First Rungs: How Entertainment Women Execs Began Their Climb to the Top

The 4 founders of United Artists: (l to r), Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNews)

Mary Pickford had the right idea. Become a movie mogul by forming an independent film company in 1919 with three trusted colleagues (Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith), call it something catchy like United Artists, control your product from inception to production to distribution and then, 37 years later, sell your stake and make an astronomical profit. And above all else, never abdicate.

In modern times, the business of rising in the business isn’t all that easy for those who wear the shaky crowns of power in film, television and cable. While The Hollywood Reporter ranks women’s wattage in its annual “Women in Entertainment Power 100,” the names rise and fall, their power depending on their success as compared to the competition, their revolving bosses and/or shareholders, and how they’re perceived by the industry at large. Akin to an Oscar race, corporate publicists trumpet their female executives’ stunning accomplishments up to six months in advance. May the best women win.

Looking at the top seven in The Hollywood Reporter’s most recent list — published last December — how did these Magnificent Seven first embark on their respective journeys?

While the usual job clichés abound (unpaid interns, receptionists, assistants, secretaries), and with so many women now graduating with degrees in communications or marketing, a few anomalies follow:

#1:    Bonnie Hammer, Chairman, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group:

Cover of December 2014 Hollywood Reporter, featuring #1 Bonnie Hammer

“My very first real job in the industry was as a production assistant on a show called Infinity Factory in 1976. There was a large sheepdog in the cast that wasn’t housebroken and would take a dump in the middle of the floor, and I had to clean it up. … doing some of, literally, the shit work.”

#2:    Dana Walden, Chairman CEO Fox TV Group:

Communications degree, assistant at a PR firm

#3:    Nancy Dubuc, President and CEO, A+E Networks:

Communications degree, intern at NBC News

#4:    Amy Pascal, Co-chairman, Sony Pictures Entertainment;
chairman, SPE Motion Picture Group (fired Feb 5, 2015 over Sony’s hacked email scandal):

Pascal started as a secretary for a BBC producer. However, given that she earned her UCLA degree in international relations, perhaps she might have applied some studied diplomacy to those infamous incendiary emails.

#5:    Donna Langley, Chairman, Universal Pictures:

Langley moved to America from the UK at 22. She worked nights at the Roxbury — a popular nightclub on the Sunset Strip — and she spent her days as an unpaid intern at a literary agency. When she met Michael De Luca of New Line Cinema at the Roxbury, he hired her as an assistant.

#6:    Nina Tassler, Chairman, CBS Entertainment (after 25 years working in TV, she recently announced her retirement):

Tassler moved to Manhattan in the hopes of becoming an actress, waitressing between auditions. “I became the callback queen … I had four callbacks [for ‘Come Back, Little Sheba’] and didn’t get the part. Two weeks later, they fired the actress, and they had me come back. I was one of two actresses, and I still didn’t get the part. I said, ‘That’s it.'” Moving to LA, she had to choose between working at a drugstore or taking a receptionist job at a talent agency. Not a hard choice to make.

#7:    Stacey Snider, Co-chairman, 20th Century Fox

Although Snider earned her law degree from UCLA, she never practiced. Instead, she went the route of the ultimate cliché: the talent agency mailroom.

That said, she was inspired by such early women pioneers as Paula Weinstein, Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel.

Perhaps the fact that Weinstein, Lansing and Steel were industry trailblazers, their beginnings bespeak the unique:

Paula Weinstein: At 28, she was named the first female VP at Warner Studios. Turning to filmmaking, Weinstein became an Emmy-award winning TV and movie producer (Analyze This, Blood Diamond, Recount). Weinstein then moved back to the executive suite, assuming the role of Tribeca Enterprises’ Executive VP since 2013.

But in her younger days, Weinstein was far from a cineaste. Following in the steps of her activist mother, she was a dedicated participant in the 1960’s left-wing SDS. After protesting the Vietnam War alongside Jane Fonda, that relationship eventually turned professional, with Weinstein assuming the role of Fonda’s talent agent.

Sherry Lansing (Image: Hollywood Reporter)

Sherry Lansing: As 20th Century Fox’s production chief, Lansing was the first female to head a studio movie division. She then ascended to Chairman of Paramount Pictures’ Motion Picture Group, making her the second woman to head a major film studio. (Dawn Steel was the first.) Lansing ran the show at Paramount for 12 years.

But she started out as a model and an actress. After famed filmmaker Howard Hawks cast her in “Rio Lobo” opposite John Wayne, she realized that acting wasn’t her strong suit. She told Hawks she was quitting, preferring to take a job reading scripts for $5 an hour. Per Lansing’s 2005 interview with Newsweek: “He threw me out of his house … Years later I called him and said, ‘Well, it didn’t turn out so bad, did it?’ He said, ‘You would have been a better actress,’ and slammed down the phone.”

Dawn Steel (died in 1997 at the age of 51, due to a malignant brain tumor). Steel holds the title of the first woman to head a studio, named chief of Columbia Pictures in 1987. But the real hullabaloo occurred two years prior, when she became president of production at Paramount. All was fine — or so she thought — until, while she was in labor giving birth to her daughter, she learned that she was fired. It took “Steel Dawn” all of six months before she moved into the role of Columbia’s studio chief.

Her initial entree into the industry was similarly unprecedented. Unable to afford more than a year of college, Steel took a low-level marketing job at Penthouse Magazine devising merchandise tie-ins.  Noticing the phallic properties of the amaryllis plant, she wrote ad copy that read: ”Grow your own penis. All it takes is $6.98 and a lot of love.” Never was an amaryllis so popular. She then founded a merchandising company that sold toilet paper with a parodied Gucci logo stamped on each sheet. Gucci sued for copyright infringement; the press called it “the toilet-paper caper.” No surprise, Steel soon landed a job in marketing at Paramount.

When Mary Pickford sold her portion of United Artists in 1957, she made $3 million (2015 calculation = $25.5 million). And, as the first bona fide female mogul, she was untouchable. A concept that today’s top executives, women as well as men, can’t possibly fathom.

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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