Women Prevailing Despite Sexism in Slowly-Changing Below-the-Line Industry

Women Working Below the Line Hollywood
Catherine Ledner for Variety

When Rita Lundin was working as a driver on “Men in Black 3,” the message from her Teamsters coordinator was blunt: We don’t like to work with women.

“He told me he wouldn’t be able to sleep, thinking I wasn’t going to make it to the set and that I wouldn’t be able to do the job,” she says.

It didn’t matter that Lundin, 55, was a third-generation member of the movie industry, and grew up on the sets of films and TV shows, even appearing as an extra on “Gunsmoke” when she was a girl. Nor were her prior credits as a driver — an impressive list that includes “Iron Man” and “The Hangover” — enough proof that she could handle a job that required her to move massive trailers, set up generators and keep the stars’ cushy offscreen homes clean and in shape.

“Being a woman, you have to work twice as hard,” says Lundin, noting that by the time filming was done, the Teamsters wanted her to keep working in the city. “Men get hired because they have a license. Women get hired because they know how to do their job.”

Lundin’s struggle with institutional sexism may be more overt than many, but though progress has been made, the movie business is still a man’s world. Rare is the woman in below-the-line jobs who doesn’t carry a few scars.

Illustration by Borja Bonaque for Variety

Anna Behlmer has earned 10 Oscar nominations while working as a sound mixer on such films as “World War Z,” “Star Trek” and “Blood Diamond.” Yet she still recalls one particularly nasty incident on the 1992 movie “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” when a member of the editorial staff walked in, pointed her out, and said, “What the fuck is she doing here?” After answering that she was the sound mixer, he told her, “Like hell you are.”

“Can you imagine that stuff now?” Behlmer asks. “He was just a grumpy old guy, and he tried everything to get me kicked off the film. I was so stressed out I lost six pounds.” Eventually, her credits spoke for themselves. “All the silliness stopped after my first (Oscar) nomination,” Behlmer says. “People stopped doubting I could do the big movies after that.”

Yet the numbers suggest that women still have a long road to travel to achieve equality. Exact statistics on employment throughout the production fields are hard to come by, but those that exist are not encouraging: In 2013, women comprised 2% of composers, 4% of sound designers, 9% of supervising sound editors, 2% of special effects supervisors, and 5% of visual effects supervisors on the 250 top-grossing films, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

The indie world is slightly more diverse. Of the 1,163 people working behind the camera on 82 U.S. films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, almost 30% were women. Females comprised 19.7% of cinematographers and 27.9% of editors on those productions.

As the numbers suggest, sexism still exists. And when it bubbles up, it helps to have a tough skin.

“The best thing to do is to defuse it with humor, and remove yourself from whatever situation you’re in,” says Lynda Reiss, a 55-year-old prop master who has worked on “True Detective” and “American Beauty.”

Reiss believes the threat of legal action has made people behave better than they did when she first broke into the business. It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that there are now more protections in place. “They make you sign a million pieces of paper, and we have production meetings where we are given anonymous lines to call if something happens,” she explains.

Sandra Adair, 62, has spent two decades editing indie auteur Richard Linklater’s pictures, including his current release “Boyhood,” with the two forming a tight bond in the close-knit Austin, Texas, film scene. “I raised my kids over the 22 years that I worked with Rick,” she says. “I dragged them to the cutting room when they were sick or had to go to the dentist. He’s always been very family-friendly and considerate of the fact that I was a working mom.”

Getting those kinds of creatively fulfilling jobs isn’t easy, she stresses. “Women have to work harder and speak louder to get noticed. It’s still a bit of a boy’s club, and it doesn’t feel as easy for a woman to climb the ladder as it is for a man.”

For those women who moved into sound design, visual effects work and other below-the-line occupations in the early days of feminism, the reception could be blistering. Just ask Mary Jo Devenney, a 61-year-old production sound mixer.

“When I first started as a boom operator, there were not very many women, and it was deemed acceptable for people to come up behind you and tickle you while you were booming,” Devenney recalls. She says that whenever she got a job, people assumed she was the girlfriend of someone on the production, or married to the mixer.

