Producing opens screen door to more distaff pros

When a friend asked casting agent Cindy Tolan to read his script for an indie film he wanted to direct, she fell so much in love with it that she changed her career path. “I said I’d do whatever I could do to get it made,” she says from her office in New York.

So instead of just making sure the right people were in the film, she took on the role of co-producer of “Loggerheads,” a drama directed by Tim Kirkman and starring Bonnie Hunt that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Her new role meant dealing with contracts and production schedules, among other tasks.

For all the concern about gender equality in the movie business, the ranks of women producers are strong, especially in the New York indie film crowd. Women directors are still greatly outnumbered by men, and it seems no matter what steps are taken, they still encounter obstacles getting into the business. But women producers, who handle the money, hiring, firing and other stereotypically male business pursuits, have been able to make it.

“There are still fewer women producers than men, but we’re a higher percentage than women directors,” says Lydia Pilcher, vice chair of the Producers Guild of America East, who has worked extensively with Mira Nair as well as Alison Maclean in her nearly 20 years in the business.

For one thing, women producers didn’t have to break into the business here; they helped start it. “When you think about the New York film scene, it was Ted Hope, James Shamus and Christine Vachon,” says Mary Jane Skalski, who has worked with all three and is currently producing “The Hawk Is Dying,” a drama filming in Florida.

Anne Carey, a partner in Good Machine and now This and That with Ted Hope, sees New York as the conducive element in the equation. “People who live here know you need balance,” she says, noting that she is now juggling movies with children, as are her male partners. “I think that’s a healthy perspective.”

For Tolan, stepping from the world of casting into the less female-friendly world of producing wasn’t a daunting task. “I found New York to be incredibly welcoming. You prove yourself once and doors open,” she says. She found mentors easily, especially in Elevation Filmworks partner Lemore Syvan, who worked with Tolan on all of Rebecca Miller’s films.

“She came to me to ask for advice and I said, ‘This is so great,’ ” says Syvan. “It’s very thrilling to empower new producers.”

Producer Gail Mutrux, a partner in Los Angeles-based Pretty Pictures, doesn’t think this smoother ride for women producers is about location, but more about job description.

“It’s a lot easier to be a producer than a director,” she says. Although, it has taken her a long time to get to the point where she’s the only power in the room to address.

As the sole producer on “Kinsey,” which was shot in New York and New Jersey, she noticed the attention she got at meetings was different than when she’d attend with male partners. “Men still are more comfortable talking to men,” she says.

To her and Syvan, the difference between women making it as directors and as producers comes down to which stereotypes are easiest to break.

Syvan says, “Putting women in charge in terms of money and crew, that’s easily swallowed.” However, you still see fewer women who just handle the money end, and more who deal with people issues. “What I face, and maybe it’s just as a humanoid, is that I become ‘Momma’ to everyone. I find it hysterical sometimes.”

Directors, however, are supposed to be charismatic enough to command an artistic production, she says, and “when art comes into play, people have cold feet about women. The ones who make it are auteurs.”

Vachon, who has worked with Mary Harron and Rose Troche, among other women directors through her Killer Films, says, “It’s hard to say when you’re part of the landscape; I’ve never felt put upon in any way.” But she does see that her experience of gender neutrality doesn’t translate to directors. “There are fewer women directors than anything,” she says. “I’d have a hard time naming six women directors, except the ones I’ve worked with.”

Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who spent her career as an agent before switching to producing for Revolution Studios East in 2000, compares the situation to when she was trying to get salary parity for Julia Roberts. “Julia had to prove herself seven times over,” she says, before she eventually got her due. To get complete equality as producers, women should just let their work speak for itself, and then keep fighting, she says. “I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling, but there is still a pair of men’s loafer’s on the ladder ahead of us.”

That could be a hard fight, says Gail Neiderhoffer, one of the three principles of the new Plum Pictures, which is taking Steve Buscemi’s “Lonesome Jim” to Sundance this year. “It’s a much more subtle and insidious stigma for women in positions of authority. It’s an issue that women deal with in all professional environments.”

While she hasn’t faced any gender roadblocks in her career so far, she is dismayed that women producers don’t seem to be able to do much to help women directors. “Women producers are as unwilling to hire women directors as men,” she says cynically. “Men don’t like taking orders from women and women don’t like taking orders from anyone.”

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