Not since Dawn Steel learned she was ousted as president of production while on maternity leave from Paramount has a top woman movie executive found out this brutally she’d been axed in Hollywood. Even years later, when I sat down to interview her, Dawn still acknowledged that moment was like an open wound. According to news reports, Nina Jacobson heard about her Disney firing at the hospital, just after her partner had given birth to their third child. When she called studio boss Dick Cook to share her great joy, then asked him what was going on, he broke the awful news. (See my Nina Jacobson Out). I’m told she was “devastated,” and understandably so. The timing took everyone by surprise, especially since she’d recently renegotiated her contract. Ironically, it was 15 months ago that The New York Times was trumpeting “Hollywood’s New Old Girls’ Network” on the cover of the Sunday Arts and Leisure Section, pegged to Brad Grey’s naming Gail Berman to lead Paramount pics’ creative team. “He did something that has become almost routine in Hollywood: he put a woman in charge of the show….Four of the six major film studios have women in the top creative decision-making roles … these women … have finally buried the notion that Hollywood is a man’s world. So striking is the change that some now see Hollywood as a gender-based model for the rest of corporate America.”
But that was then, and this is now. And that article smacks of hyperbole (not to mention hypocrisy). Those advances are eroding before our eyes. As of today, there’s only Gail Berman at Paramount, and Amy Pascal at Sony, in positions of real power. (Re: Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000, this terrific piece of womanpower has many more layers of male bosses above her than the pair I’ve cited.) But the knives have been out for Gail since she took over (those many nasty articles about her — some deserved, some not). And Amy a year ago was supposed to be getting a promotion that would put her on a par with boss Michael Lynton (it hasn’t happened yet though there’s an upcoming contract re-negotiation). Everyone else is gone. Look at some of the women who have steered studios in a high capacity in recent years: Jacobson at Disney’s Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, Laura Ziskin at Fox 2000, Lisa Henson and Lucy Fisher at Columbia, Sherry Lansing at Paramount, Stacey Snider at Universal, even Laurie MacDonald at Dreamworks Pictures (co-head with her husband). They’ve all left their posts, because of situations where either they jumped or were pushed. (Said Cook about Jacobson’s high-wire fall: “There are times when these things happen, and this is one of those times.” Which is just a polite way of saying, Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.) The result is that Hollywood movies are returning to the old days when it was a man’s world.
Which leads me to another thought: did these women have a better win-loss box office record than the men? Nearly all have greenlighted embarrassments as well as failures. Some were testosterone-heavy violence-fests. Others were chick flicks that not even gals wanted to see. A few were big fat blockbusters. Actually, their record seems no worse than their male counterparts. And that’s the point: Hollywood, like most industries, sets the bar higher for its woman executives: they can’t just be equal to men, they have to be better. So that may be why this woman’s world era is coming to an end. There’s no doubt the women were good. They just weren’t good enough to suit the men still in charge of them.
Illustration from Hollywood Reporter’s Power 100/Women in Entertainment issue.