Tough year has left a void for female executives


It's been a rough year in Hollywood, with layoffs and cost-cutting part of business as usual and corporate leaders struggling to figure out if new media sources are going to take their place in the established order or overturn the apple cart entirely. Amid the uncertainty, women in the entertainment sector have not been immune to a buffeting by the winds of change, and some observers say their ranks have emerged worse for the wear.

While there have been some positive shifts -- notably Amy Pascal's consolidation of power at Sony Pictures Entertainment and Dawn Ostroff's ascent to the top of the new CW network -- the void created by moves like the exit of Nina Jacobson from her post as president of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group and Universal Pictures losing both chairman Stacey Snider and vice chair of production Mary Parent have resulted in something of a female power vacuum.

Add to that the record industry's loss of one of its most-senior stateswomen, Sony's Michele Anthony, and you begin to get the picture.

"2006 definitely has not been the Year of the Woman," says former Screen Actors Guild first vp Anne-Marie Johnson, who saw her organization change from female leadership when Melissa Gilbert decided not to run for a third two-year term as president and shortly thereafter lost her own re-election bid -- by one vote.

"It has been a hard year," Johnson concedes. "But we have to take our blows and analyze them and not be deterred."

When Sherry Lansing announced her departure not just from her post as chairman of Paramount Pictures but from the industry as a whole last year, insiders suspected her departure might herald a sea change in women's roles at the pinnacle of the business. They were right. Within months, Snider decided she didn't want to renew her pact at Universal and opted instead to join Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks, a smaller company. While there has been speculation that Snider might take on an enlarged role at Paramount, that hasn't happened yet.

Shortly after Snider's voluntary withdrawal, Jacobson was asked to leave her longtime post at the Walt Disney Co. in the wake of a slew of boxoffice disappointments in the live-action sector, though ironically, she was dismissed just as the studio was riding high on the record-breaking success of July's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

The moves could have seemed more like background noise rather than cannon blasts across the bow if only the industry were bursting with promising up-and-coming female executives ready to assume these perches of power.

"The big question is, 'Are there any great comers?'" producer Lynda Obst asks. "Is there a new crop of great women executives to replace this great generation of (glass-) ceiling crashers? There are a couple of women that you see at the studio-executive level that have the taste, but I don't know if they have the determination."

Many of the women who might once have been considered viable candidates are either in shaky positions, or else they are too newly appointed to studio roles. Other contenders are out of the executive game altogether.

Parent, the woman most often cited as a candidate for studio chief, seems content to remain within the new production shingle she has launched with her former roommate and co-vice chairman at Universal, Scott Stuber.

A prominent newcomer to the upper motion picture studio ranks, former Fox Broadcasting Co. entertainment president Gail Berman -- who segued to the movie business in summer 2005 when Brad Grey recruited her at Paramount after he was named to replace Lansing -- has been the subject of constant speculation pretty much since she started her job, and that speculation has grown more intense since the September firing of Grey's boss, Tom Freston.

Berman can take heart in the fact that such innuendo also dogged Sony's Pascal through much of last year. Pascal rode it out and wound up with a promotion to co-chairman, her position stronger than ever, defined by a confidence in the job reminiscent of Lansing at her peak.

While the film side of the industry has lost many high-ranking females, on Berman's old turf, television, the picture for women is much brighter. A decade after Jamie Tarses was hired by ABC as the first woman to run a major broadcast network's entertainment division, two of the five entertainment presidency posts are held by women: Nina Tassler at CBS and the CW's Ostroff. And there are women in power posts at every turn: Nancy Tellem, former CBS Entertainment chief and currently head of CBS Paramount Network Entertainment Television Group; Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney ABC Television Group; Judy McGrath, MTV's chairman and CEO; Angela Bromstad, president of NBC Universal Television Studio; Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox TV; Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment; Sheila Nevins, HBO's president of documentary and family programming; Bonnie Hammer, president of the USA Network and Sci Fi Channel -- and the list goes on and on.

"I think cable was initially our way in the door," Lifetime president and CEO Betty Cohen says. "Now, it's to the point where practically all of the Viacom networks seem to be run by women. It's smart for the broadcast industry to install women in senior positions, too, considering the necessity to reach out to the female audience. Some of the biggest hits in TV are female-skewing shows like (ABC's) 'Grey's Anatomy,' so it really just makes good business sense."

"At one point a few years ago, there were four women running broadcast network entertainment divisions," Ostroff points out. "Now, it's down to two. But we've also now got women in TV who have moved above that level corporately, like Tellem and Sweeney."

Some have suggested that it's disenchantment about female executives on the part of the moguls who wield the real power that triggered the recent shift.

San Diego State University professor Martha Lauzen, who conducts an annual study of women in entertainment, says the dynamics at play for the industry's careerists are complex, and to say the spate of female job shuffling is "the result of just a single factor is probably going to be wrong." Adds Lauzen: "There is no single reason and no single solution. The notion that it is a few old white guys who are controlling all of this is inaccurate. And are women playing a role? Perhaps. Both men and women contribute to our current situation."

Obst believes the kind of mentoring from high-up corporate men that once helped women ascend is at a low point.