Anecdotally, producers and production staff say they are running into are a greater number of women on film sets and among post-production crews than in the past.

“When I started in this business 15 years ago, most artists and technicians were male, but I’m seeing more and more female compositors, supervisors and programmers,” says Stephanie Allen, the head of Paramount’s visual effects division, who adds that the ratios of women to men have also improved.

Indeed, there are statistics that suggest a growing equality in some fields. IATSE 695, which represents sound technicians, television engineers, video assist technicians and studio projectionists, among others, reports that over the past two years, the number of female union members in those fields has increased by 25%.

Other entertainment unions and professional organizations are trying to boost equality, but despite those efforts, women still account for a smaller slice of the membership than men. The Visual Effects Society, for instance, pegs the ratio of female members at 15%-20% out of roughly 3,000, while the Intl. Cinematographer’s Guild, Local 600, says women comprise 13.6% of its 7,400 members. “It’s not a secret that women are extraordinarily under-represented not only in visual effects, but in the entertainment industry at large,” says Eric Roth, the society’s exec director.

There also are issues with compensation, argues Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film and an Oscar-winning producer of Paul Haggis’ 2004 drama “Crash.” Studies show that females who work as executives, directors, producers and in other leading posts are paid less than male colleagues. She believes the compensation picture could brighten if more women were in positions of power.

“The people who run the companies have the ability to set policies,” Schulman says. “They need to make it the rule, not the exception, that women make the same amount of money for the same jobs, and get the same guarantees as men.”

Today, only two of Hollywood’s major studios are run by women — Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal and Universal’s Donna Langley. DreamWorks’ CEO Stacey Snider, who previously oversaw Universal Pictures and was president of TriStar Pictures, is expected to help lead another studio when she goes to work for 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos as soon as her DreamWorks contract expires at year end.

Devenney says the issue isn’t that men get paid more on a particular movie, but that women are better represented on lower-budget, lower-paying jobs, and struggle to get hired on the more richly compensated, blockbuster productions. “That’s the glass ceiling,” she says.

Some women, particularly those in the rising next generation of female crew members, don’t blame sexism for the second-guessing they encounter. Take Holly Hosman, a 31-year-old grip. At under 5 foot 4, 125 pounds, she admits that she doesn’t fit the mold of the big and burly men who are usually tasked with rigging lights, moving equipment and shouldering hours of physical labor. Sure, she says, she draws stares when she shows up on set, but she’s not willing to ascribe the reaction
to her gender.

“I think it’s size-ist,” Hosman says. “If I was a broad-shouldered lesbian, it might be different, but when you’re straight and small and cute, people don’t know what to do with you.”

Like Hosman, Karen Goulekas (pictured top) is a rarity in her line of work — a female visual effects supervisor. But she says she has never had difficulty getting promoted during her three decades in the business — and she has a resume to prove it, with such films as “Looper” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” In fact, she doesn’t believe chauvinism is responsible for the unequal hiring of women.

“If you stop and have children, it changes things,” she says. “If I had small kids, and had to pull them out of school so I could go work in South Africa or London, I don’t know if I’d be doing this. Right now, my husband (who also works below the line) can always get a job on a film where I’m posted. We can be fluid. The hardest thing we have to worry about is bringing our cats.”

Maintaining a work-life balance is difficult, given the grueling hours on sets, with shifts that often start before dawn and end late at night.

But those who embrace this line of work find ways to cope. When a film would take her away from her Los Angeles home for prolonged periods of time, Reiss would fashion a scavenger hunt for her daughter, complete with clues that the youngster could deduce. She also made tapes of herself telling stories that her daughter could watch.

“The hours are primarily what kill you,” Reiss says. “Early on, I realized, I can’t go to every soccer game, but I’ll make sure I’m there for the big games, the graduations, the first days of school and other milestone moments.”

