When Martha Coolidge first thought about becoming a director 15 years ago, she didn't come to Hollywood. "The only woman directing then was Elaine May," she remembers, "and that wasn't enough to make me feel I could go out there and make a career for myself."

Instead, she stayed in New York and shot documentaries. Eventually she went to work for Francis Coppola at his Zoetrope Studios, then in 1983, for Atlantic Releasing, she directed the sleeper "Valley Girl." "If I were graduating today," she says, "I would come to Hollywood because the doors are open, at least partially, to women."

Women directors today have a stronger presence in the commercial Hollywood film industry than ever before. Five major studio pictures directed by women--"Blue City," "Children of a Lesser God," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Ratboy" and "Seven Minutes in Heaven"--have been released this year.

Four more--"Cutting Loose," "The Frog Prince," "Ishtar," "Making Mr. Right"--will be ready for spring 1987 release. In addition, independent distributors will offer another 20 pictures directed by American women.

This record is a considerable increase over last year--or any other year. Why now?

One reason is the persistence of many women directors. The average female film director today is probably around 40. Many of them have been directing sporadically for 15 years.

Dawn Steel, president of production at Paramount, observes, "What's happening is that women have been encouraged to come forward and say, 'I can direct. I can write. I can be a studio executive. I can.' "

With the gradual acceptance of the idea that a woman can take charge of a multimillion-dollar budget, 100-member crew, sensitive actors and a tight schedule, these seasoned women are finally getting their chance.

Also, women are knocking on new doors. In the past few years, a dozen small film production companies have appeared, and they seem to be particularly responsive to women directors.

For instance, Scotti Bros. hired Karen Arthur ("Lady Beware") and Gabrielle Beaumont ("Pulling It Off"), while Vista Films employed Nessa Hyams ("Leader of the Band"), Amy Jones ("Maid to Order") and Penelope Spheeris ("Dudes").

The success of such pictures as Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan," Martha Coolidge's "Valley Girl," Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and Barbra Streisand's "Yentl" shows that pictures directed by women can make money.

"We're almost at the point where women directors are being judged on the basis of their work," ICM agent Jane Sindell summarizes.

Speaking with a liveliness that contrasts with her corporation-gray business suit, Paramount's Steel says: "It's not so much how many movies are directed by women, but how many women are being considered."

Steel goes through her personal list: "I'm a huge fan and champion of Lynne Littman ("Testament"). She shows up on all my lists for serious movies.

"Karen Arthur made a film, 'The Mafu Cage,' 10 years ago. I saw it and thought it was brilliant. If you don't have passion about your work, your work's not good. I'll never forget Karen. She was unbelievably passionate.

"I always consider Randa Haines ("Children of a Lesser God"), Martha Coolidge, Lee Grant ("Tell Me a Riddle") and Barbra Streisand. Barbra is on every directing list in this company. She's always unavailable or she hates the stuff or she's exclusive to Warner Bros. on certain things. We deal with her on a serious level. (Streisand is currently producing and starring in "Nuts" for Warner Bros.)

"Kim Friedman ("Square Pegs") came in and pitched a story she clearly had a vision on. She was very impressive. If the script comes out great, she'll be directing a movie here.

"I think Evelyn Purcell ("Nobody's Fool") is going to be a super-talent. I saw 'Rush'--a documentary on sorority rush--which she directed, and I've watched her ever since." Steel also mentions Beth Brickell ("A Rainy Day"), Joanne Freeman ("Streetwalkin' "), Amy Jones, Sharron Miller ("Pleasures") and Penelope Spheeris as talented directors to watch.

"The bottom line at Paramount is always the same," Steel emphasizes. "It's about the work. Sex doesn't make a difference to me. I'm in the middle. The person who has the right talent for the job gets the job."

Later on, she qualifies, that to "the right person for the job I hope gets the job. Sometimes politics enters into it. One tries to void it out. I do the best I can."

Can a woman executive foster a woman director's career? Should she? Lucy Fisher, senior vice president of production at Warner Bros., says yes. "We have at least something cooking with women directors at all times. There's a natural leaning toward encouraging women here. We have four female vice presidents in the creative end and two male vice presidents. I just wish we made more movies and more lower-budget movies." Warner Bros. has projects in development with Claudia Weill ("It's My Turn"), Lesli Glatter ("Amazing Stories") and Euzhan Palcy ("Sugarcane Alley").

In general, however, an increase in numbers of women executives at the studios appears to have had no trickle-down effect at the women-director level. And it shouldn't, insists Deborah Aal, president of the Leonard Goldberg Co., which is producing the mid-season replacement series "The Cavanaughs." Aal speaks for many when she says, "I'd hate to think women are just hiring other women."

