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The Celluloid Ceiling

October 2nd, 2009

I heard Janet Street Porter on the radio the other day, talking about the celluloid ceiling, the idea that women have a hard time getting good jobs in film and television.  Worth exploration I thought, but a dangerous mission even for this experienced adventurer.

Janet Street PorterJanet Street Porter,  for our international readers, is most well known for her hard-as-nails personality and loud, sauf London accent.   The Ronnie Kray (notorious London gangster of the ‘60’s for our international readers) of the media, though I doubt she’s actually killed anyone, but probably destroyed many.  Her popular image however, belies her vast career which encompasses editor of the Independent On Sunday, Head of Youth Television at the BBC, she was nominated for the Mae West Award For The Most Outspoken Woman in The Industry, losing out to actress Sheila Hancock, and she likes to ramble, that is, go on long walks.

Her point on the radio show, was that even today, women don’t get top jobs or respect in the film and TV biz.  She obviously hasn’t heard of Sherry Lansing, first woman to head a Hollywood studio when at age 35, she became head of production at 20th Century Fox in 1980, opening the boardroom doors to be followed by many others.

I don’t want to just make a list…oh alright then, coming in at No.1 in last year’s Hollywood Reporter Power 100, Women In Entertainment, Oprah. 2. Anne Sweeney, president Disney ABC Television Group, 3. Amy Pascal – on the left, Amy PascalChairman Sony Pictures Entertainment – the woman who cancelled, Moneyball, Steven Soderbergh’s baseball movie, 4. Nancy Tellem, president CBS Paramount Network Television and 5. Stacey Snyder, co-chairman and CEO Dreamworks.  And that’s just the top five,  there’s 95 more right behind them. Looks like in the US at least, women are heading for global entertainment domination.

In the UK, a large slice of the TV output is overseen by women, both controllers of BBC One and Two are women as are the top exec at Five, heads of factual, entertainment and drama at ITV and the heads of current affairs, features, daytime and drama at Channel Four.  Indeed the most powerful woman in the world is German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Leader of the world’s fourth largest economy. Looks like it’s the guys who are losing out, I guess their day will come. And true there is no female president, as yet. But they’ve had a hard time getting there.

The Hays CodeIn the golden days of Hollywood, during the 1930’s, women film makers were suffocated by the Hays Code which remained in force right up until 1968.  This was more than political correctness, this was political censorship.  It was a code of guidelines for film productions to ensure films were made to strict moral standards and to promote the morals of the Catholic church through the Catholic Legion Of Decency.

It was largely a reaction to the ‘Hollywood gone wild’ of the 1920’s when comedy star Fatty Arbuckle stood trial for the death of an actress at a San Francisco party, the revelations of the bisexuality of murdered director William Taylor and the drug related death of actor Wallace Reid among others.  Sound familiar?!  Interestingly, also the time when June Mathis was the first female exec of Metro/MGM, the highest paid exec in Hollywood and a screenwriter when female screenwriters were much in demand.

But the sort of films women were writing and directing fell foul of the Hays code, it was that strict and the only one to survive was Dorothy Arzner. Dorothy’s early films often had lesbian undertones as typified in the 1929, The Wild PartyThe Wild Party, and featured independent, tough women as in the 1930, Anybody’s Woman.

But the Hays code wouldn’t permit any films even remotely immoral, stating, ‘The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld’ and that, ‘Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing’.   Adultery and illicit sex, were a no-no and even, ‘Excessive and lustful kissing’ were to be avoided.  Women film makers were under even greater scrutiny and to keep making films, Dorothy Arzner turned her talents towards making more conventional films like Joan Crawford’s, The Bride Wore Red, though still subtly introduced scenes to reflect her feminist ideals.  Crawford once said of Arzner, “I think all my directors fell in love with me; I know Dorothy Arzner did!”

Tina Fey in 30 RockEarlier this year, the Center For Study Of Women In Television and Film  published statistics,  showing various levels of employment of women in US TV channels, which overall showed that women held 25% of creative’s roles in jobs like, producer, director, editor, DOP etc. In 2007, the same researcher published statistics on women’s involvement in the top 250 movies of 2006 on which 7% were  directors, 2% were DOP’s and 21% were editors.  Interestingly, more women worked on romantic comedies than on sci fi or horror, and I would suggest more women go to romantic comedies than sci fi or horror, though I know horror is big for the female audience.

So really, I would suggest the celluloid ceiling is melting and what determines women’s involvement in film and TV is generally more a matter of choice rather than any external forces. Today, though statistics may show women have a minority share of the jobs in film and TV, they do have some of the most powerful.

My favourite tough woman in the biz has to be Tina Fey in, 30 Rock, interestingly, her character holds a lower position than Tina Fey does as executive producer on the actual show.


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