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A force of nature, Tichi Wilkerson became the publisher and editor of The Hollywood Reporter after her husband, Billy Wilkerson, died in 1962. Yet no matter how prominent her position, the publisher, who was of Mexican heritage, felt isolated professionally from Hollywood with its men’s clubs and associations, according to Mollie Gregory’s 2002 book, Women Who Run the Show. In 1973, Wilkerson formed the advocacy group Women in Film.
Wilkerson ran a front-page editorial in THR introducing readers to WIF, stating that Hollywood was more prejudiced against women than anyone cared to admit. “Now is the time to verify our reputation as an equal-opportunity industry by opening the doors wider to an ever-increasing group of talented female filmmakers,” she wrote. “They do need a chance to be seen and heard.”
At WIF’s inaugural meeting, Wilkerson and eight women realized they had to grow their ranks. Word spread quickly, and at least 50 women, including Barbara Boyle, who would soon become CEO of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, crowded into THR’s lobby for the second meeting. “I was amazed to find that terrific women were working in the industry, because my whole world had been men,” Boyle told Gregory. “Tichi made it clear that older women — she meant me — had an obligation to contribute what we knew.”
The legacy of Wilkerson, who married twice more and died in 2004 at age 77, continues. WIF has worked hard the past decade to become more inclusive. Stephanie Allain — currently the first Black president of the PGA — describes her hesitation when approached in 2014 to serve on WIF’s board: “When I first joined, it was almost all white women,” she says.
In 2015, Kirsten Schaffer was named CEO of WIF. She and the board pledged that every new board member would come from an underrepresented community until parity was reached, and that promise has been fulfilled. At WIF, Schaffer also was instrumental in launching ReFrame, an industry-wide initiative to advance inclusivity and gender equity that’s carried out in partnership with the Sundance Institute.
THR editorial director Nekesa Mumbi Moody recently sat down with Schaffer to talk about WIF, past and present. — PAMELA MCCLINTOCK
When you came on, you had already done so much work on inclusion within the film community. How did that help you when you came to Women in Film?
I had been running Outfest as director of programming and then executive director for more than a decade. At that moment, gay marriage was in a different place, transgender rights were on a positive trajectory. I was seeing among the women I knew, directors in particular, that they were not having as much success as their male counterparts. I thought I could bring everything I had done to this organization and help us move this cause forward.
How has the focus on advocacy in action changed in your tenure?
Tichi and a starting group of women were pretty big disrupters in 1973. One of the things that I thought was really interesting was the tension between the women who were already in the jobs and the women who were trying to get jobs. Was the organization going to only serve the women who were already in jobs, or was the core mission to help expand the pipeline? In those early years, they found a sweet spot between the two and launched mentoring programs, film-finishing programs, things that leverage the power of the women who are in jobs, to help the next generation coming up get into jobs. That is still a core principle of our work.
What do you point to as having had the most progress?
When Tichi and her colleagues started, they found a statistic that only 2 percent of TV scripts were written by women. Now we’re at 48.4 percent (from WIF’s ReFrame research).
A recent ReFrame report states that hiring for women in film plateaued in 2022. Do you feel as if you’re taking two steps forward and then one step back?
Yes, I think so. We hear people say things like, “Oh, it’s exhausting having to make sure that there are enough women on the list, or in the room, or getting interviewed.” It’s a deeply entrenched system that is difficult to change, and the people in power are still mostly white men, and they tend to hire people they know, who are also mostly white men. I don’t want to be saying that five years from now, but it is still true.
How do you think the AMPAS inclusion standards will affect the statistics? Some people say not that much needs to be done to meet those criteria.
I think the Academy is pretty clear about saying this is a starting point. It’s a place to build awareness, and people have a checklist they can look at it and go through. I think those standards are going to get tougher over the years, as they should. And it’s a really good strategy to get us to a representative industry.
Your 2019 report said it could take a decade or more to reach gender parity in certain fields. And that’s with a 25 percent increase year after year. Do you think we’re on track for that?
In some areas we’re on track, and in some areas we’re still woefully behind. For example, we took a big leap in directors in 2021. Then it’s been stagnant, so it’s multiple years’ worth of data that tells the clearest story. I did a little exercise once, where I mapped out if we increased by 5 percent, how long would it take us to get to 50 percent? And in some areas it would take until 2075.
That’s huge. What have been the challenges, including becoming mothers, that women face in getting and keeping that industry job?
