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Rough Going In Tv For Women Directors

Second in a series charting the progress of women directors . Next: What progress have women directors made in theatrical films?

November 18, 1986|NANCY MILLS

Last year, American studios and independent film companies produced about 400 features. In the same period, the three networks churned out more than 4,000 hours of prime-time programming alone. Wouldn't it be simpler for a woman to get a directing start in television?

The answer is no.

"It's actually easier for a woman or a man who is brand new to directing to get a feature film than a TV episode," Columbia Pictures TV President Barbara Corday says. "I see it happening with some frequency."

Gabrielle Beaumont, a director who works in both fields, explains why: "The most difficult thing in the world to direct is episodic television. You need incredible technical knowledge and absolute endurance to shoot 8-10 pages of script a day. On a feature, you usually shoot two pages a day."

Beaumont is talking about prime-time episodic television, an area where women directors are making slow but steady progress. Daytime television offers them slightly better opportunities, and public television hires many women directors. However, men direct almost all of the networks' movies and miniseries.

Why? Television is a producer's medium. The director isn't almighty here--the producer is. A TV director's job is difficult and challenging, but ultimately it is a job for a hired hand. "Generally speaking, in TV the director is the last major creative person hired," Corday explains.

"The project is in place, it's been picked up by the network, you're going forward. Who hires the director? The studio, the producer and the network all have their ideas. These three units generally make a committee decision, but the network has complete veto power."

Are the networks preventing women from directing? Yes and no. "There is no 'directors-approved' list as such that I know of," says CBS executive Tony Barr. "But each of our six program executives has his/her own feelings about directors they like and don't like. If they don't know a director, they will come to others for advice. It's really subjective."

"I don't think people make decisions on the basis of sex," Corday says, "but they want the best possible director for the project. That's where you get down to the nitty-gritty--the best in whose opinion? That's the most subjective conversation you can have."

If the studio or the producer is willing to fight for individual directors, those directors may well be approved. But someone has to stick his/her neck out.

Corday stuck hers out last year when she wanted Sharron Miller to direct "Pleasures." It would be Miller's first movie of the week. "Sharron was our suggestion," Corday says.

"We got the network and producers to approve her. I was familiar with her work from 'Cagney & Lacey,' which is a relatively prestigious credit." Corday co-created "Cagney & Lacey" and is married to the series' executive producer, Barney Rosenzweig.

Ten years ago, Norman Lear was credited with making a conscious effort to hire women directors. "We didn't go out of our way for women," insists Lear, who gave directing starts to Joan Darling ("First Love"), Kim Friedman ("Square Pegs"), Nessa Hyams ("Leader of the Band") and Marlena Laird ("General Hospital"). "We went out of our way for talent, and a lot of talent belongs to women."

Sensitive to the difficulties women directors have in establishing careers, Lear acknowledges that "women may have to be twice as good as men to get that first job. It's very hard for them to establish a first credit."

Among producers whose choices of directors include more women than the average are Doug Cramer and Aaron Spelling ("Dynasty," "Hotel"), Lindsay Law ("American Playhouse"), Gloria Monty ("General Hospital"), Barney Rosenzweig ("Cagney & Lacey"), Esther Shapiro ("Dynasty"), and Dan Wilcox ("Newhart"). Thanks to them, several dozen women are now directing TV on a fairly regular basis.

And a handful of them have even reached the stage where they can be selective about their work. "In TV, the most you can hope for is to pick what you do," director Ellen Falcon says. Falcon, 37, is the first, and so far only, woman to direct all episodes of a sitcom (CBS' "My Sister Sam"). She says that Warner Bros. TV offered her all 13 episodes of "Sister Sam," because of her direction of the successful pilot "Designing Women," one of several shows she's worked on.

"Things are certainly better than they were two years ago," emphasizes Nancy Malone, who directs on "Dynasty," "Hotel," "The Colbys" and "Starman." "But still when you walk on a set you get, 'Oh, a woman director,' as if they were two separate things. People have to get used to something new, and generally speaking, they're getting used to it."

Producers in Malone's specialty, one-hour dramatic series, are hiring more women to direct than ever before. "Cagney & Lacey," "Hill Street Blues," "Jack and Mike," "L.A. Law," "Simon & Simon" and "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" now use women directors at least occasionally.

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