says Cates, who joined WIF about two years ago. “Harriet said the board was a terrific idea and if I wanted more women for it, to let her know.
Positive and willing
“Instead of yelling and screaming, she was positive and willing to help. That’s why Women in Film is so successful — it encourages partnerships instead of putting up barriers.”
With a budget of nearly $ 1 million, a 19-member board of direc-tors and a paid nine-member staff, Los Angeles ranks as the world’s largest and most powerful WIF chapter. But not all the obstacles to getting to that point were external. Three years ago, WIF underwent a major overhaul, hiring Silverman, tightening its infrastructure, broadening its programs and influence, nearly tripling its membership and luring such heavyweights as Paramount Studios head Sherry Lansing, producers Dawn Steel and Lili Fini Zanuck, Fox Broadcasting chair Lucie Salhany, USA Network president Kate Koplovitz, actresses Raquel Welch, Kathy Bates, Marsha Mason, Olympia Dukakis and Jessica Tandy, producer Steven Bochco, NBC president Warren Littlefield, William Morris chair Norman Brokaw and Columbia Pictures chair Mark Canton.
“When I came there were lots of problems,” says Silverman, who arrived with 28 years of administering social service and women’s programs, such as Escalon Adult Services in Pasadena, L.A. G.O.A.L. in Los Angeles and Na’amat U.S.A. (formerly Pioneer Women) in New York. “There was infighting and everything needed tightening — from the budgets to the staff — so we reorganized. But, at the same time, we also expanded.”
Adds WIF president Patricia Barry: “We came to a place where we had to make major decisions. Until then, we’d had a hands-on board and no paid staff except a secretary and accountant. Some wanted to keep it that way, but others felt that to go somewhere we’d have to expand, hire an executive director and get women of visibility on this board. There was a real difference of opinion, a lot of resentment and hot tempers.”
Having weathered that turbulence, WIF is now looking to the future. Its ongoing programs and services include job banks, scholarships, as well as grants and training seminars for women wishing to switch entertainment careers and complete films. It also combats sexual harrassment, age and sexual discrimination, violence against women and sexploitation films. Members network through newsletters, luncheons, film festivals, conferences, quarterly membership meetings and annual Academy and Crystal awards banquets, the latter of which Lifetime may broadcast next year.
“WIF is not just geared toward women starting out in the business,” says Silverman. “It allows women who have made it to continue to develop, to receive money for things and learn about other areas.”
But WIF’s most important work lies in retraining women to navigate in a man’s world by supporting, not undermining their sisters. “The basic idea of Women in Film is for those women who have broken through the glass ceiling to reach down and bring another woman into that sphere,” says Barry.
“But there has to be a symbiotic relationship. The person being helped has to want to give something back to the organization in return.”
Part of that strategy emcompasses partnering, such as having young mothers share the same job to give them time to care for their children, or pairing men and women on projects to introduce each to the others’ sensibilities and give women a leg up.
“There are many partnerships where the man goes in and pitches the project even though she’s the brains behind it — even in 1993,” says Silverman. “A young 35-year-old executive male will be more open to a pitch from another male than he might be from a woman. This also goes back to age discrimination.
“I’ve heard of older female producers, directors and writers with credits up the yin yang who hire young men to pitch for them, because they can’t get their foot in the door.”
Next year, WIF plans to take that empowerment philosophy into local schools, possibly opening memberships to college students and instituting a mentoring program for junior high school-age girls through Cities in School, a local drop-out prevention program. “We hope, as role models, to instill a sense of self esteem in young people,” says Silverman.
Another viewpoint that Barry, as the first actress president, hopes to change within the organization is the often condescending tone taken towards noncelebrity performers. “The New York club didn’t even allow actresses four years ago,” says Barry, who has starred with Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn and Rock Hudson, and stars in the ABC daytime drama, “Loving.”
“I hope to instill the attitude that actresses are more than just people looking for a job, but are functioning professional women with many talents.”
Other WIF goals are to more strongly link its international chapters in nearly every continent as well as expanding its home operation.
This year, WIF will have an office at the Cannes Film Festival to offer a comfortable environment for women to seek assistance in pitching their products. It hopes to realize new local headquarters containing executive offices, a library, museum, hall of fame, archives and screening room. Future fundraising ventures include selling WIF products, like celebrity cookbooks, on home shopping programs.
WIF’s greatest inroads into the industry may come with all theproducts needed to supply the emerging technological superhighway. “There’s a lot that’s new and experimental with the fragmentation of the cable and movie business and I see women at the frontier, like USA’s Kate Koplovitz,” says William Morris senior VP Joan Hyler, who also serves as executive VP of WIF’s board of directors.
“These new businesses are less rigid and bureaucratic than the studios and networks, which have established hierarchies and in which everyone is in place,” she adds. “They’ve created a vacuum open to whoever comes to fill it intelligently. There are a lot of women on the cutting edge, incable, in independent production, in all these new businesses and that excites me. But if women don’t constantly train and work with each other, we won’t be counted. We want the industry to acknowledge that a woman’s place is anywhere she wants it to be,” Hyler continues.