SHEILAH KAST, host:
In the world of Hollywood, four out of six major film studios have women running motion picture production. Despite those numbers, fewer women work behind the scenes as directors, cinematographers and editors than ever before. Why the disparity? Reporter Gloria Hillard sat down with some of Hollywood's most powerful women to find out.
GLORIA HILLARD reporting:
Director Martha Coolidge leans over the shoulder of her film editor and squints ever so slightly.
Ms. MARTHA COOLIDGE (Director): I think we can shorten it. I'd take the tail off.
HILLARD: Coolidge, who has directed a number of actors--among them Geena Davis, Halle Berry and Nicolas Cage--is putting the finishing touches on her latest film, "Material Girls."
(Soundbite of "Material Girls")
Unidentified Woman #1: ...your college application?
HILLARD: Coolidge is somewhat of a rarity in Hollywood, a 50-something woman who is still sitting in the director's chair in an industry that was not all that encouraging when she began her career more than 30 years ago.
Ms. COOLIDGE: Everyone told me when I was young it was impossible and that I should not try because it could not be done. And I don't think you can say that to a young woman today.
HILLARD: But those young women may be surprised to learn that today, the film and television industry is still not all that welcoming.
Dr. MARTHA LAUZEN (San Diego State University): There's not much to be encouraged by.
HILLARD: Dr. Martha Lauzen is a professor of communications at San Diego State University. For the last 10 years, she has been conducting studies on women working behind the scenes in film and television. She says the numbers weren't that great a decade ago and now...
Dr. LAUZEN: What we've found over the last three, four, five years is that the percentage of women working as directors and executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors has been steadily declining.
HILLARD: In her study, Lauzen founded of the top 250 grossing films last year, 95 percent were directed by men. Women's names appear under the screen credits `Written by' only 12 percent of the time, and under cinematographer just 3 percent.
Dr. LAUZEN: Women comprise about 46 or 47 percent of the work force. You know, when you look at these numbers, you would say, `Gee, women are just dramatically underrepresented as the storytellers in our culture.'
HILLARD: And that's in an industry which is perceived as a vortex of liberalism and at a time when a lot of press is being devoted to the fact that four out of six of the major Hollywood studios have women running production. So what gives?
Ms. COOLIDGE: The women sitting in the executive position at the studios have to abide by the target audience of the studio.
HILLARD: Again, director Martha Coolidge.
Ms. COOLIDGE: Those movies are teen movies, they're male-orientated. They sell to the audience that wants to pay to go out the first night or the first weekend.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, can I get two for "Domino"?
HILLARD: They are the action and big-budget movies, the ones filmmaker Patty Jenkins knew women rarely if ever get a shot at.
Ms. PATTY JENKINS (Director): I definitely think getting my foot in the door I don't think I could have done without developing and writing my own project in short of staying attached to it the way that I did.
HILLARD: The film Jenkins wrote and directed was the critically acclaimed 2004 Oscar-winning film "Monster," starring Charlize Theron in the based on the true story of a female serial killer.
(Soundbite of "Monster")
Ms. CHARLIZE THERON: (As Aileen Wuornos) People kill each other every day. And for what? Hmm?
Ms. JENKINS: Just being someone who's had a successful film out of the gate like that made me somebody that they were interested in.
HILLARD: From her home in Los Angeles, the 34-year-old filmmaker has a picture window overlooking the Hollywood sign. On the heels of her success, the Hollywood studios did come calling all right, but she was surprised by the offers.
Ms. JENKINS: Everybody says to me, `Do you want to do a remake, or do you want to adapt a TV show or something?' I'm thinking, `I just did an original film. You guys don't want to see if I can do another original film?'
Ms. JODIE FOSTER (Director): It's much easier for most male producers to want to go through with that kind of risk when they can shake the hand of somebody across from them that at least they know looks like them.
HILLARD: Two-time director Jodie Foster.
Ms. FOSTER: They want that person to reflect their own personality. That's why it's been so difficult, I think, for women to get into that aspect of filmmaking.
HILLARD: Foster, who first stepped behind the lens in 1991 to direct "Little Man Tate," a movie she also starred in...
(Soundbite of "Little Man Tate")
Ms. FOSTER: All right. Just try and get some sleep 'cause you ain't been sleeping enough lately.
Unidentified Boy: I can't.
HILLARD: ...is now set to direct her third film "Sugarcanes,"(ph) a drama for Universal Pictures. The Oscar-winning actress says one of the major challenges for women in Hollywood, whether they be directors, producers or actors...
Ms. FOSTER: Is that they don't have an opportunity to make a mistake because you only get one chance as a woman. That's not true with men. Men get second chances, third chances, fourth chances all the time.