"It is every man out for himself these days because the business is much tougher than it has ever been," she says. "The atmosphere is difficult for everyone. There's less mentoring going on in general, not just for women. Even at the highest levels, people fear for their jobs."

Within the highest levels of the corporate world, there has been less change than optimists might have expected just a few years ago.

Universal's Nikki Rocco recalls that a decade ago, when she became the first female president of distribution for a major studio, "The headline in The Hollywood Reporter was, 'Universal breaks glass ceiling.'" No glass ceiling has been broken since in this part of the business, and Rocco remains the only woman to run a domestic distribution unit.

She hopes this will change. "Traditionally speaking, sales has been dominated by the male species," Rocco says. "That has changed in the last decade. More and more women are proving that they can not only do the job, but do it incredibly well."
One area in which women typically haven't done as well as men is in front of the camera, opening films. There has yet to emerge a female Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. Sure, there are names such as Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon, but this year, no new female stars have emerged to join the celestial ranks. While there are a few exceptions, 2006 is viewed as an overall weak year for female-driven movies, translating to a dearth of female Stars with a capital "S."

If the movie star is suffering, so is the bread-and-butter actress. Look at most studios' slates, and one finds a woeful absence of female-focused pictures. Other than low-budget horror flicks like Sony's "The Grudge 2" and art house titles, usually of foreign origin, like Miramax's "The Queen," it is hard to find more than a smattering of pictures in which a woman is in the leading, not secondary, role. Exceptions are Streep's turn in Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" and Kate Winslet's audacious romp through New Line's "Little Children."

"It reflects the marketplace," Pascal says. "But I don't think women come into power and say, 'I am going to make more movies about women because I can.' We are all more professional than that."

Female directors -- the very ones who might be drawn to female-driven movies -- also are on the retreat.

In 2005, women comprised 17% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the 250 top-grossing domestic films, Lauzen's study shows. That "is the same percentage of women employed in these roles in 1998."

While 7% of movie directors were women in 2005, up 2% from 2004, the report notes that "this is less than the recent historical high of 11% recorded in 2000."

One might think that with more women in power, there would be more jobs for women across the board. But this is rarely true.

The women who have succeeded often say they have done so by emulating their male bosses or playing the game better. In the short term, this might have helped their careers; but in the long term, some argue, it has had a deleterious effect on women's own desire to compete in this marketplace.

"You get to a certain place, and you realize the world didn't change that much," says a high-placed executive who asked not to be named. "Men didn't make it different for women; male traits are still dominant, whereas female traits aren't. Things like drive, ambition and succeeding are all (characteristics) you associate more with men."

An ongoing factor is the difficulty women face in juggling family and work, a paramount issue for most women that affects both their career decisions and sometimes, others' decisions about them. Alli Shearmur, co-president of production at Paramount Pictures, says it should be possible to maintain both.

"I once got fantastic advice from a friend who has two children," she recalls. "He said, 'When you are home, really be home; don't be trying to have a conversation with your children (while) struggling to send some e-mail on your BlackBerry, or read a script while your kid is coloring. Be really focused on your child and family. It's ultimately all about balance."

Indeed, analyzing the status of women in the business often involves weighing a mass of competing evidence, where big steps forward are juxtaposed with big steps back. Therefore, within a year, there is the bad news of Lansing leaving Paramount and the good news of Berman being named to a top-level role there; there is the bad news of Jacobson leaving Disney and the good news of Pascal's promotion and Snider's being able to call her own shots by ditching a powerful studio job for one that better suits her lifestyle: running DreamWorks.

Some women, like Laura Ziskin -- the producer of Sony's slated 2007 release "Spider-Man 3" and the upcoming Oscar telecast -- have defied all odds to carve brilliant careers, almost in defiance of anyone else's restrictions.

Nancy Josephson also discovered something interesting -- and reassuring -- when she briefly found herself out of a job during the summer. The former ICM co-president departed that agency in July in the wake of its acquisition of Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency, hooking on a little more than a week later as a partner at Endeavor.

"The second it was announced I was leaving ICM, the phone calls and e-mails of support started and never stopped," Josephson recalls. "This incredible support network formed behind me instantly, asking how they could help, concerned for me and how I was feeling. It was lovely and incredibly gratifying. A lot of them called every single day for a week. Even Barbara Walters called to say, 'Hang in there.'"

Not that Josephson was surprised by the gestures. But it nonetheless proved reassuring in a business where women (and men, for that matter) are supposed to be all about taking care of No. 1.

Hollywood today is incomparably better for women than it was 10 or 20 years ago. There are women high up in the studios. There are women who have made successful careers as producers. There are women directing, even if few and far between. The industry is almost unrecognizable if juxtaposed against that time when two or three powerhouse women -- the Lansings or Dawn Steels -- stood out as oddities, as much flukes in their male-dominated environment as Margaret Thatcher was when she became leader of the British Tory party.

But, like Thatcher's Britain, America remains a country ruled by men. The Condoleezza Rices and the Hillary Rodham Clintons might stand out for their brilliance and drive, but they are exceptions rather than members of a fully integrated system. And perhaps the same is true of the women who have risen to the very top of Hollywood.

The Pascals and the Sniders and the Lansings have taken on the system and won. Whether they have changed the rules in the process is another matter altogether.