Female Filmmakers in Focus

Story and artwork by Ashley Kron

“If you’re not a feminist when you enter the [entertainment] industry, you will be.”

Such were the sentiments of the five female panelists who gathered at the recent Women In Focus event held at Dodge. The women, who had amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience as they built their careers, had important- but old- news to bear: the entertainment industry may always be changing, but the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women in the film industry really isn’t.

It’s sad to say that even in 2015 the gender gap is still so prominent in the entertainment world. A recent study called “The Celluloid Ceiling,” (sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film) confirmed that in 2014 only 17% of directors, writers, executive producers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 grossing films were women- the same percentage as in 1998. But that hasn’t stopped women like Janine Sherman Barrois, Debra Martin Chase, Kerry Ehrin, Deena Katz, and Robin Schiff from becoming successful.

“It never goes well when you just take a job because you have to make a living,” said Ehrin.

Each of the five panelists had interesting and diverse roads to the powerhouse positions they now hold: Debra Martin Chase was originally a lawyer who crossed over into the entertainment business and Robin Schiff was a member of the comedy group The Groundlings.  Although no two women had the same path into the industry, they all experienced some level of sexism along the way. 

Schiff explained how she experienced underrepresentation as a woman in comedy, Chase was often mistaken for the “secretary” when she was working as a producer, and Katz remembered how she had to hold her boss’s hand when he took naps.

Despite these experiences, all five of the panelists were optimistic about women’s place in the industry.

“I think people want women in executive positions because women are more collaborative in nature,” said Chase.

“Gender equality has changed for the better over the years, interactions are different, and more women are being hired,” said Barrois.

The five panelists who talked at the Women In Focus event aren’t the only women who have experience in the industry.  Roughly a third of the professors and adjunct faculty working at Dodge College are women, and many of them have experience working in the entertainment world.

Anne Beatts was a comedy sketch writer for SNL and National Lampoon, as well as the executive producer, writer and director for the TV show “Square Pegs.” She teaches Visual Storytelling and Screenwriting at Dodge, and talked about her experiences working in the male-dominated comedy industry.

“When I worked for National Lampoon, there was only ever one woman attached to the magazine creatively at any one time. I remember that at one point, the editor said ‘I just don’t think chicks are funny’. And this is after I had been writing at the magazine for two years,” she said.  

Beatts explained how she was often the only woman in the room, and was mistaken for other women writers simply because there were so few.  

“No matter how much [men] say they want a woman with a sense of humor…that means they wants a girl that laughs at their jokes. They are afraid of women who are funny,” she explained.

Despite Beatts impressive career, she felt that she might have been able to take her career further, had there been less of a stigma against female comedy writers.

“Maybe it’s just easier for women to be powerful if they are in front of the camera, because part of their success is that they’re on-camera personalities.  So people are always going, yeah, what about so and so, but what about all the other women [behind the camera] that are having a hard time?” she explained.

Still, Beatts is optimistic about the future.

“I think it’s got to change and it will change. The thing is, it is important to acknowledge its existence because otherwise it’s not going to change. It takes a long time to turn an elephant around.”

Alex Rose is a professor at Chapman, who worked as an executive producer before her teaching career.
“My partner and I were the first female producing team in the industry,” she said. “People thought we were insane, they didn’t understand why we were doing it. We were mistaken for actors many times- it was something that didn’t fit into anyone’s box. I was just interested in getting my projects done.”

Rose explained how she had to learn to work within the rules of the business, but also found ways to break them.  She believed frankness is important when working in the industry, and that women need to look out for each other.

“Women have to step up and say: it’s my job to give women a boost whenever I have the opportunity.”

Another professor, Anna Waterhouse, worked as a screenwriter and script consultant.

“I think it’s easier for (some) women to take a back seat, to allow others to take the bows, to assume that-eventually-credits will be distributed fairly. We don’t fight for ourselves nearly as much as we should,” said Waterhouse.

She explained how it’s important to say something when faced with injustice, and to keep your talents separate from your opinions on feminism and sexism.

“Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to promote yourself. Fight for credit when you deserve it,” she said.

Madeline Warren has worked as a studio executive and a producer, as well as a professor. She explained her own experiences as a woman in the industry.

“In my experience as a studio executive and a producer, gender is irrelevant. What’s important is a willingness to work hard, get along with people, have a good eye material and creative talent, and be both articulate and diplomatic,” she said.

But she did acknowledge that it is important to speak up in areas of the business where women are underrepresented, like on TV writing staffs.

Rona Edwards is a producer film consultant, and story editor among other things.

“I’ve seen guys who started out with me…but have the right connection with the good old boy’s club [and] get ahead much faster,” she said.

But she still believes that “cream rises to the top,” and that hard work can and will pay off.

Her advice to women was: “Don’t be afraid, be bold- have an opinion and back it up with why you feel that way.”

Although the industry hasn’t changed much in the past fifty years, with women continuing to be vocal and support each other internally, hopefully the entertainment world will become a more inclusive place to have a career.

+ posts