Debbie Kruger
4th December 1991


It seems ironic that a group of powerful women should need a support organisation. But the successful careers of Women in Film and Television’s frontline members don’t tell the whole story. Debbie Kruger looks at the position of women in the screen professions.

A congenial Christmas lunch at the Kensington Roof Garden last year turned into a verbal battlefield. The newly formed Women in Film association had invited David Puttnam, doyen of the male dominated British film industry, to address its members. Puttnam’s speech had an unexpected twist, and the women were up in arms. Later, he left the lunch unrepentant but unscathed, wondering why controversy dogged him wherever he went.

Puttnam had put forward three possible reasons for why few women were prominent in the top echelons of the film and television industries. First, wielding power is a difficult and even wretched business, which doesn’t suit women, he suggested. Secondly, raising finance for projects is about seduction, a game to which men are better suited, and in which women are attractors. And thirdly, men in power have the support of their wives who “pick up the pieces,” while women, usually single, go home to their empty lives.

Puttnam insisted his suggestions were merely points for discussion, but whether they were scoffed at outright or in fact touched a few raw nerves, the speech ensured Women in Film’s public debut had a contentious angle.

A year on, controversy could reign again, as the growing organisation holds it first UK Women in Film and Television Awards at the Dorchester Hotel on December 10. While women’s networking groups come under increasing attack for elitism and selling out on their beliefs in meritocracy, WIFTV is holding its first women-only awards.

Brenda Reid, chairperson of WIFTV, admits the awards could be seen as a form of ghettoising, but says that it did not occur to her that men should have been considered for awards in this event. “Men in film do have their own organisation. It’s called the British film industry.”

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) rarely recognises women’s achievements in their awards, says Reid, particularly in the practical fields. The WIFTV Awards will redress the balance, “so that there will be women from behind the scenes who will get awards as well as women who are in the public eye.” Categories include a business award, a project management award, and a creative originality award.

The chief aim of these awards, according to Reid, is to raise funds. The guest speaker this time will be a safer bet, Maureen Lipman. But dissension within the ranks of the WIFTV membership over the decision to have awards at all strikes a jarring note.

“I regard them as absolutely farcical,” says one high profile member. “I regard them as absolutely absurd. I think they’re pastiching male values. I think they are the worst kind of self -congratulation. I think they’re also trying to bestow false status on a new organisation that should walk before it runs. I think there are far more pressing issues, to do with simply empowering professional women to do more jobs better, which is far more important than handing out trophies to each other.”

WIFTV aims to be both an auxiliary body and a lobbying group. Inspired by the American Women in Film organisation, producer Katri Scala and packager Katrina Wood founded the UK branch at the end of 1989, chiefly to function as a support and information association.

Through seminars, informal monthly meetings, screenings, workshops and newsletters, Women in Film was set up with the brief of encouraging the achievements of women helping those in the industry to focus on the highest standards of professionalism in film, television and video. With the majority of members more active in television than film, the name was extended to Women in Film and Television this year.

Scala and Wood got the ball rolling by writing to women in high level positions in the industry. Lynda Myles, producer of Defence of the Realm and The Commitments, was the first person they contacted, and she was the board’s first chair. Recalls Scala: “It was really a question of selecting women who represented a cross section of the industry, for example Anna Ford, current affairs; Janet Street-Porter, youth programming; Lynda Myles, films. And they all responded with tremendous enthusiasm.”

Not that there wasn’t the odd misgiving. Sophie Balhetchet, a successful independent television and former chairman of the Independent Programme Producers’ Association (IPPA) joined the board at the onset with reservations. “There is a part of me that is not particularly drawn to segregated gatherings,” she says. “They tend to overstate behavior and concerns a little. However, on balance it seemed like a useful thing to do and a way possibly of rectifying some of the rather obvious anomalies in the system, so I was happy to get involved.

“Also because I’d been so closely involved with IPPA, I had a pretty good idea of the do's and don’ts in dealing with membership organisations. It’s always a good idea to short circuit the problems rather than to sort of labour through the undergrowth and make all the same mistakes all over again.”

Motivated by the leading lights on the board, which also includes actress Sheila Hancock, Dangerous Liaisons producer Norma Heyman, top sales agent Jane Balfour, and Channel 4’s controller of arts and entertainment Andrea Wanfor, women in lower management and support staff across the industry have also joined. Membership of WIFTV currently stands at 400.

