Screenwriter Robin Swicord ("Little Women," "Matilda") has been keeping track for 20 years of how many women get screen credits; in 1999, she says, 320 writers were represented on the screen, but only 34 of them were women. The numbers go up and down slightly each year, to as low as nine female-written screenplays in 1982, and as high as 49 in 1995, she says. "But in the last four years it has been dropping again, because the problems never go away."
One of the "problems" is the kind of movie women get offered. Ephron says she's been fortunate in getting work because she writes romantic comedies and family movies, "the only pool women are allowed into." Women tend to get what Swicord calls "lighter fare" like "10 Things I Hate About You" and "My Favorite Martian,"--not the kind of movies that get treated seriously in Hollywood. Female writers often turn to TV, which is reckoned, in contrast to film, to have a largely female audience and is more sympathetic to female-centered drama.
Discrimination is pervasive throughout the system, say female screenwriters. Agents are often reluctant to represent a woman because their scripts are harder to sell. Readers with studios may see a woman's name on a script and dismiss it. Female writers say it's also ironic that, while there are male writers sensitive to women's concerns, like James Brooks ("As Good as It Gets"), women writers often feel compelled to impose self-censorship.
"'You know if it's a part for a woman over 30, or if it doesn't have a big part for a man, studios are less interested," says Ephron.
There are female writers, like Grant, who want to bring complex films about women to the screen, but others feel ghettoized by the category "women's films." "It's wonderful to have an opportunity to write intelligent, complex characters for women," Swicord says. "And it's a thrill for an actress to be in a film where she doesn't just have to wear a bath towel and be cute. But on the other hand you don't want to feel that you have to do over and over the last thing you wrote. We have a lot of stories in us."
For some, the problem of being a female screenwriter is more subtle. All screenwriters expect their work to be altered to some degree by film executives, but there are some changes that lessen women's roles in films. Speeches by women are removed because they seem too strong, or because they interfere with the male lead role.
Writer Dana Stevens recalls that she and producer Amy Robinson would have disputes with lead actor Kevin Costner and male producer Armyan Bernstein over the character of Jane (played by Kelly Preston) in last year's baseball movie "For Love of the Game." "The men wanted to soften her up and make her a little less ballsy," said Stevens. "I wanted her to be a New York dame, and she didn't quite end up that way."
Pamela Gray recalls arguing with one of the male producers of her autobiographical screenplay "A Walk on the Moon" (1999) over whether or not the mother in the film (Diane Lane) would show her feelings at the end of her affair with a traveling salesman. "I felt it was important for Pearl to express her grief, but the producer thought since she had chosen to stay with her husband she wouldn't be upset. He was making it black-and-white."
Veteran screenwriter Amy Holden Jones has written films in most genres, from the diner movie "Mystic Pizza" (1988), featuring a young Julia Roberts, to thrillers and film noir. But she still smarts over changes made in her movies, especially in "Indecent Proposal" (1993), where the omission of certain lines of dialogue lessened the woman's role (played by Demi Moore) and gave greater emphasis to the men in the movie (Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson). Indeed, she says, Redford added a line, "If you were mine, I wouldn't share you with anyone," which angered her because of its implication that women are men's property.
Jones also wrote a speech for Moore's character in the last scene in which she tells Redford that she's going to go back to her husband. This scene, "in which she makes her own choices," was cut and turned into a scene "where he heroically talks to her and she has not one line," Jones says.
Female writers hope that the success of women-driven films like "Erin Brockovich" will not only shift the industry's approach to the bottom line but maybe even change attitudes in the world at large.
As "Erin's" executive producer Carla Santos Shamberg puts it: "Women should be able to go out and slay the dragon and men should be allowed to stay at home."
To "28 Days" director Betty Thomas, "There is no such thing as too funny." Page 88