Women, Film & the South
Special for CinemATL.com
News from the front lines in the effort to achieve parity for women in the film and television industry is mixed
On a chilly January day, executive producer Suzan Satterfield runs from a pre-production meeting for her HGTV series Groundbreakers to a post-production meeting for Fresh From the Orchard, currently in production for DIY network through Picture Window Productions. She isn't thinking about how women comprise only 24% of all creators of programs airing on television. She is busy beating the odds.
|Executive producer Suzan Satterfield (third from left) shoots a scene for Natural South for Turner South.|
(photo: Kay Hallahan)
Nationally, percentages of women filling industry roles have remained at a low constant or—as in the case of women directors—fallen over the last several years. But in Atlanta and across the Southeast, women are finding and making opportunities.
"I see a lot of women on the local level," remarked Tomi Lavinder, executive administrator for the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) Southeast. "There seem to be more opportunities for women here than nationally.
"Even top positions are opening up. Station managers at the 'big four' stations in Atlanta are all men, but the UPN and Univision station managers are both women. And CBS had a female general manager for several years.
"Of the news directors," Lavinder continued, "the ratio seems to be about one in four. Although camera people still tend to be male—I don't even know a female [cameraperson]—producers tend to be about 50% women. That's definitely an increase over the last five years."
Membership data from the Southeast chapter of NATAS reveals a drop in the number of women joining since 2001, down from 641 to 404 for 2005. But the percentage of female membership remains fairly constant at 46% for 2005, down slightly from 47% in 2001. Those members are spread across a spectrum of jobs within the industry.
|Tomi Lavinder (right) with NATAS President Evelyn Mims. (photo: Kay Hallahan)|
The membership in Women in Film Atlanta reflects that spectrum; statistics show that 25% of members are writers, 25% are actors, and the remaining 50% of WIFA members often wear more than one hat behind the camera. Producers lead the list.
Renee Bishop, vice president and executive producer for Farmers Almanac Television in Savannah, moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles in the late 90s. She believes the market for women is tougher in Atlanta than LA.
"But that's not gender specific," Bishop explained. "There is simply less work available. When I moved to Atlanta it was very clear that I had to create my own work if I wanted to work. But it's the same for men and women [here].
"I can't report that I ever found a gender bias either here or in LA. That may be because I work in documentaries and network executives in charge of documentary divisions run about two to one women."
Both Bishop and former CNN producer Maria Fleet have observed a drop in the number of women behind the camera since the 1980s. Neither knows why.
"I am currently working with five editors on our show on Farmers Almanac Television. But only one is a woman," said Bishop. "I would certainly hire more women if I could, because I am very invested in nurturing women's careers. After all, someone mentored me."
"I would certainly hire more women if I could, because I am very invested in nurturing women's careers. After all, someone mentored me."|
- Renee Bishop
Fleet landed a position as a field news cameraperson at CNN in 1981, only a year after CNN began broadcasting. "There I was," Fleet said, "all 5-foot-2 of me, weighted down with a news camera, battery belt, tripod, and bag of tapes and batteries. I felt like a marine!
"I did feel hostility from the other network news people in the beginning, but not because I was a woman. It was hostility from the other networks because we were from that upstart network, CNN.
"When I first began there were several women working camera and sound in the field. We were lucky to land there because 24-hour cable news was new. No rules had been written yet.
"Women who started out then moved up the ladder, but no female camera people came up behind us at CNN," Fleet observed. "I don't know why that's the case."
According to a recent study by Dr. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University, in 2003 women comprised only 17% of individuals working in key behind-the-scenes roles on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This is the same percentage of women who worked on the top films of 1998.
In the 2004-05 prime-time season, according to Lauzen, women comprised 25% of all creators, executive producers, producers, and directors of programs airing on the broadcast networks. This percentage represented an increase of two percentage points over the season before and an historic high. The percentage of women writers reached a recent historical high of 31% while women editors plummeted to a recent historical low of 10%.
The news for women directors however, is even grimmer. Approximately one out of five films released in 2003 employed no women directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, or editors.
Over the last several years, Lauzen reports, the percentage of women working as directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors on the top 250 domestic grossing films has declined—from 19% in 2001 to 16% in 2004. Women comprised only 5% of directors in 2004. This represents a decline of 6 percentage points since 2000, when women accounted for 11% of all directors. In other words, in 2004 the percentage of women directors was slightly less than half the already low percentage in 2000.
