Still a man's world

Halfway through what the Sundance Film Festival is calling "The Year of the Woman in Film," the Utah film folks seem to be right on the money. Films by women directors are everywhere: Amy Heckerling's coming " Loser," Allison Maclean's "Jesus' Son," Mary Harron's controversial " American Psycho," Kimberly Peirce's award-winning "Boys Don't Cry," Bonnie Hunt's "Return to Me," and Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides."

But as Hollywood's Women in Film (WIF) gets ready to honor women's achievements with its 24th Annual Crystal Awards today, a more sobering midyear report card on the status of women in film may be in order. As any good director knows, the view depends on the lens. Accordingly, the long, medium, and short shots all give different perspectives on the story.

"In some areas, there is lots of progress, like in the executive suites and marketing, but we have lots of work to do in things like directing and cinematography," says WIF president Hollace Davids, who is also a vice president of special projects at Universal Pictures. "If you look at the fact that [women] are 52 percent of the population, we are vastly underrepresented throughout the industry."

No shortage of both hard and anecdotal data back up this assertion. An assessment of women employed in six key behind-the-scenes roles (executive producer, producer, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor) in 1998's top 250 films reveals that women are doing worst as cinematographers (1 percent - up from 0 percent in 1997) and best as producers (26 percent - up from 20 percent in 1997 and 13 percent in 1992).

"People think there must be more women employed because of a few women in high positions," says Martha Lauzen, a professor at the School of Communication at San Diego State University, who conducted the study. "But you can't point to a few high-profile women and say things are getting better. You have to count the numbers."

Figures for 1999 are being released today, but Ms. Lauzen says they show a very slight change from 1998. "There is a lot of misinformation about the employment of women in Hollywood," she says, largely because in true industry fashion, "people like happy endings."

The hard reality is that there has been little if any progress in recent years. The Sundance Film Festival may have recognized women's contributions this year, Lauzen says, "but while women may be making their presence known at festivals, that is not translating into jobs in Hollywood."

Anecdotal data are more varied, but the long view reveals enormous progress. In the past 25 years, starting from no more than a handful of women producing, directing, or writing for the screen, "the grades today look pretty good," says Mollie Gregory, a former president of WIF, who is writing a book, "Equal Dreams: How a New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, 1973-2000."

Ms. Gregory points out that this wave of women was propelled by a variety of forces. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1974 brought women into new roles across the culture, and the women's movement brought a new crop of women determined to make their mark in the entertainment industry. "That's when the first vice presidents came," Gregory says, adding with a laugh, "there was a contagion of vice presidents."

Women continued to make inroads throughout the industry from that point. "It became where you couldn't go to a dinner party in the '70s and early '80s without talking about women and how they were doing on the work front," Gregory says.

But then the momentum died. "Somewhere in the '80s," Gregory suggests, "though women were making gains, it became old hat to talk about it."

The focus shifted. "This whole issue of diversity has lately been defined as one of racial diversity," Professor Lauzen says. "There's very little talk of gender in the whole discussion."

In the past year, discussions about racial diversity have been conducted between the four major TV networks and national advocacy organizations. Gender issues were remarkably absent from the pacts that were struck between the networks and the NAACP. A study just released by the National Organization for Women states that one important area of the industry, prime-time TV, is still "built around sexist stereotypes" and calls the overall picture "bleak."

Many of the biggest obstacles to women's progress are perceptual. "There's a residual prejudice that women aren't good at action films or can't be gaffers," says director Mary Harron ("American Psycho," "I Shot Andy Warhol"). But, she says with a laugh, "I would say blowing stuff up is blowing stuff up."

While it is true that women bring their own experience to a film and a different perspective than men, much of the conventional wisdom about women in film is simply wrong, Lauzen says. Take the myth that women can't handle big budgets: In 1998, films with at least one female producer averaged nearly double the gross box office of those with no female producers.

As for the technical jobs, "It's harder to build a career there because it involves technical training, and unions ... are harder to crack," says Ms. Harron, who cut her teeth in British TV, a male stronghold where she says she was often the only female.

While she looks forward to the day when directors are not dubbed "female, black, or whatever," Harron says the presence of more women does have an impact on the atmosphere of a set, if only to make being a woman less remarkable.

That day has not yet arrived, she says, noting the criticism she took for the brutality in "American Psycho." "I was pregnant when the film came out, and people asked, 'How could you, as a mother do this?' Nobody ever asked that of David Cronenberg."

A lack of awareness about the need for more progress is what concerns some of the old-timers, such as writer Gregory, who says the most powerful storytelling medium of our time needs to include the whole population.

"Once you see other women doing what you aspire to, then you too can dream of doing that work," she says.

But many of today's younger filmmakers show a more practical attitude, typical of a generation that grew up around second- and third-generation activists.

"A huge part of our mission is to develop mentoring relationships," says Shawn Tolleson, founder of Girls Reeling It Together (GRIT), a Hollywood-based coalition of young filmmakers. "It's important for women to hire women because there is a system of mentorship that is present between men and younger men in business that's taking a long time to happen for women." Ms. Tolleson, who has made two short films and sponsored a GRIT film festival, hopes to attract the attention of women in a position to help.

"We're out here in the trenches, and we're saying to those who've come before us, 'Pay attention, help us, bestow your wisdom on us,' " she says.

Tolleson and others like her often labor in the low-budget, independent-film arena, which points up yet another false bit of conventional wisdom, Lauzen says. While women's employment on mainstream films visibly lags, many suggest that women do better with independent films.

But this may be misleading. "We looked at the indies," Lauzen says, "and found that women are even more underrepresented there than in the studio films."

But while the numbers tell a downbeat story, those in the trenches say that attitudes, at least, are changing.

"I never experienced any kind of condescension from any of the people I worked with," says director Lisa Krueger ("Committed," "Manny & Lo"). "I always expected it, but I never did." At the end of the day, she adds, filmmaking is a tough career choice for anyone. "I know as many men struggling to make it in film as I do women."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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