HILLARD: Just pass Main Street on the Sony Studios lot is the Katharine Hepburn Building, home to...
Unidentified Woman #3: Red Wagon.
HILLARD: Red Wagon is the production company owned by Lucy Fisher and her husband, Doug Wick. Fisher's office is at-home decorated, deep sofas, fresh cut flowers. Family pictures take center stage over the framed movie posters. Sitting in the corner of a sofa, Fisher smiles recalling the advice from a male executive early in her career.
Ms. LUCY FISHER (Co-owner, Red Wagon): He said to me, `Well, do you want to be a producer?' and I said, `Yeah, I think I do.' And he said, `Are you willing to kill to be a producer?' and I said, `No.' He said, `Well, then you better get a job at People magazine,' and I said, `Well, that sounds good, too.' But no, I never felt I had to kill to do it.
HILLARD: In an industry of few second chances for women, the studio executive who started out as a script reader has done quite well. Her latest films are "Jarhead" and the much-anticipated "Memoirs of a Geisha."
Ms. FISHER: I like to tell stores that make me happy to be a human being, so I would say that stories in which people prevail. This sounds pretentious but movies that sort of ennoble the human spirit I'd say are the ones that I'm always personally going to gravitate to.
HILLARD: Fisher says she was mentored by other women and tries to do the same when she can. Her reaction to Lauzen's study?
Ms. FISHER: Shame. It's the same for people of color. It's the same for minorities. It's just a very bad record. People say it's a men's club. I don't know if it really is that aspect of people giving the jobs to people that they know or just that not enough of an effort has been made for real.
HILLARD: As president of the Directors Guild of America, Michael Apted says he's made the issue of hiring women and minorities a top priority of his guild leadership, presenting to the networks and studios recommendations of qualified members. Over the years, he's heard all the stereotypes.
Mr. MICHAEL APTED (President, Directors Guild of America): Women can't do action films or, you know, women are unreliable; they're going to get pregnant or they've got fams and all that. It's appalling, and we should be ahead of the curve. You know, we should be setting an example to America about standards of hiring and conditions of hiring and who people hire, and it just isn't happening.
HILLARD: Most of the studio heads who green light films either declined to talk or didn't respond to NPR's request for interviews except Nina Jacobson, the head of production for Disney. Asked Jacobson why there are so few women directors and she'll tell you.
Ms. NINA JACOBSON (Disney): If you go on a set of a movie and you look at the major department heads, the major--you know, below-the-line players which is one of the main training grounds for directors, you're going to see a lot of white guys, and that is the dominant culture below the line.
HILLARD: That said, she believes the complexion of the movie set is beginning to change.
Ms. JACOBSON: I know we've worked with more women directors in the last--certainly, I've worked with more probably here in the last three years than in my entire career combined prior to that.
HILLARD: Jacobson is currently working with two first-time female directors on projects for the studio. She also hired Angela Robinson for "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and writer-director Audrey Wells for "Under the Tuscan Sun." So 10 years from now, will we still be having this conversation?
Ms. JACOBSON: I hope not. I hope not.
HILLARD: Today, women do fair a little better in television. They comprise 25 percent of the creative positions, perhaps because women wield a little more power over the TV remote than the box office. In her study, Lauzen also found that when women have creative control behind the scenes...
Dr. LAUZEN: Not only do you get more female characters on screen, but you get a different kind of female character.
(Soundbite of "Cold Case")
Unidentified Woman #4: Ahh!
HILLARD: The CBS cop drama "Cold Case," starring Kathryn Morris as Detective Lilly Rush is now, in its third season.
(Soundbite of "Cold Case")
Ms. KATHRYN MORRIS: (As Lilly Rush) Two of the spectators were ex-cons. One was a known drug dealer, six others with petty records at the scene.
HILLARD: The decision to make the show's lead homicide detective a woman was executive producer Martha Stiehm's idea. Actually, it was more the mandate she says.
Ms. MEREDITH STIEHM (Executive Producer, "Cold Case"): I'm very interested in women in traditionally male cultures and women navigating systems that are not set up for them to succeed in.
HILLARD: Perhaps because that's the role Stiehm and other women in Hollywood have found themselves in. Meanwhile, back in the editing room...
Ms. COOLIDGE: Brilliant.
Unidentified Man #1: It could be worse.
Ms. COOLIDGE: It looks great.
HILLARD: Director Martha Coolidge says she didn't think she'd be having this conversation some 30 years after the women's movement, five years into the new millennium.
Ms. COOLIDGE: I think we're living in a gender-typed world more so than I can ever remember except for maybe the '50s when I was very little.
HILLARD: Which raises the question: How are the employment statistics of women in the storytelling industry affecting our culture, every one of us in the audience?
Unidentified Man #2: Two for "Doom."
HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles.
KAST: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.