Empowerment Is the Name of the Game for Actresses

Make a name for yourself . . . become a Hollywood power.

That's what a growing number of actresses are doing to gain major roles for themselves or to control their own movies, parlaying successful TV series roles or box-office success into being Hollywood players.

How else do we explain a rash of top-name women performers getting million-dollar production contracts with major entertainment companies . . . or more and more actresses getting exclusive production deals with network and cable companies . . . or hour after prime-time hour of TV movies almost exclusively starring major-league actresses?

Empowerment is one way to explain it. Exploitation could also be an answer.

Television director-producer Harry Winer, who has directed his share of women-oriented network dramas, opts for empowerment, a word usually reserved for stump speakers and social scientists and not usually used when it comes to actresses of a certain age.

Meredith Baxter, herself a producing and prime-time presence, has a somewhat qualified take. "Theatrical movies usually allow women to be shown only naked or dead. Television doesn't mind them walking around," she says. "It's business. Women do most of the buying so the advertisers in television want to address themselves to women through women-oriented movies."

Sean Corrigan, a partner in business management practice of the Deloitte and Touche Entertainment Group, says he sees more and more actresses moving into independent production or gaining production control through studio contracts. It's how a growing number of women are gaining creative control of their roles and movies, he says.

Empowerment . . . exploitation?

We probably are seeing bits of both. The seismologists who monitor entertainment movements and upheavals detect momentum toward empowerment--control by women over their roles and financial backing for their own TV shows and movies. Hollywood's "housekeeping deals," where a studio provides staff and office space and some financial support for actor-producers just to keep them around, are being turned over increasingly to women.

So most recently we see:

* Oprah Winfrey signing an exclusive deal with ABC television to produce all of that network's after-school specials along with several prime-time projects--the first was shown earlier this month--at her new $20-million Harpo Studios in Chicago.

* Barbra Streisand this month reportedly getting an estimated $40-million deal with Sony to run her own film and record company.

* Madonna last month signing an estimated $60-million contract with Time Warner that included commitments for her own film and television production.

* ABC, in addition to the Winfrey deal, maintaining television production deals with Roseanne Arnold, Victoria Principal, Donna Mills and Delta Burke.

* Baxter, who has two successful television series to her credit and more recently starred in the TV movie "A Woman Scorned--The Betty Broderick Story" and will do that film's sequel, setting up two different companies to produce theatrical and television movies while involved in three network development deals.

* And such actresses as Jaclyn Smith, Lindsay Wagner and Cybill Shepherd in television maintaining their own production companies, and Jodie Foster, Penny Marshall, Whoopi Goldberg and Diane Keaton, among others, doing the same with films.

Empowerment . . . exploitation?

Television networks in this month's just concluded sweeps showed a dozen movies and miniseries starring women in women-oriented movies. Few, however, were directly controlled by actresses.

NBC earlier this month in announcing its lineup for next season of 35 made-for-television movies and four miniseries indicated a definite preference for women-oriented programs, although only a scattering of these movies are controlled or owned by women.

Winer, who directed this year's TV movie "Taking Back My Life, the Nancy Ziegenmeyer Story" and the miniseries "Stay the Night," believes that the road to empowerment is paved with good, commercial intentions--television advertisers appealing to their strongest and most loyal audience, women. And who better to do that than actresses who have established themselves in the minds and eyes of series watchers and moviegoers?

That's why, Winer says, most television movies--the recently concluded May sweeps are proof of that--starred more female series veterans than males: Susan Dey, Susan Ruttan, Barbara Hershey, Elizabeth Montgomery, Sharon Gless, Veronica Hamel, Mills and Baxter.

"There is a pool of gifted actresses ready and able to work on television," Winer said. "There they can tell their stories, stories which aren't told anywhere else.

"The more appealing the talent and the better the actresses' record of bringing in audiences the greater becomes her power. And more women are getting the chance to produce the stories that interest them. Their clout is much overdue.

"It's also a practical matter, especially for the networks. By giving production deals they keep certain actresses happy. They also keep them working during the hiatus periods when TV production slows down."

Baxter concluded that producing enabled her to find rewarding roles and stories, so she got involved in two production companies. With producer Judy Polone, she starts production next month on an untitled NBC movie about a woman caught up in substance abuse. With Brenda Feigen, she is developing feature films including "Witchhunt," written by Rita Mae Brown about a purge of sailors believed to be lesbians in the U.S. Navy.

Baxter is idealistic and realistic.

"I don't want to make run-of-the-mill films. I want quality and high interest. I want to make movies that have a passion. I realize that everyone in this town is a producer. My hairstylist is a producer. The guy who pumps gasoline is a producer. But I come with myself and good stories. And I know right now because of my television accomplishments I can get a hearing. I was fortunate to have some hot television movies. But as soon as a clunker comes along, who will be told to answer Meredith's calls? Somebody's underling."

According to Deloitte and Touche's Corrigan, there is a definite trend toward more housekeeping deals in television as well as in feature films. With actresses lining up their own properties, start-up costs shift slightly away from the studios. For the actresses there is a financial risk, though, in acquiring their own projects. But then the rewards of a successful movie are that much greater for them.

"Women have to use their clout when they have it," says Harriet Silverman of Women in Film, a support group for a range of new and experienced filmmakers. "Right now television is more user friendly to actresses because the audiences are largely women. In the movies there aren't too many 'Thelma & Louises.' Maybe that, too, will change."

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