“None of us dared say we were going to be a director. We thought maybe script supervisor or editor, but never director,” says helmer Penelope Spheeris, referring to the “handful of women” who graduated from UCLA film school with her in 1970, just as the women’s movement was gaining momentum in America.
The women who broke into showbiz in the 1960s and ’70s all have similar stories about fighting to be taken seriously. Some of the tales are hilarious, some are frightening and almost all are shocking.
Women in the entertainment industry have come a long way since then. Or have they?
In 2011, women comprised 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films — a meager 2% increase from 2010 and only a 1% increase from 1998, the first year the statistics were collected, according to the study Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment on the Top 250 Films of 2011.
When directors are broken out, the findings are even bleaker. Women accounted for only 5% of directors, a 2% dip from 2010.
This is at a time when women comprise about half the country’s workforce and the majority of university degrees.
Of the top 250 films of 2011, women accounted for 14% of the writers — the same percentage of female film writers as in 1938, according to the study’s author Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State U.
Some people say that gender equality has been accomplished and it’s no longer an issue; however, “We have the quantitative evidence to demonstrate that very little change has taken place,” Lauzen says.
So it’s useful to look back at recent history to find clues as to how women and men alike can move things forward.
The introduction of birth-control pills in the early 1960s meant women could postpone motherhood, while more women were graduating from college and entering the workforce, including the entertainment industry. But for the most part, the only biz jobs available were as secretaries and story editors.
Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, made it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of gender, but the impact of that legislation had yet to trickle down to the workplace.
Spurred by the political activism of the time, women in Hollywood banded together. The WGA and SAG women’s committees were formed in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
Despite the fact that the media proclaimed 1973 the “Year of the Woman,” females were still largely non-existent behind the scenes in Hollywood. Nearly all of the writers, directors and producers of television shows and theatrical films were male. Film and television production crews and executives were heavily male-dominated.
At the 46th annual Academy Awards, Julia Phillips became the first woman to win a best picture Oscar, along with her husband, Michael, and their producing partner, Tony Bill, for the 1973 pic “The Sting.” That same year, a group of nine women established Women in Film over a brown-bag lunch.
Congress passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1974, and established a commission to investigate discriminatory hiring practices in the entertainment industry. Suddenly, hiring women became the trendy — but not always popular — thing to do.
At a Writers Guild meeting in the early 1970s, television writer-producer Barbara Corday (“Cagney & Lacey”) remembers a male writer asking her, “Why don’t you get out of this business and let people who have to support families do this work?”
Any woman who spoke openly about women’s rights could risk an unofficial blacklist. “One of the founders of CAA said to me, ‘You would probably go much further in your career if you would stop all this feminist stuff,’ ” Corday says. “He was trying to be helpful.”
The influx of women into Hollywood meant something else too. “There wasn’t a welcoming warm embrace, because we were competition — often for the same job,” remembers television producer Marian Rees.
Aside from Joan Micklin Silver (“Hester Street,” “Between the Lines”), female directors were scarce in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the talk of equal opportunity for women and changing times, Hollywood was still largely an old-boys’ network.
Unless a women was partnered, either romantically or professionally, with a man, it was hard to break into producing. Phillips, Polly Platt, Lucy Fisher, Lili Fini Zanuck, Nancy Meyers and even Julie Corman, to name a few, gained entree via husbands or male business partners.
The same was true on the television side, with Corday teaming with her then-husband Barney Rosenzweig, and Marcy Carsey teaming with partner Tom Werner.
“I had a much easier time because I was part of a team with my husband,” says writer-producer Renee Longstreet, who worked with husband Harry Longstreet. “I didn’t have to stand on my own — even though I could have. It was much more acceptable.”
When producer Cathy Schulman, currently president of Women in Film, won an Academy Award for “Crash” in 2005, “someone pointed out,” Schulman says, “that I was the first woman to win who wasn’t married to the producer or the director of the film.”
It was a turning point when Sherry Lansing was named president of Twentieth Century Fox in 1980, becoming the first woman to head a studio. “Thanks to the women’s movement, my generation was really the first one that broke those barriers,” Lansing says.
