Women in Film making a difference

"What's on Your Plate?" stars Sadie and Safiyah filming with eco-chef Bryant Terry


Crystal + Lucy Award honorees

The statistics are scary.

"In 2007, females were only 2.7% of all the directors and 11.2% of all the writers employed across the 100 top-grossing films," says Stacy Smith, an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism.

"Under a quarter (20.5%) of the producers were women," she adds. "Other research shows that these numbers have not really changed over time since the late 1990s. When it comes to behind-the-scenes employment, the numbers for women in the entertainment industry are grim."

It was to help combat this disadvantage in the playing field that Women in Film was created nearly four decades ago by Tichi Wilkerson Kassel, then-publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. With 18,000 members worldwide, the nonprofit group -- which tonight presents its annual Crystal + Lucy Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Century City -- aims to nurture women behind the camera.

"Our reason (for being) was to empower women in the executive branch of the business," WIF president Jane Fleming says. Noting how much progress has been made, despite the disheartening statistics, she adds: "Now you look around and see women at the highest levels of power in studios, at networks, at law firms and in public-relations companies. Our job is to make sure women do not slip back, do not lose ground."

Toward that end, WIF, which has 40 chapters and 12,000 members worldwide, has established several ongoing programs.

Its Film Finishing Fund provides grants -- as much as $15,000 per project, depending on need -- to female directors in the last stages of development and production. A total of $50,000 is handed out annually.

The fund had its first Academy Award winner in 1994 with Frieda Lee Mock's "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," about the young woman who created the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. More recently, "Freehand," created by filmmakers Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth, won the documentary short subject Oscar at the 2008 Academy Awards.

Catherine Gund already had finished making the documentary "What's on Your Plate?" (2009) with her 11-year old daughter, Sadie, and her daughter's friend Safiyah when she applied for a Finishing Fund grant to help with the doc's outreach. "Plate," which followed the girls for a year as they asked questions about food -- where it comes from, what's in it and why it's making so many people sick -- was made to enlighten viewers about food and food politics.

Filmmaker Varda Hardy

"There are so few places that support this kind of filmmaking -- whether that's classified as women filmmakers, or documentaries or social-issue films -- and for WIF to come in and make it happen right when you really need it and to say that they have the belief in you (is tremendous)," Gund says. "Working with WIF has been a great experience. They've really paid attention to the project. It's much more than a funding organization, and that has to be the model (for others to follow)."

WIF's PSA Production Program identifies talented female filmmakers and helps them break into mainstream Hollywood. Take Varda Hardy, who became involved after a WIF member saw Vardy's 2006 award-winning short film "Window," starring Louis Gossett, Jr., and suggested that she'd be a good candidate for the program. "I was very excited by the prospect because it does very much fit what my intention as a filmmaker is -- it gives me a great opportunity to create meaningful work in a context that's very powerful and to support women at the same time," she says.

Vardy not only ended up directing a PSA for the nonprofit Kidsave, the first of many such ventures, but became so fired up about the program that she eventually was invited to become its co-chair with Bonnie Spence.

"Getting involved with WIF has changed my entire career," says Hardy, who recently directed a feature documentary and is developing other feature projects. "It's made me a stronger and more confident leader as a director, and I've become more collaborative. It definitely enriches my life."

The Women in Film Mentoring Program aims to match industry newcomers with established professionals.

"The mission of the mentoring program is to nurture emerging talent in the entertainment industry by connecting individual WIF members with established professionals for a period of one year, during which they benefit from one-on-one mentoring," says Gayle Nachlis, WIF executive director. "Matches between mentors and mentees are made according to career interest and compatibility."

One such match was between Oscar-nominated actress Melissa Leo and a pair of fledgling twentysomething actresses. Leo, who stars in HBO's "Treme," had been informally mentoring "folks along the way" for many years but got involved with the mentoring program two years ago. "I love what I do (as an actress)," Leo says. "I've been doing it for a while now, and I feel I have some understanding of it. Sharing that knowledge is really a passion of mine. To be doing it in a formal way helps me give back and feel connected. My mentees' queries and the moments they're experiencing in their young careers help me gain my own perspective -- so my reasons for doing it are a little selfish, too."

Character actress Patrika Darbo, a WIF mentor for the past six years, agrees. "I feel better about myself, and it keeps my life in perspective. I tell my mentees to take a chance, be unique and don't take it personally if you don't get the job -- so if I don't get the job (at an audition), I say to myself, 'OK, why don't you just listen to what you told her?' "

Patrika Darbo and two WIF mentees

As the outlets for women's film and TV productions expand, so will the WIF programs -- which also include a series of meetings where members get to pitch their reality and drama shows; and an oral history project, the Legacy Series. In the future, WIF plans to host seminars in TV and new media to help women fill the programming demands of channels such as Lifetime and Oxygen.

All this eventually might help chip away at the current stasis for women filmmakers and executives. Already, there are signs of hope: Despite the fact that, last year, only 7% of the top 250 domestic boxoffice films were directed by women, according to Smith, "The Hurt Locker's" Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to receive a director Oscar.

WIF is now aiming to pave the way for others.

"Would this new era of female filmmakers thrive without a program like our Film Finishing Fund, which has given over $2.1 million to independent films for, by and about women?" asks actress Sharon Lawrence, who has served as the WIF Foundation's chair for the past three years. "Where would my generation of professionals be without the vision of those who established WIF and nurtured these programs for decades?"