Cathy Schulman Reveals Harassment Battles in Hollywood: "I've Paid a Deep Price for My Advocacy"

Women in Film President Cathy Schulman and Viola Davis-Getty-H 2019
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

"I never collected a single dollar from 'Crash.'" Schulman was a producer on the film, for which she won an Oscar.

Viola Davis introduced her producing partner on The Woman KingCathy Schulman, at the Women in Film gala on Wednesday as "that stubborn woman on the bull while it's bucking and does not let go — even when it hurts." 

Accepting the Crystal Award for Advocacy in Entertainment, the former Women in Film president laced one singular theme throughout her speech: "Let's speak truth," borrowing the words from Kamala Harris (whose campaign she hopes to follow to the White House) with Davis clapping her on.

Schulman said onstage that she struggled to find a pantsuit for the ceremony to make her look credible and serious enough to receive the honor and, ultimately, something that would make her look like a man. "Like, really, Cathy? So here you go, I'm wearing a dress — in flying colors."

But committing to telling it "like it is," Schulman recalled how despite producing 30 movies for 17 years of her career, she was entrenched in "train-wrecking" lawsuits with two men that led her family into bankruptcy. "Real deal," she said, exhaling.

"My lawyers told me, almost 20 years ago now, I could never fight these lawsuits on the basis of what actually happened — which was straight-out workplace harassment and bullying," Schulman said.

The battles took her the entire lifespan of her daughter to fight, she explained. "We won both times. Thank you, Mr. Ovitz and thank you, Mr. Yari, because you radicalized me to pave the way for other women in similar situations today who can now boldly walk into a courtroom and tell their truths."

(Schulman was referring to her lawsuit against Michael Ovitz, where she claimed wrongful termination. She was president of Ovitz's film company, a joint venture between his Artists Production Group and Studio Canal.)

The second suit was filed against Crash producer Bob Yari. "Yes, I won the Oscar for Crash," Schulman said. "But the truth? I never collected a single dollar from that film, which made over $300 million worldwide."

She continued: "I went into credit card debt that was never reimbursed from buying loose ends of film when we didn't have enough to shoot every day." Humorously, she added, "I just dated myself."

Referring to the Crystal Award as a lifetime achievement award, in earnest, Schulman contemplated: "I've paid a deep price for my advocacy," only picking up her daughter from school between preschool and graduation four times, working 18 hours a day, six days a week. "I got fired, was told to step aside, was told to zip it multiple times" for speaking up whenever she experienced injustice. 

Even turning sheepishly to her publicist, Schulman shared how she is "sort of freaking out because I'm doing it again. They're like, 'Shut up, Cathy.'"

After sharing how she has cried many a night, the studio head seized the moment, not letting those who deemed her "too controversial" get her down, continuing instead to use her platform to speak up on how Hollywood has merged diversity and inclusion in the lexicon, "taking credit for inclusion long before its due." 

In an effort to de-couple the words, Schulman clarified how diversity is used as a counting mechanism, citing a United Colors of Benetton commercial as an example of marketing diversity. "How many can we count?"

She said that inclusion is "what happens when diverse people actually present in equal numbers in decision-making positions."

She composed the metaphor of Hollywood's current landscape as a pyramid, with diversity at the base of thousands of beautiful, colorful bricks and at the tip of the pyramid, one brick on top as a speck of inclusion dust. "At best, it clings on for dear life before the wind blows it off more times than not."

Schulman urged those in the Beverly Hilton ballroom at the tip of the pyramid, or who know those in that position, to recognize the rest of the bricks. "It's more than counting colors. It's about looking every single person in your universe directly in the eye and saying and believing these words: 'I recognize you.'"

Recalling a recent lunch with one of the industry's most influential white male power players, Schulman described how Hollywood truly still has a long way to go toward inclusion. As she lamented her inability to ever make money despite the successes of her projects, the anonymous man said: "Cathy, it sounds like you want a big boy deal." He laughed while she sunk. She replied: "I want an equal deal. I want to be paid what I'm owed." She concluded the tale, noting how he listened, then said, "How about dessert?" 

She ended her speech recognizing all the feminists in her life, encouraging the mothers in the audience to enable their daughters who are artists. "They can make it now."

While she was not in attendance, Schulman also thanked Sherry Lansing, who taught her to say no with a smile. "She's so good at that," she said knowingly.

Schulman called out her idols, like Harriet Tubman. "I follow you because you saw the light at the end of the tunnel." And Michelle Obama: "I so bravely admire you for walking into a 'white house' built by slaves." Amelia Earhart's words also had a lasting impact on Schulman: "The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity." The honoree asked, "Isn't that speaking the truth, everyone?"

Honoring groundbreaking women in the entertainment industry since 1977, Women in Film also recognized Amy Poehler, Issa Rae and Elizabeth Debicki at the gala. The event was presented by Max Mara for the 17th year, along with Delta Air Lines and Lexus.