The board members are very powerful women, and their existence refutes Puttnam’s suggestion that women do not handle power comfortably. Brenda Reid says: “Wielding power in public places, as opposed to it in the home, is perhaps something women are not used to. But they are good at it, and have a very balanced approach.” Raising finance for projects, Reid continues, is certainly about seduction, “and women are as suited as men to that.”

As for Puttnam’s final contention, that women have empty lives, Reid is dismissive. “I have nothing to say on that. Most women have the support of partners and families or a network of very supportive friends.”

Reid was unfazed by Puttnam’s speech. Other women at the lunch, including Janet Street-Porter, were incensed. “May we suggest next year we invite Bernard Manning to talk and at least we’ll have an idea of what we’re getting,” they wrote in a letter to Broadcast magazine.

“Where have you been, Mr. Puttnam? Your audience was made up of hardworking, successful and powerful women. How did you misjudge it so badly?”

Nevertheless, women are under-represented in the senior management sector of the screen industries.

Reid is the executive producer of Anglia Films, drama arm of the ITV Company. “The reason was I was interested in getting involved was that traditionally women are in the more practical, supportive sides of the industry; they’re either somebody’s assistant, somebody’s secretary, they’re in make-up, wardrobe, all the sort of traditional roles that the women are supposed to be good at, and there are so few women actually in management or on boards, or able to make proper decision and greenlight projects. And I care about that very much.”

Part of the problem, Reid concedes, is conditioning; women have traditionally adopted number two positions because of their own beliefs as much as the monopoly of the old-boy networks. “The barriers still need breaking. I think they are breaking down, it will change, it’s taken a very long time, and I still think it’s a metropolitan change, rather than a national change.

“In the cities, where our industry tends to be, there’s more of an awareness of the need to recruit women, train women, to take on more senior and executive roles. But as far as the rest of the country, and other jobs and other industries are concerned, I think we’re a long way from that.”

Even Reid, who at Anglia is responsible for delegating to up to 200 people depending on the number of films she has in production at any one time, is absent from the Anglia Films Board, despite being the one who makes all the decisions. However, despite the dearth of women sitting on the boards of television companies, a WIFTV workshop on how to participate effectively on a board is on the agenda.

Casting an eye down the list of controllers and heads of department at the BBC, the lack of prominent women is glaringly evident. Jane Drabble, recently appointed to the position of assistant director network television, is now the most senior woman manager in the organisation, while Janet Street-Porter as head of youth and entertainment and Anna Home as head of children’s programming are her only companions.

The management hierarchies of the ITV franchise bidders, incumbents and newcomers, reflected a similar imbalance. Sophie Balhetchet remarks: “If you actually look at the line up of women in positions of managerial prominence in the C3 bids, it doesn’t take a genius to see that you can count these prominent women on the fingers of one hand. And I’m talking in terms of financing, shareholding, chief executives, the founding financing investment, or key policy makers. They are singularly absent from a system of new franchises that were supposed to challenge some of the old conventions.”

These few who are in important positions, such as Lis Howell, director of programmes for new breakfast franchise Sunrise Television received an unprecedented amount of press coverage after the ITV winners were announced. Balhetchet feels that the amount of coverage was disproportionate. “It’s good that Lis is doing that job, but let’s not overstate. It should be the norm, or if not the norm, it should be more prevalent.”

In the independent production sector, women are perceived to be more powerful both en masse and as individuals. Says Balhetchet: “Very often they come out of established structures — not in my case as it happens, but very often they do — and create their own company, sometimes in their own image, hiring people that they choose to hire on terms and conditions that individual sets up. That said, one has to remember that independent companies are in the main really relatively small enterprises, with relatively small key staff and in themselves are not comparable to BBC or ITV structures.”

Still, the power of female-led production companies such as Cinema Verity, Warner Sisters and Red Rooster was undeniable in the tally of output deals with ITV franchise bidders before the winners were announced. Lavinia Warner and Jane Wellesley of Warner Sisters had four solid deals; only one bidder, CPV-TV, failed to come through, and the three remaining deals are with three of the most powerful Channel 3 companies — Carlton, Meridian and Granada.

Even David Puttnam, despite his debatable views on the problems of women in the industry, has been a great advocate of advancing women in film, which is largely why he escaped unharmed from the Roof Garden last year. “I know he makes great macho men movies,” says Reid of the man whose credits include The Mission and Memphis Belle.

