Waiting to exhale

Follow three women at different points in their careers

It's 8 a.m. in a sun-drenched conference room deep inside Paradigm's luxurious Beverly Hills headquarters. Half a dozen agents are gathered around a mahogany table, and right now they're looking exhausted. The world is tumbling off a financial cliff, but these guys still have to find money to make films.

Andrew Ruf, Paradigm's head of motion picture finance, runs down a list of possible projects with stars like Andy Garcia and Hayden Christensen. There is a June start on one of them -- "and I need $15 million," he groans.

He turns to his assistant, a petite 25-year-old named Kari Zander, and asks if she has any ideas. Within moments, she's rattled off the name of a Belgian financier and a slew of potential co-stars, and she's already on to a possible Sundance screening when Ruf laughs. "I couldn't live without her," he marvels. "My boss is in the business of dealmaking," Zander jokes. "But I make things happen."

Across town, at around the same time later that week, half a dozen executives are assembled in a Disney boardroom, waiting to make a presentation. These are some of the best and the brightest Disney has in its ranks, all chosen for a special mentoring program. But even they seem impressed by the slim, attractive woman who enters the room. Following the presentation, she spends 20 minutes answering questions about her career, and then she's off to the 10th floor for yet another meeting.

In the not-too-distant past, she might never have risen above the secretarial ranks at the formerly male-dominated Disney. But today, Anne Sweeney is co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group -- and one of the most respected powers in the field. Up on 10, she faces another group of suits, and for the next 30 minutes she listens as the executives bombard her with videos and notes about Disney XD, a new channel for tween boys that will launch in February. "Have you tested its speed with kids in our target age?" she asks. "Can you tap into athletic role models?" Her questions are incisive and well-informed. After one more round of videos, she rises. The executives lean forward nervously. "I love it," she declares. Elation ripples through the room.

Another morning, this time in a Hollywood office building, a thirtysomething woman in a wrap dress and Manolo Blahniks hurries down a hallway, then plops onto a sofa in her colleague's office. It's Shonda Rhimes, creator/executive producer of ABC's blockbuster series "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," and she's joined her fellow executive producer Betsy Beers. After a few moments of joking around, they get down to business: Today, that means recording the "Grey's Anatomy" weekly podcast. For the next 15 minutes, sitting with Beers under a fanciful painting of chimps sipping martinis, they weave a terrific spell, peppering a wide-ranging general discussion with intricate, behind-the-scenes details of the program.

"One of my favorite scenes in the history of the show is when the ceiling of an operating room collapses into a body cavity," says Rhimes.

"It's that slow horror-movie build," adds Beers.

"And then there was that heartbreaking speech by (guest star) Daniel J. Travanti about never, ever feeling the pain of his wife's death. It was so elegant," says Rhimes.

Finished, she sits back, confident and happy. "This is my favorite part of the week," she says.

Welcome to the world of women in entertainment today. Across the board, women are not just wielding power, but doing so fearlessly, in a way that might once have surprised even them.
A young assistant in the confines of a high-powered agency helps her boss distribute his marching orders. A soft-spoken veteran executive calls the shots at a major network. And a producer, who until a few years ago was struggling just to make rent, draws millions into her web of tales from the OR.

In the new millennium, where a woman who runs for president faces any number of obstacles, it's good to know that women can, and do, make it big in Hollywood. Statistics might seem to dispute that in some cases, and anecdotally, reps for the WGA can paint a depressing picture of the opportunities available to women. But that's not how these three women see things.

"There's so much ahead of us," says Zander, who's generally so busy she stands at her desk, never sits, wearing headphones and fielding dozens of phone calls. "We work and we plan and we dream."
Turning the dream into a reality has been a long process, especially for Rhimes.

The youngest of five children, she grew up in a suburb of Chicago with "very forward-thinking parents" who told her that the only limit to her success was her own imagination.

"My mother was an example of the women's movement," she recalls. "When I was younger, she stayed home; when I was in junior high, she went to college; when I was in college, she got her Ph.D."
After studying theater at Dartmouth, Rhimes came to Hollywood, where she started to write with modest success, including penning the 1999 HBO telepic "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." By fall 2001 she was fed up and retreated to a farm.

"I was 30," she says. "I was bored with myself, with my own angst. So I decided I was going to go to Vermont for a month and be alone. I went there to search for my soul -- and the next day, 9/11 happened."
Alone with her satellite television, "I spent the entire time watching CNN and crying. A week later, I woke up and said, 'So, if the world is going to end, what do you really want out of your life?' The only thing I knew I wanted was to adopt a baby."

She returned to Los Angeles and made that happen -- she now has a daughter, Harper. But during late-night feedings, Rhimes fell in love all over again with TV. She had prior experience with "Dandridge," but this was different. Now, a series idea came to mind, and with a little help she was able to get "Grey's" off the ground -- and the rest is history.

For a long time, however, she was afraid of the power that came with her success. "At the end of Season 2, we went to New York for the upfront and it was a feeding frenzy," she recalls. "We couldn't walk down the street because people were mobbing the actors, and it felt really terrifying."

