Think different

Female producers say the end goal is the same as for men: create great movies.

Gender politics in Hollywood have progressed to the point that almost nobody balks at a female producer or a female director anymore, but it would diminish the contributions of those women to say that they're the same as men. It's more that studios and indies alike have come to realize that the two sexes' different approaches to filmmaking can be complementary. In the challenging realm of production in particular, subtlety and stewardship can be more effective ways to achieve goals than plain bullheadedness.

Double Feature Films co-founder Stacey Sher, who's worked on independent films like 2004's "Garden State" and bigger-budget films like 2006's "World Trade Center," says, "One of the reasons why I think women make good producers is that many of us have that camp counselor/troop leader side. We're good at encouraging and taking care of people." And for Sher personally, the years she's spent outside the studio system might have been easier for her to navigate because for so long, women had to forge their own path. "There never had been a specific way for us," Sher says. "And maybe because we've always had to figure things out for ourselves, that's been the key to our success."

According to Carol Baum, sole proprietor of Carol Baum Prods., nobody has a clear road. "To me, it's never been a gender issue. It's an industry issue. Movies are hard to get made. They always were, and they still are."

Baum was a vp at Twentieth Century Fox before spending 10 years as the president of Sandollar Prods., where she helped bring the hits "Father of the Bride" (1991) and "Fly Away Home" (1996) to the screen. Currently, she works alone -- one secretary, no staff -- producing edgy films like Showtime's "Sexual Life" (2005) and John Dahl's comic crime thriller from IFC Films, "You Kill Me." She thinks that every producer in Hollywood is in the same boat when it comes to bringing a project to fruition. "What we all have in common is that we fall in love with material and try to figure out the best way to get it made. I go wherever I think I can get some attention for my project. I'm not terribly social as far as joining groups, but I'll talk to anybody. You have to be an advocate. I was a studio executive, and I ran a big company. Whether I'm a studio executive or I'm alone, I'm motivated by the same thing. What gets me up in the morning is the writing."

When asked if she's always wanted to be in charge, Baum jokes, "No, I was quite happy being a studio executive." Then she adds, "There comes a time in your life when you have to do it yourself. When you do this job in your 20s or 30s, you're happy to be part of the team and be surrounded by people, but you get to know who you are more as you get older, and you get to know what your taste is and what you have to do. Once you know that, it doesn't matter if you're with a company or you're on your own. You have to do it. Because it's your calling."

Gale Anne Hurd has made some of the same choices as Baum in her career, working closely with studios and working for herself, but Hurd's stock-in-trade has been those big-budget, concept-driven films that Baum eschews. She's currently in production on the 2008 releases "The Punisher: War Zone" and "The Incredible Hulk," which has her flying back and forth to two sets, dealing with crises large and small: an actor dropping out at the last minute because of illness, another actor needing transportation, the casting process beginning at the next location, dailies that might reveal a need for more coverage and so on. All those tiny details are what Hurd loves about being a producer.

"You make so many sacrifices for your career that if you don't love what you're doing, it's really not worth the price," she says. For Hurd, that love has mainly been directed toward big action movies with outsized heroes. "From the time that I was a child, those were the films that I loved to see in theaters, and I think it's the best of all possible worlds when you're able to work in a field and make the kinds of movies that you've always enjoyed. And in many of my films there've been strong women roles, from Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in 'The Terminator' films to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in 1986's 'Aliens.' The interesting thing about these characters is that they start out as ordinary women. They aren't imbued with superpowers, but they find when they're put in extremely challenging situations that they're able to rise to the challenge and succeed. And that speaks to audiences, whether they're male or female."

While every producer is different, Hurd tends to agree with the idea that women generally take a different approach to the job. "It's a gross overgeneralization, but I can say that women, because of the way we're raised, socioculturally, we tend to be consensus builders rather than dictators. There are many different styles of producing, but I think most of us like to have as positive of an atmosphere as we can on a set."

Hurd has been around long enough to see some of the changes that have taken place in Hollywood. "With producers, there's just so many of us at this point that it no longer is an anomaly," she says. "But when I started out, (my gender) was a significant factor, because there weren't very many women producers. In one of my early meetings, they looked at me as they never would to a man in my position, and they said, 'How can a little girl like you produce a big movie like this?' I responded by saying, 'Check my references.' You know, you can't take it personally. The way you meet these things head-on is truly to do your homework, be prepared, have the expertise and then prove it over and over again. And at a certain point, people just accept that you can do the job."

Sher agrees: "I find that women almost apologize for being authority figures sometimes, because they're very careful about what people's reaction to them are. But that's happening less now that there are generations and generations of female studio heads."

Still, Sher tells the story of a recent visit to a movie set on which she noticed a young woman struggling to carry a lens box to the camera department. "I always considered myself to be a feminist," Sher says. "And I don't think that's a bad word. But I see this girl struggling, and I asked someone, 'Why is this girl schlepping?' And someone said, 'Maybe because she wants to be a photographer, and she wants to pay her dues just like anybody would.' There are still those jobs that are traditionally male or female, but I've never had an issue with thinking that I couldn't do my job, and I don't think anybody on the set does, either. Certainly not in the studios and corporate hierarchies, thanks to Amy Pascal and Stacey Snider, and really what Sherry Lansing began."

For Sher, what makes a good producer is something very simple: "The most important thing is to know the history of filmmaking and the work of great filmmakers. And also to pay attention to what's going on in the culture, because ultimately we're all telling human stories, whether they're comedies or dramas. They're all films about the human experience."