Eileen Carhart of the Directors Guild of America Women's Steering Committee, whose chief concern is seeing that women are hired to direct, asks: "If these women executives spoke candidly, would they say that they have the visibility but not the power?"

Warner's Lucy Fisher takes a deep breath and thinks about this question for at least a minute. Finally, she says hesitantly, "Power is a hard thing to talk about. I feel like I'm stepping into quicksand. I think what these women really want to know is, 'If I go to a female executive and she says she will fight for me, will I have a better chance than if I go to a male executive?'

"With some people, yes. With some, no. The women who fight hard fight harder than anyone else. Maybe the ambition quotient is slightly less with some women. There are many other qualities besides power that are important: how much personal authority? How tenacious?

"Bob Daly (chairman of the board) and Terry Semel (president) can decide to make a movie here. For the rest of the people--how persuasive and tenacious are they? How good are they at selling themselves? It's not a matter of power. I don't think any of us have the power to say yes or no. It's how well you can use your influence."

Director Coolidge says: "It used to be that I would never go to a woman executive because two women together was perceived as weakness and would ensure that the project would not get made. That's not true anymore."

Other myths about women directors are also disappearing: for instance, the concept of "a woman's picture." Producer/director Linda Yellen ("Playing for Time") remembers a time 10 years ago when studio executives said to female directors, " 'Oh, you'd be good for a woman's picture--a soft, small, personal film.' Those pictures didn't do well at the box office."

"In the 1970s, hiring women directors seemed like something the studios had to do," confirms Nessa Hyams, who in 1974 became one of Hollywood's first woman studio executives (vice president of West Coast production for Columbia). "The attitude was, 'We'll let her do it, and she'll fail, and we won't let her do it again.' "

Hyams left her executive job to direct episodes of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" but was unable to get a feature-film directing commitment. Now, a decade later, she is directing her first feature, "Leader of the Band," starring Steve Landesberg.

"In those early days it took a bolt of lightning for women to make the jump to directing," Joan Micklin Silver recalls. Silver directed her first feature, "Hester Street," in 1975 after making three short educational films.

"It was a period of high sexism in the industry," she recalls. "I remember being told by a male executive, 'Feature films are expensive to make and release. A woman director is one more problem we don't need.' "

Those days are gone, says Herb Jaffe, one of the founders of Vista Films. Three of the seven films Jaffe has put into production this year have women directors. "I didn't say, 'Let's find women directors because we're going to make our mark on society,' " he chuckles. "Nessa Hyams, Amy Jones and Penelope Spheeris are very talented people. Not being prejudiced, we went out and made deals with them."

One myth about women directors that still hovers over the industry is this one: "If a woman has a failure, all women slide back." Last May when "Blue City" was unsuccessful at the box office, every woman with directing aspirations shuddered.

"Blue City" director Michelle Manning, 26, had risen rapidly from USC Film School, to production assistant at Zoetrope Studios, associate producer on Ned Tanen's productions of John Hughes' "16 Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" and then director of Paramount's "Blue City" after Tanen became head of Paramount.

Tanen's associate at Paramount, Dawn Steel, speaks candidly about "Blue City." "I suspect Michelle took her shot at directing too early," she says. "I think the experience for Michelle was unbelievably difficult. She may not necessarily have had the experience she needed. She didn't have the production support we thought we'd be able to supply her with. She was out there pretty much by herself.

"That's really tough your first time out. I think Michelle will turn out to have enormous amounts of talent. She kills herself. I never saw anyone work harder, ever. She's very smart. I think she'll be one of the few who gets a second chance. I don't think a first-time male director would have had much more luck than Michelle, given all those things. It had nothing to do with her being a woman."

After hearing Steel's comments, Manning said: "I think that's fair. I was out there pretty much on my own. In retrospect, I do think the critics were more tough on me than they had to be. I'm not a war criminal. I don't think many directors' first films are perfect. Maybe the timing wasn't right. There was a lot of 'brat-pack' backlash." "Blue City" starred "brat-packers" Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy.

Manning also discovered one of the drawbacks of being a woman director. "You're under a microscope. You suddenly become a media event for no good reason."

However, the experience hasn't discouraged her. "You have to be optimistic or you won't make it through the chutes," she says. Manning has a production deal at Paramount as a producer and is developing projects elsewhere as a director.

So far, the poor reception of her film has had no visible impact on other women directors. But because "Blue City" was an action-adventure, its failure could reinforce the already strongly held view that action films should be left to men.

Next : Do men and women make different kinds of movies?

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