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Cracking the glass ceiling of the film industry

Special to The Times

In 1973, the Hollywood Reporter published the findings of a secret Writers Guild of America survey showing that women had written less than 2% of the scripts over an entire TV season. In the wake of the furor that followed, Reporter publisher Tichi Wilkerson-Kassel gathered a small group of women in her office for an informal lunchtime meeting to brainstorm how to begin making the scales tip more favorably in the distaff direction.

It was time, the women decided, to get organized in the job of helping each other find jobs in the entertainment industry -- and so Women in Film was born.

Now it is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and although the organization can point to key successes, there is still much work to be done, as recent studies, films and articles have pointed out.

Despite the increased presence of women in high-profile positions, including studio and network heads, the percentage of female writers, directors, producers and other key Hollywood roles remains abysmally low. So the need for the organization -- now with 40 chapters in the U.S. and abroad and 10,000 affiliated members, including 2,400 in Los Angeles -- stays high.

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To guide the continued effort, ICM agent Iris Grossman, who first served as president of Women in Film from 1996-99, took the reins again for another three-year term in January of this year. Working with the organization’s small staff and its board of directors and executive committee, Grossman oversees an agenda aimed at helping women wend their way through tricky show-business waters.

“Nobody does it alone,” Grossman says. “Whether you’re in a training program or in the mail room, there’s always somebody you turn to and ask, ‘How do I swim upstream?’ We try to offer programs that will help provide the answers.”

For close to 20 years, the group’s Film Finishing Fund has awarded grants to help filmmakers complete projects that might otherwise be in financial jeopardy. Among the works that have received Finishing Fund grants are the award-winning 1995 documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and “Regret to Inform,” a 1998 Oscar nominee for short documentary film. Women in Film also has given more than 100 scholarships to women at UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and the American Film Institute.

For the last three years, the organization has worked in partnership with the Fulfillment Fund to sponsor summer internships for at-risk young women from schools in the L.A. Unified School District. The students, who have committed to completing high school and plan to go on to college, spend eight weeks working at a paid job; they also attend weekly group seminars on different aspects of the industry. “Our hope is to show them that this is what you can aspire to, that it’s possible to achieve this,” says Hollace Davids, a past president of Women in Film who helped establish the internship program.

During Davids’ tenure, the organization also began a mentoring program, which aims to set members up in one-on-one relationships with more seasoned professionals in a specific area of interest. Aspiring producer Carol Beatty, who is developing a children’s TV series, was mentored by Nickelodeon’s Julia Pistor. “I was interested in being able to talk with someone who had already gone through the process of writing, producing and distributing a children’s project,” Beatty says. “This business is all about networking. Women in Film has given me exposure to a lot of people I might not have met otherwise.”

The group’s most high-profile event is its annual Crystal Awards celebration, which has been held since 1977 and serves as its primary fund-raiser. The honorees for 2003 are actress Diane Lane, producer Debra Hill and Nina Jacobson, Buena Vista Motion Pictures group president. The Dorothy Arzner Director’s Award, named for the only prominent female director of Hollywood’s golden age, is being given to Debbie Allen, and the Kodak Vision Award is going to Canadian cinematographer Pauline Heaton.

In 1994, the group added the Lucy Awards (named for Lucille Ball) to herald small-screen accomplishments. Those awards are going this year to Stockard Channing; Lily Tomlin; Gail Berman-Masters, Fox Broadcasting’s president of entertainment; and Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming for HBO. The Crystal and Lucy Awards will be handed out today during a gala dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel.

“I remember when they used to have Women in Film [award] luncheons and they couldn’t fill a small ballroom,” recalls Paramount Motion Pictures Group Chairman Sherry Lansing, a Crystal Award honoree in 1981. “But today, they have to turn people away from the biggest ballrooms. That’s what’s happened with the organization, and that’s what’s happened with women in film, period.”

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But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same -- or, sometimes, even get worse. A recent American Movie Classics documentary titled “Women on Top” profiled several prominent industry women, including writer-director Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise,” “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”), producer Laura Ziskin (“Pretty Woman,” “Spider-Man”) and editor Sally Menke (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction”), but came to the unhappy conclusion that these few women are by and large the exception rather than the norm, with men still making up the overwhelming majority of motion picture professionals.

The disparity is made clear in “The Celluloid Ceiling,” an annual study conducted since 1987 by Martha Lauzen, a professor at San Diego State’s School of Communication. Each year, Lauzen tracks female employment in the entertainment industry, examining the top 250 films released. The numbers for 2002 have just come in, and they leave a lot to be desired.

According to the study, the percentage of women hired as directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers or editors dropped from 19% in 2001 to 17% in 2002. A total of 22% of the films released during the time studied employed no women at all in any of those positions.

So what’s a group called Women in Film to do? Rather than be considered “whiny, crying people when we talk about this,” Davids chooses to use these figures as a galvanizing tool underscoring the need for change. “It’s not about feelings,” asserts Davids, senior vice president of special projects at Universal Pictures. “When someone says to me that there’s no issue about women anymore, I can point to these figures and say, ‘Yes, there is an issue.’ The facts speak for themselves.”

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At the same time, it is at least in part to Women in Film’s credit that many of the women coming to Los Angeles with stars in their eyes are as likely to aspire to being directors and producers as actresses. Women have made their greatest strides as executive producers, producers and in industry executive suites. The glass ceiling may not have been shattered, but it is showing some cracks. Says Lansing, the first woman to run a film studio: “We’re slowly becoming gender blind, but it’s not a perfect world. It’s no longer a matter of either being singled out [as the one accomplished woman] or victimized. It’s more a matter of making sure that things continue to improve.”

These days, however, many of the new wave of young women trying to get their feet in the show business door came of age during the postfeminist era and thus have little or no historical framework for understanding the battles fought on their behalf by those who came before them. But Grossman, Women in Film’s president, believes the organization remains as relevant today as when it was founded.

“It’s still a constant struggle, but the extraordinary accomplishments of women over the past three decades cannot be ignored. The women who started [WIF] 30 years ago probably never really expected to see women running networks and studios and production companies and producing some of the biggest blockbusters of all time.”


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