Catherine Ledner for Variety

Peggy Names (pictured above), a 64-year-old boom operator, remembers working so late into her pregnancy on the Bette Davis movie “The Watcher in the Woods” that the Oscar-winning legend grew concerned. “She wanted to be sure that the production had the number of the nearest hospital in case I delivered,” recounts Names. “She was worried about me climbing up and down the ladder.” The hours may be long and the sacrifices great, but there are rewards for being involved in a collaborative and creative medium, whether the work is done in the editing suite, on the soundstage or on location.

“It’s tough; it’s rigorous,” Names says. “I’m pushing carts uphill, up sand dunes in 110-degree heat with sand blowing in my eyes, and I’m still smiling and thinking, ‘This is great.’ ”

While under-represented in general, women do dominate certain departments, such as makeup, wardrobe and script supervision.

Andrea Ulrich, a 34-year-old script supervisor who has worked on “Person of Interest” and “Noah,” says she is always pleasantly surprised to see a female grip or member of the electrical team, but she doesn’t think gender dynamics will change much. Being a grip is basically a blue-collar job, she notes, adding, “I’m not sure how many women want to work on a construction site.”

Women in production say they consider it a mission to mentor their young counterparts trying to break into the business.

“I have an open door policy when it comes to career advice, because a lot of people did that for me,” says Jennifer Bell, head of visual effects at Universal. “You need to guide people, and provide access to areas of the business that might not feel accessible.”

Despite making strides, some women in fields such as visual effects and sound are upset that more progress hasn’t been made. Victoria Alonso, 49, is one of the success stories, having climbed the ranks to become Marvel Studios’ visual effects chief and a producer on films such as “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” When she broke into the business, she estimates there was one woman to every 100 men on a visual-effects crew. Today, she feels that percentage has grown to roughly one in every 10 — but adds the figure is not enough. There needs to be a change in mind set, she argues, and it must come early in a child’s life.

“It has everything to do with (starting) when our daughters are 3 or 4 years old, and telling them there are other things to do than playing with dolls,” she says. “Every night, I tell my daughter she’s excellent at math. We can change the next generation.”

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  1. Disappointed says:

    As a woman who works in film below the line, I was excited to see an article addressing these issues… until I got to Ms. Hosman’s ridiculously offensive comment. You couldn’t have gotten a quote from someone intelligent? At 31, she barely knows ANYTHING and is certainly not in a position to be making offensive comments and dismissing these concerns as being anything other than pure sexism considering she is the beneficiary of all those women who came before her. Of course since the writer is male, this is to be expected. You couldn’t just write a straightforward article on what is really going on in the industry, you had to throw in a few anti-femisits, right? What a crock! I had every intention of sharing this in social media since many of my friends and colleagues would be interested in reading. But I could never support writing with that kind of ignorant drivel in it. You screwed up, Mr. Lang. And don’t think that just because we barely get ANY support or media coverage regarding these very real issues that we’re just going to overlook it. It’s fairly obvious that you threw in a dissenting voice to undercut what is a blatant, wide-spread issue.

  2. Anthony says:

    No mention of Production Design or Costume Design in the article. My guess is that women are and have been more well represented in these two areas.

  3. Suzanne says:

    I do agree with you RE: women In Film I joined a number of years ago, but I’m an Art Director. I didn’t feel like I fit in with them. We don’t talk about making films or work in production offices. We’re the people that are actually doing it hands-on. And, when I’m working on small productions like some commercials, industrial films or PSAs, I just might doing it by myself. Glad to see that there are women of experience working. Ageism is a big problem. Can’t tell you how many women 50+ have told me they find it hard or almost impossible to get work despite decades of experience.

  4. Bill Kenny says:

    Arrived here via a recommendation of a woman working in a below-the-line aspect of the industry and I found this to be as informative, thoughful and thought-provoking a read as her recommendation implied it would be. Excellent stuff!

  5. Jen says:

    Great article and interesting perspectives. Unfortunately, one remark stirred a less than favorable response from me. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but Holly Hosman’s remark about “broad-shouldered lesbians” and how it’s more difficult being a straight, small and “cute” (seriously?) girl is offensive and completely off the mark. Why are you making this an issue of sexuality? What does that have to do with women having to work twice as hard in a male-dominated industry in order to garner the same respect as some of their male peers? Women, such as Ms. Hosman, can be counterproductive when they assume a confrontational rather than supportive demeanor toward female counterparts in a male-dominated workforce.