“But he also gives a lot of women breaks, he really does. His business affairs have always been run by women. He took Lynda Myles with him to the States, he took Lindsay Posner with him to Columbia, he gave women directors, producers and writers over their development deals. I know a lot of them, who really regretted his going, because for the first time they’d got somebody to take them seriously. He doesn’t even realise he makes great macho men movies, he just follows the subject.”

WIFTV comprises several committees. Central office is run by director Janet Fielding, who has one part time assistant. The organisation is funded through membership and sponsorship, with benefactors as diverse as the British Film Institute, Barclays Bank and Virgin.

The membership fee is relatively low, at £75 “I feel very strongly about this,” says Reid. “I feel that £75 is the maximum we can expect to ask from women within the industry because so many people are out of work, and I really feel strongly that it shouldn’t become an elitist organisation.” Fielding is particularly good at pulling volunteers, who might be film students, actresses or writers. “They help out on various committees, on organisation of events. It’s important for me to keep that fee as low as possible and all our events are free, even workshops, which are especially important, because they’re practically based. PACT (Producers’ Alliance for Cinema and Television) would charge several hundred pounds to attend their seminars, they’re very expensive, and so that is one of the most important things that we offer. It’s pulling in experts to share their knowledge in the relaxed atmosphere of the workshop.”

Workshops to date have covered areas such as film finance; the relationships between director and producer, and between producer and distributor; pitching projects; and the choice and developments of projects.

An action committee, headed by Reid, has been formed to look at ways in which the organistaion might take practical steps to improve the status of women both on and off screen, and to safeguard women’s interests.

Issues such as sexual discrimination, sexual harassment — yes, the “casting couch syndrome” still exists, according to Reid — and maternity leave are high on the agenda. A questionnaire has been issued to all members, to find out how they see their role in the industry compared to their male colleagues, and what practical steps they would like to see taken. WIFTV will not fashion itself in the role of trade association; Reid feels that would be a mistake, “a real separatist move. I’m not sure that would be anybody’s advantage, it would be divisive. PACT is there and it’s a great organisation.”

The aim, according to Balhetchet, who has considerable experience of trade associations through her time at IPPA, the precursor to PACT, is to lobby by the existing trade associations to incorporate women’s issues into their own policies. “ I think to be effective as a women’s lobby you have to get into the one areas which actually has muscle, which is the legislature, and it then filters down to company policy either by obligation or by the balanced view that is desirable, then it will be no more than good intentions, congenial public relations.”

She explains that the action committee should wrestle with issues such as quota, positive discrimination, maternity provisions, and interface with industrial relations questions. Policy recommendations could be presented to appropriate government ministers and/or PACT, as the recognised trade association that negotiates with the unions on terms and conditions of employment. It could then ask that such policy recommendations be incorporated into PACT policy. Similarly, it might seek to exercise its influence on the trade unions; for example Equity, or the technical unions ACTT and BECTU.

None of the board members of WIFTV is kidding herself that the organisation has or can effect changes overnight. “What I think it has done,” says Scala,“ which is part of our aim, is to bring the whole issue of women in the industry into the public eye, so it has to be encouraged and provoked a tremendous amount of debate about whether there is still a problem, and if that is the first important step, to get people talking. As far as what we’ve actually achieved,” says Reid, “ I think that out of that feeling is already growing a kind of strength, security and confidence that women perhaps lack, or haven’t had in the past. Women starting in the industry perhaps have felt alone.”

Perhaps it is the nature of an organisation of creative minds that there will always be contrasting views within. Balhetchet feels that there is a “peculiar” atmosphere in all-women groups. “I think there is a sense that the way to rectify some of the perceived imbalances, and the way to make a network function is to be ‘nice’, and I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think very often the best way to create alternative political strategy is actually to be hard and tough and clear, and to say sometimes quite unpalatable truths.”

The WIF launch in June 1990 was attended by 500 enthusiastic women, an unprecedented response to such an event. “I will never forget walking into the Royal College of Art on the evening of the launch of WIF,” says Reid. “There was no room to breathe, but it was a really good feeling. It was totally non-threatening, you didn’t need to flirt, you didn’t need to play any kind of games that you might expect to play.”

What will ensure the organisation’s continued success is their common belief in the need to shake up the system, no matter how it’s done. “It’s a question of shaking up entrenched male attitudes,” says Scala. “ Again and again your hear stories of women producers who are producing for the first time, and they arrive on set, and the guys say, ‘Oh, are you the make-up lady?’ It is a cliché and it still happens.”

Women in Film, Garden Studios, 11-15 Betterton Street London WC2H 9BP. Tel: 071-3790344.

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