We’re dealing with changing the culture within the industry so that it’s a place that women and parents want to and can stay. This is about the length of the workday, especially in production. It’s about many of the things that the WGA is negotiating for right now around sustainable pay.
Pay parity is also important, as is having flexibility and creativity. Can we get creative about how we work and work in ways that are more flexible to people who are caring for children or elders? It’s caring for each other in a way that enables both women and men to stay in this business.
There was a TV show that shot in L.A. a few years ago with a couple of different moms who were directors, and they would cover for each other. Somebody would go home to feed the kids, put them to bed, somebody would cover their set while they were gone, and then they’d come back and wrap out the day. I don’t think the DGA loves that, but that’s how we get creative. Frankly, dads should be doing that, too.
Let’s talk about where we are now, in the midst of a writers strike, and DGA and SAG labor talks upcoming. Where does gender parity fit in with some of the labor issues that we’re seeing?
The issue of the mini-room, I think, impacts especially early career folks, and a lot of those are women and people of color, because they’ve come in during the past five years.
What was the impact of the #MeToo movement on how the organization centers its advocacy?
When the Harvey Weinstein stories broke, the question I kept getting was, “If women are experiencing sexual harassment, where do they turn?” There wasn’t a good answer. It was, “Yeah, call HR. Report it.” Within six weeks, we launched the WIF Sexual Harassment Help Line, the first of its kind. It still is the only thing that serves the entertainment industry. People can call, and the responders help them figure out what they want to do next. We have therapists, pro bono attorneys; it continues to be a really valuable resource. We’ve gotten 400 to 500 calls.
Have changes in the industry, whether in streaming and technology, helped women at all?
One thing we have seen throughout the past 100 years in this industry is that when money comes in, women go out. So there were a lot more women producing in the ’20s, running small studios, and when the big money came in, women went out. You see that around technology, too. There were a lot more women in VR a few years ago, as artists, and when the money came in, women go out. On the flip side, when technology is accessible, when it opens up pathways for people who aren’t controlling the means of production, more underrepresented folks get involved.
What’s an example of WIF creating change within the industry?
I was really excited a couple years ago when Amazon announced its inclusion road map, and it had a lot of things that we had put forth in the ReFrame resource, and that’s what we want. Seeing Amazon take those on and generate its own ideas, that was a really good indicator of the success of that program.
When you see women leading projects, how does that manifest on sets or at studios?
What we hear from people who are working on many of those teams is that they’re more inclusive, friendlier, people work hard, and they bring their full creative selves to the jobs, but they’re treated well. There’s more of a spirit of a camaraderie and acceptance.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
5 Decades of Women in Film
Tichi Wilkerson Kassel (she married Arthur Kassel in 1983), the publisher and editor of The Hollywood Reporter, founds WIF in March 1973. She knew firsthand how limited opportunities were for women in Hollywood.
WIF launches the Crystal Awards, the first program to exclusively honor women working in the entertainment industry. The inaugural Crystal luncheon recognizes Lucille Ball, screenwriter Eleanor Perry, actress-director Nancy Malone and attorney Norma Zarky.
The Film Finishing Fund is created to provide annual cash awards and in-kind production services to ensure that innovative films made by women could be completed and seen by audiences worldwide. Since its inception, the fund has awarded north of $2 million in cash and in-kind services to more than 280 films from all over the globe. Recipients have gone on to win Oscars, Emmys and Peabody Awards.
The popular PSA Program begins. The volunteer effort was created by Judith Parker Harris (above) to give women the opportunity to learn the production process by making PSAs for non-profit organizations. (It was relaunched in 2017 as the Production Program.)
The ACLU asks the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate gender discrimination in Hollywood using research commissioned by WIF and the Sundance Institute. WIF refers filmmakers and execs for interviews with the EEOC. The same year, WIF and Sundance launch the Systemic Change Project to mitigate bias during the creative decision-making and hiring process and to measure progress in terms of gender parity in the industry. (The program is dubbed ReFrame two years later.)
In the wake of #MeToo, the WIF Help Line is launched to address sexual harassment and misconduct in the industry.
Vote for Women advocacy campaign, releasing a #VoteForWomen film ballot and TV ballot during awards season.
WIF debuts the Emerging Producers Program, a one-year course for women and gender-nonconforming people early in their producing careers.
WIF announces Pathmakers, which highlights the career journeys of Black women in Hollywood.
The ReFrame Leadership Council is formed to promote gender equality in the industry. — P.M.
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.