The Directors Guild of America recently released a report on the employment of women and minority directors by television networks on the top 40 prime time drama and comedy series. The report shows that 86% of the episodes were directed by Caucasian males, and that women and minority directors continue to be missing from some of the best-known series line-ups.
In the 2003-2004 season, the most recent season for which data is available, nearly 40% of the top 40 series hired no women directors. Fifteen of the top 40 shows have not hired women directors, ten have not hired minority directors, and six have excluded both women and minority directors. The 2003-04 statistics show a significant decline in the hiring of women in particular – a drop from 11% the season before to a mere 7% of total episodes in 2003-04. Shows hiring no women directors included:
- Everybody Loves Raymond
- Navy NCIS
- Less Than Perfect
- Malcolm in the Middle
- Without a Trace
- Law & Order: SVU
- Yes, Dear
- According to Jim
- The District
- Good Morning, Miami
"The report reveals that producers and networks have failed to fulfill their contractual good faith obligation to hire more women and minority directors," said Michael Apted, DGA President and chairman of the DGA's Diversity Task Force.
Yet Atlanta and the Southeast appear to buck the trend, at least in some areas behind the camera.
Sophia Karteris, vice president of programming for Turner South, is in charge of program planning, scheduling, and acquisition for the network. Over the seventeen years she has been in the industry she has seen more women working behind the camera as writers and producers, as well as more women pitching ideas to the network.
(photo: Turner South)
"I see more women rising through the ranks," Karteris said, "but I also think we have a long way to go. The outlook is getting better, but women can and need to do a better job at researching and assessing what they are worth to become better at negotiating. We need to be advocates for one another."
Women hold leadership roles at every level of the Turner organization. The company's principle of fostering diversity is reflected in their rank of number two on the Diversity, Inc. list of "Top 50 Companies for Diversity" and Turner's inclusion in Working Mother Magazine's list of "100 Best Companies for Women."
"Television, and cable television in particular, has been an industry in which women could rise through the ranks and hold leadership positions," Karteris noted. "The careers of people like Anne Sweeney, Geraldine Laybourne and Betty Cohen, who launched Turner's Cartoon Network and now heads Lifetime Television, show that."
Satterfield concurs. She believes she has always received fair and equal audiences with network executives when pitching ideas for series.
"The networks are looking for creative, responsible people who can come in and execute ideas," Satterfield said. "Getting in the door has more to do with self-confidence and approach than gender."
Bishop agrees. Her experience is that the networks in New York and LA are receptive to women, and that being from Atlanta is a plus—the perception is that Atlanta is a happening place. " Atlanta has a mystique," she confided. "When I played the Atlanta card, I got right in to see HBO Documentary president Sheila Nivens."
"People love the myth of the South," Satterfield added. "We're the last area of the country with a strong identity. Instead of trying to be New York or LA we should be who we are, tell our own stories."
Atlanta, Bishop pointed out, is a vibrant market with many possible industry avenues. She urges women to do whatever they have to do to build their résumés. "If it takes doing a freebie to get the experience then do it. Depth of experience makes a huge difference."
WIFA president Linda Dunikoski added a note of caution. "Sometimes women don't even know a job or opportunity exists," she warned. One of WIFA's primary challenges, Dunikoski said, is to help women become aware of opportunities, target their goals, then train for and achieve them.
Fleet thinks the best way for women to move forward is to listen to and trust themselves. But she also experienced the value of seizing opportunity. Fleet never intended to be in TV news. But the opportunity presented itself, and she spent the next two decades "at the pointy end of a spear," as she put it, covering wars and presidential hopefuls.
The combination of talented women storytellers, Southern stories, and the increase in the amount of work in the last three years in the Atlanta and Southeastern markets opens up possibilities for women to move forward at an unprecedented rate. All of the women interviewed believe the possibilities for women are only limited to the extent that women limit themselves.
Karteris advises women to think ahead. "When you are happiest in your career, you should always be asking yourself what is next?"
Kay Hallahan is a local screenwriter and producer.
Sources & More Reading:
"Boxed In: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in the 2004-2005 Prime-time Season," Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D., School of Communication, San Diego State University
"The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women in the Top 250 Films of 2004," Martha M Lauzen, Ph.D., School of Communication, San Diego State University
"DGA Report: Top 40 Primetime TV Lacks Diversity in the Director's Chair," DGA Magazine (July 2004)
Southern Hospitality: Three's the Charm
Exposition: Women, Film and the South
Flashback/Flashforward: Black Atlanta on the Rise