The New York Times ran a front-page story announcing the news, referring to Lansing in the headline as a “former model.”
“It was a slam,” Lansing says. “Whenever you’re breaking a glass ceiling, there will be stumbling blocks along the way.”
Later in the decade, Dawn Steel was named president of Columbia Pictures. But although other top female executives managed to break through, they didn’t usher in a new era of the woman in Hollywood.
Women were held to a different standard than their male counterparts. “The first generation of women in Hollywood was definitely tougher, and they had to be, because they had to fight their way in,” says vet producer Lynda Obst.
And women didn’t always open doors for other women, fearful of showing any vulnerability or favoritism toward their gender. Even today, “women in power in studios assimilate and don’t self-distinguish,” Schulman says. “Even when there is a woman who could influence a decision to greenlight a movie and determine who is going to be hired to produce and direct a picture, I’m not seeing trailblazers in that area.”
Women in television have fared better. Early on, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore were able to leverage their on-air talent into successful production companies, but on the executive side, it continued to largely be a men’s club until the introduction of cable television.
Cable was more accessible partly because it wasn’t considered as prestigious at film — or even network television.
“Cable was laughable to a lot of people,” recalls Kay Koplovitz, the founder of USA Networks in 1977. She was the first woman in television to hold the title of president and CEO. “To people in the TV industry, it was kind of a joke.”
Women like Koplovitz, Geraldine Laybourne at Nickelodeon and Judy McGrath at MTV worked their way up the corporate ladder in a way that they couldn’t in network television or film.
Now, women hold some of the most powerful positions in television. Female execs run some of the industry’s top cable networks, including outlets owned by A+E Networks, NBCUniversal, Viacom, Discovery Communications and Scripps Networks. Anne Sweeney rules the TV realm at Disney. Nina Tassler has headed entertainment programming for CBS since 2004. At News Corp., Dana Walden sits atop 20th Century Fox TV (with fellow studio chair Gary Newman), steering one of the industry’s two largest and most prosperous production operations.
There have been gains on the creative side as well. According to Lauzen, women created 26% of the broadcast TV programs during the 2011-12 primetime season, up from 18% the previous year. Overall, women comprised 26% of all creators, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and directors of photography on these programs — a 1% increase from the previous year and an increase of 5% since 1997-98.
Norman Lear, chairman of Act III Communications, is surprised that women are still underrepresented. “I think they should have come further,” Lear says. “Every show I did, basically, was held together by a woman.”
Lauzen proposes a radical solution — a type of affirmative-action style program that would mandate that TV and film studios hire a certain number of women behind the scenes, or establish tax incentives for women filmmakers.
Some other women don’t see a need for special programs. “I don’t think it’s the industry’s job to provide opportunities for women. Women have to develop the skills and the moxie to accomplish it themselves,” says Obst, who points to Lena Dunham as an example of the new generation of empowered female filmmakers. “If you’re a girl with balls, you’re as likely to make it as a boy with balls as a producer … even more so as a director,” Obst adds.
Many believe women need to mentor women, and give talented women opportunities. “We have to come out for each other’s stories, says Paula Silver, former president of marketing and publicity for Columbia Pictures Worldwide and president of Beyond the Box Prods. “We have to use the power of our purse.”
Obst says that because studios are now concentrating on tentpoles, “women’s pictures” are being squeezed out, and the studios “hire the same 10 directors” who are all male.
“The problem is with the nature of the movies getting made and the available assignments,” Obst says. “I am desperately searching for a female filmmaker for a project. Believe me, if I could find prejudice, I would be thrilled.”
Certainly, the younger generation of women working in entertainment hasn’t had to struggle with the same blatant discrimination as its predecessors. Rachel Abarbanell, president of production at Obst Prods. and co-founder of the women’s networking organization Next Gen Femmes, finds talk about sexism in the ’70s and ’80s “slightly foreign. … Young women today are having a much different experience, in part because Lynda and her peers paved the way for us.”
A.J. Marechal contributed to this report