    • HHGeek says:

      I was staggered by that comment too. Maybe Ms.Hosman should pause a moment to consider that demeaning those not like you is a large part of the problem as to why women have been excluded from so many industries / jobs over the years. If she really is ‘cute’ (ego, much?), then maybe she’s getting work as much because of that than because she’s actually competent!

      • Sarah says:

        Well there’s no reason to act like she shouldn’t be allowed to think she’s cute. She’s definitely allowed to But the real problem lies not in her confidence in her physical appearance–something that should matter very little to the other workers on the set, as her pointing out her physical appearance brings to mind–but rather, the problematic nature of the rest of her comment. “Broad-shouldered lesbian”? PLEASE.

    • Jen says:

      I’m sorry, she initially couched it as “size-ist,” but then made a gross generalization and brought it to sexuality instead. Maybe I’m also offended by the fact that my girlfriend has actually given this girl, Holly, work in the past. It’s nice when a broad-shouldered lesbian can break sexual orientation/”size-ist” boundaries by helping self-proclaimed “cute,” straight girls get work.

  6. E. Jand Thompson says:

    Thank you for such a comprehensive article on the story of below-the-line women in the industry. I found it moving as well as informative.

  7. blip says:

    Yeah, don’t “push” anything, ladies, even though we’re half the population (and, ironically enough, had far more power in film seventy or more years ago): we’re apt to alarm delicate, sensitive types like Leon. It’s okay, Leon: the big, creative, assertive women-critters won’t hurt you. Shhhh, now….

  8. Stephen says:

    Totally agree. And there should be more women above-the-line as well. Did you know that women currently account for 0% of the actors to play Batman, James Bond, and Rocky? This has to stop! Please join me as we march on Washington to make sure we achieve a diverse world where everyone* is equally represented, not by their actual statistical representation in any field, but by our perceived lack of representation based on how many people complain the most.

    * “Everyone” means everyone who isn’t a straight, white man because they chose to be that and they’re the worst.

    • blip says:

      I thought the article was about industry roles for women, not about silly gender-swapping. Thanks for the needlessly alarmist mansplain. You poor boys really know how to get your knickers in a twist, don’t you…? What a bunch of ninnies!

  9. Leon says:

    OMG no no no. Woman never needed this forced push. Most great movies have great female leads. This forcing it down our throats thing is really ruining movies. Not helping. I hate these type of articles. WHO CARES what this stupid column reporter thinks. Bugger off

    • Jen says:

      It’s about below-the-line, dumbass!

      • Momus says:

        Thank you! By the way, whomever was quoted from Women in Film, this organization is just as much of a sham as any other production company that hires a smattering of women. Decades ago, I went to 1 of their WIF banquets, where they were honouring one of my own, a continuity script supervisor (maybe the only 1 every noticed by these people). I looked around at the almost-1,000 attendees and saw ONE female filmmaker, an editor colleague of mine. No one there actually made the movies, they were all people who worked in offices and had lunches and indoor bathrooms and telephones at their disposal. Who do these WIF people think MAKE these movies?

        Anyway, the woman from my union whom they honoured that year was someone I think no one there had ever heard of – despite a 50-year career that spanned work with Howard Hawks, John Huston, Mike Nichols, & Hal Ashby. Oh, and a 13-year editing relationship with William Faulkner. Well, after all the actresses and producers and directors and d-girls got their awards, my dear friend and colleague took the dias and all these “women in film offices” learned a little bit about filmmaking!

        But I don’t see that this organization has done much of anything to support these women who make films – in the sound department, the art department, the grip and electrical departments, the prop department, the wardrobe department, the special and visual FX departments, the transportation department, the assistant director department, the hair and makeup department, the transportation department, the camera department, and yes, the continuity department. We’re all the people who make the movies.

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