In 1974, Sheila DeLoach became the industry’s first-ever female branch manager in charge of the Dallas office for Columbia Pictures. DeLoach wasn’t present for the announcement (she was traveling), but when she returned, she learned that 15 of the office’s 32 mostly male employees had quit.

“It was the ’70s,” DeLoach said. “People wouldn’t work for a woman.”

Nearly 40 years later, DeLoach is retiring from the distribution business. And while that mindset has changed drastically, the world of exhibition and distribution — not unlike several other industry divisions (i.e. market research) — still remain largely occupied by men.

The few number of high-ranking female distribution execs range from studio prexies Nikki Rocco (Universal), Megan Colligan (Paramount) and Veronika Kwan Vandenberg (Warner Intl.) to exec or senior veeps including Linda Ditrinco (Focus Features), Nancy Carson (Warner Intl.), Gale Blumenthal (Roadside Attractions) and Derval Whelan (Fox Searchlight).

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DeLoach, who began her career as a bookers clerk for Columbia, took on her current post as EVP of distribution for Fox Searchlight in spring 2006.

“It’s been a great long road,” DeLoach said, “The thing I’m most proud of is the people I’ve mentored, who have gone on to fabulous careers — people like Rory Bruer, Mike Jones, Jack Foley and others.”

DeLoach’s retirement marks the departure of a key player, a loss that her female counterparts in distribution all share: “Sheila really helped pave the way for women in distribution,” Focus’s Ditrinco said. “As men realized that she was competent, they began accepting more and more women.”

Still, these women recognize — and appreciate — the impact the men of distribution have had on their careers.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s not an easy road and you have to prove yourself,” said U’s Rocco who, at 16 years at her current post is the longest-serving distribution prexy. “Most of my mentors have been senior male executives, and I think of them as my family with the respect they’ve shown me.”

As for DeLoach, she said she is “looking forward to new adventures.”

“Although I will miss working on a day to day basis with all my friends in the industry, I am not saying good bye totally,” DeLoach said. “I’m continuing as a board member of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers and love the work I do with them.”