Then Oprah Winfrey called, wanting to interview Rhimes on her syndicated show. Rhimes turned her down at first, but was eventually talked into it.

"I stood in my doorway, all dressed up," she says. "I literally mean dressed by our costume designer and makeup and hair people. And she arrived, and she took off her shoes, and so I took off mine, and we talked. She said, 'I can tell you are not feeling your power. Enjoy yourself. If you don't enjoy yourself now, you are never going to.'"
Since then, Rhimes has taken Oprah's advice to heart, though she knows power has a downside.

"There's a price," she says. "I have less time with many of my women friends, less time to date, less time to be at home with my child, less time for family. I like knowing that my daughter is growing up with an example of a strong, working woman, but part of me wishes I could be home to pick her up from school every day."

It's a shared sentiment. Like Rhimes, Sweeney has had to juggle work and family, including an autistic son.

"(Growing up), our family was always and forever about the kids," recalls Sweeney as she stands in line at the Disney commissary to order her lunch, a tuna fish sandwich. "Adults were there to make our lives better. So I grew up surrounded by people who marveled at my accomplishments."

At 17 Sweeney got her first job, as a page at ABC Studios in New York. But it was only after she graduated from the College of New Rochelle, where she had originally planned to become a teacher like her parents, that she opted for entertainment. She headed to the Harvard School of Education (where founders of the Children's Television Workshop were teaching) to study how children learn from the media. After that, she worked for television pioneer Geraldine Laybourne (co-founder and CEO of Oxygen) in the early days of Nickelodeon.

"A startup is a great way to learn lessons in your 20s," Sweeney notes. "Every year, when we wrote the budget, we would write a shutdown scenario. The adrenaline was incredible! We called ourselves 'the Launch Junkies.' "

The launch junkie eventually became an executive at Nickelodeon, then moved on to FX, and from there went to Disney in 1996.

Today she is a dominant force. After a day of back-to-back meetings with ABC cross-platform executives, she settles into her 10th floor office, one wall of which is covered with her daughter's childhood artwork.

"I have never been driven by a title," she says. "I am driven by curiosity. When we get a new show or a new channel or a new technology device, it is so exciting. I can't wait to figure out how it works, to learn, to get lessons. And I love all of it. I love the process, the soundstages. I love every new piece of technology, every new device. And it is always exciting -- even the bad days are exciting."

Lately, though, her focus has been on seeing her daughter off to college, and facing down a small mutiny: She doesn't want to take a TV set.

"She said, 'What do I need a TV for?'" says Sweeney. "And I said, 'Rosemary, you are going to have a TV set if I have to nail it to your wall!' "

It's a funny anecdote, but it comes tinged with regret. Sweeney recalls years ago getting a drawing from her daughter with a note saying how happy she was. Her son said the same thing that day.

"I hung that picture up to remember what it feels like to have both kids on the same page, happy on the same day," Sweeney says. "Because life is never in balance."

Back at Paradigm, Zander is only just beginning to worry about issues like balance.

Running in and out of her boss's office without a pause, in no time she breaks down a stack of contracts, researches three movie buyers, then schedules, reschedules and reschedules again two client meetings and a dentist appointment. Her relationship with Ruf is excellent.

"There are a lot of assistants who live in a constant state of fear and have nightmares and cry every time they go to work," says Zander. "I feel blessed about working with Andrew. I really lucked out."

Zander fell in love with Hollywood after watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1944's "To Have and Have Not" at a small movie theater in her hometown of Raleigh, N.C.

"I stayed until I saw the long list of names at the end," she remembers, "and I thought, 'You can actually do that.' "

The daughter of an entrepreneur and a civil rights investigator, she graduated from Duke University in 2003 with a major in public policy and beelined for Hollywood. After tutoring high schoolers and working at a smaller agency, she applied to Paradigm early in 2008. She had the least experience among the applicants, but an almost encyclopedic memory for the business.

"Plus," says Ruf, "she did her homework."

"My goal is simple," Zander says, sitting in the tiny cubicle she shares with two other assistants in the building that was once legendary agent Lew Wasserman's bastion. "I want to be a power player of some kind."

She projects confidence, but inside she's not always so certain.

"Who are these crazy people who don't have doubts, and where can I drink their Kool-Aid?" she asks. "I could try and be cute and pretend I don't have any either, but that's a lot of pretense."

Her commitment to work has already taken its toll; she jokes that she has "a long-distance relationship" with her boyfriend, even though he lives in L.A. "I don't have any trouble working overtime every day; I like to come in early," she says. "I wouldn't care if I had to spend three extra hours. I spend the weekend reading scripts."

Still, she says, sometimes she wonders if "I'm setting myself up for some tragic miscalculation," as if she's swallowed "some giant Willy Loman-sized pill."

It will be years before that question is answered. For now, she has other things on her mind. Shaping a career isn't a distant glimmer but a firm reality. Doors that were once closed are open, and the path to a job like Sweeney's or Rhimes' is clear and present.

"I talk to people all day long -- way more females than male assistants," Zander reflects. "There are a lot of young females that are not afraid to say, 'I want to push forward in this industry. What is the best way to get from point A to point B? Is this where I learn? Cool, sign me up.' "