Women collaborate to form their own solutions

The news last June from a 1996 Directors Guild of America annual report was hardly encouraging for women: For the first time in three years, female DGA members saw a decrease in their percentage of total days worked. Above the line, the report found, women occupied the director’s chair in film 9% of the time.

Some decrying of the entertainment industry as the Boys Club of America followed, but beneath the official concern, the problem of an unlevel playing field for women remained glaring and unresolved.

Cut to Oct. 21. About 60 people, nearly all women, are sitting in a board room on the sixth floor of the Directors Guild building. They are first and second assistant directors, unit production managers and fledgling directors. Tonight, the DGA Women’s Steering Committee is holding one of its two yearly networking events. The topic is “Building Effective Relationships,” with guest panelists including Joan Tewkesbury, who, after landing a job as Robert Altman’s “script girl” on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” went on to co-write Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” and earn a solo screenwriting credit on “Nashville.”

Later, after a Q&A, there are “three-on-one” meetings, where three DGA members sit down with one of the panelists.

Assuming the entertainment industry doesn’t engage in mass sensitization toward women’s issues, volunteer outfits inside the unions like the Women’s Steering Committee will have the opportunity to play a larger role for women in the industry. So will the Writers Guild’s Committee for Women Writers and the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, as well as the Women’s Entertainment Network and Women in Film, which soon will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Targeting people in power

But no one expects these mentoring groups to change the way Hollywood does business. “They’re all very important,” says DGA first VP Martha Coolidge. “But the problem is they’re not the people doing the hiring.”

Zara Taylor, executive administrator for employment diversity at the Writers Guild, says: “The mentoring programs are helpful emotionally, but I’m not sure they’re that effective” in increasing employment opportunities. According to Writers Guild figures, women accounted for 27.5% of the jobs in TV and 16.5% in film in 1996.

“You constantly hear gender doesn’t matter, but that’s generally not the case,” Taylor says. “Gender bias is alive and well, not just in the country, but in the entertainment industry as well.”

Battling the numbers

Unlike the DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee, the WGA’s Committee for Women Writers hasn’t been as active a force. Ironically, the committee recently sponsored a panel on spec scripts, and 90% of those who signed up were men. “But then, you have to remember, 75% of the guild membership is men,” says Maryanne Kasica, committee co-chair.

“The overall goal is to increase the comfort level of hiring women in the industry, particularly at the director level,” says Jennifer Reed, associate director on the CBS sitcom “The Nanny” and one of the DGA steering committee’s five co-chairs.

“We’ve got quite a few ADs now, but we’re trying to feed more women toward the top,” she says. “Like everything else, it’s been incremental.”

Gains in television

Reed’s optimism is reflected in the DGA report, where gains for women in television were evident — 24% among directors, 41% assistant directors and 28% stage managers in 1996, according to the figures. Those numbers stand in sharp contrast to film, despite some high-profile breakthroughs of late, including Mimi Leder’s helming of the DreamWorks action film “The Peacemaker” and Betty Thomas’ directorial work on “Private Parts.”

“Movies are generally big-budget, and they want someone who has done it before, and the people who’ve done it before are men,” says Coolidge of why the figures for film lag so far behind television. “TV networks understand their demographics very clearly, and they do perceive that the demographics should match the audience a little better.”

That doesn’t, however, explain the overall dropoff in hours worked for DGA women last year. Says Coolidge: “Part of it has to do with the fact that studio man-hours are on these huge, $100 hundred-plus movies, and those are all being directed by men.”

Beyond the DGA and WGA, outlets for women include AFI’s long-running Directing Workshop for Women, whereby women apply for the chance to develop and direct their own projects.

About to celebrate its 25th birthday, Women in Film has 1,800 members and holds monthly networking breakfast meetings, offers member workshops and gives budding directors the chance to direct a public service announcement for a local nonprofit organization.

And the Women’s Entertainment Network, started in 1986, presents monthly speakers from all facets of the industry and counts among its members composers, camerawomen, costumers and production assistants.

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