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Program Celebrates Womens' Organization's Achievements

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Today, it's a concept nearly as foreign as petticoats: women as tokens in the film and TV industry. In 2003, with notable exceptions, women flesh out in nearly every sector -- and men have gotten used to it.

Of course, that was not always the case.

"When I was young and 'chicky,' gender had a lot to do with it," HBO executive vp original programming Sheila Nevins says. "I could flirt my way into an interview -- but those days are gone."

"Gone" might be a bit strong -- and those days absolutely are not forgotten. But at whichever level industry women find themselves, they are there, thanks in large part, to New York Women in Film and Television, a nonprofit membership organization for female professionals in film, television and new media. NYWIFT celebrates 25 years of service with a one-week program titled "25 Years of Women Calling the Shots" -- which features panel discussions and screenings of films and documentaries -- beginning Wednesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

NYWIFT has worked to raise the consciousness, education level and voices of industry women who, when they congregated for the first time on the night of what turned out to be the infamous 1977 New York City Blackout, rarely were more than whispers in the darkness.

"We needed (NYWIFT) because we were invisible," 1981-82 board president Jeanne Betancourt says. "Not just in the industry, but to one another."

Those early meetings, designed to carve out a support structure for industry women while educating them and providing a network that ideally would create jobs, involved small groups gathering in living rooms throughout the city. They had a big job ahead.

"You were brainwashed into thinking there was only a certain kind of job you could have," 1988-89 board president Pat Herold says.

"It was clear to us who wanted to go to work on '60 Minutes' that you'd have to be a researcher with gray hair before they'd consider a woman as a producer."

But that was not only an external mindset, Herold adds.

"Women suffered from the idea that you had to have a Ph.D. in producing before you could call yourself a producer, whereas all these young guys would come in without half of the experience I had but called themselves producers," she says. "They had the mental attitude; we had to learn that, too."

That they did. Within months of being incorporated as WIF, a networking roster was published. (The "T" would come later, though television always has been considered part of the organization.)

"We very fondly called it WIF -- we didn't feel we had to distinguish ourselves from (the Los Angeles chapter)," says Marianne Donohue, director of on-air production at New York's Channel 13/WNET.

The roster is the constantly updated "little book" Donohue still uses.

"When somebody says to me, 'Oh, do you know a good ... fill in the blank,' I pull out the roster, look in the category and find names of people I know," she says.

During its first few years, NYWIFT reached out to those whom it would not yet admit into its professionals-only ranks by hosting young-professionals seminars. "They were a huge hit back then," Herold says. "We needed senior women who had been in the business a while to help us penetrate further, yet we didn't want to leave the young women behind."

That ethic of shared assistance would become the template for NYWIFT's plans and goals. The organization created a community in which everyone recognized the need for female voices and attitudes within the industry and asserted tacitly that the only way to do that was through cooperation, not competition.

"The stereotype that women are competitive with other women or bitchy towards other women -- I found that Women in Film was anything but that," director Susan Seidelman says. "It's wonderful to have an organization where women really do help other women."

By 1981, membership was at 160 and growing. To many, NYWIFT turned a corner with its inaugural Christmas luncheon, where the late film critic Pauline Kael was honored and 75% of the members attended.

"Everyone was all dressed up -- there was something so professional about it," Betancourt says. "I remember the feeling of, 'This is serious; this isn't just a bunch of women getting together and having a book club and calling it 'film.'"

Says current executive director Terry Lawler, "It put the organization on the map in terms of having a public face. It wasn't just a group that did professional development activities for the membership."

As membership continued to expand, luncheons took on greater significance for NYWIFT. More honorees meant having more attendees, which brought greater event status and publicity to the burgeoning industry force -- and more funds for its programs.

"By showing the good work women do, we can prove the point that the more work women can do in the industry, the more good work will be done," Lawler says.

With more money and greater recognition, NYWIFT spent the next two decades working from within, moving from living rooms to offices. The organization generated corporate sponsors for its intern/mentor program and expanded its workshops, screenings and seminars. The ball was rolling, with no signs of slowing: NYWIFT's first executive director, Gail Harper, was hired in 1988 and formalized much of what had been haphazard organization practices. She was followed by Phyllis Schwartz, who, Herold says, "helped us re-create the look of the organization. She helped us understand long-term sustainability issues and helped us think of ourselves as an educational entity."

NYWIFT had been that from the start, but Herold notes that not everyone thought that way.

"We thought if we saw ourselves solely as educational that we were implying there were things we didn't know," she says. "But Phyllis said, 'Wait a minute; this is interesting to foundations and companies that want to help women.'"

Slowly, the place held by industry women changed -- as did the perception of NYWIFT's necessity.

"We were really a support system for one another when support was really needed," Donohue says. "That support is less necessary now in the employment environment we live in, but it's always good to know as many people as you can in the business."

That is a valid point, but as the organization recognized three years ago, not every aspect of the industry is equitable when it comes to gender. In 2000, NYWIFT began a below-the-line gathering, sponsored by Kodak.

"We were so dominated by producers, actors, directors and writers that we wanted to be more representative of all of the women in the business," says Lawler, who is frustrated by an industrywide lack of female directors and cinematographers. "There seems to be not even a glass ceiling but a glass wall in that area."

Lawler says the fact that women are better-represented in the industry should not permit complacency -- and that is an issue with which NYWIFT is struggling.

"One of the biggest hurdles is to make people in the industry aware that there is still inequity," she says. "You hear from various people that there's this sense that women have achieved equity, and that's just not true."

Lawler has witnessed the changes that have occurred since 1978 but says the pace has plateaued during the past decade.

"It's very static now," she says. "The challenge is to find how to nudge the whole industry out of that place so there's a real commitment to creating more opportunities for women on every level."

As NYWIFT delves into more subtle means by which parity can be achieved, the organization is looking over its shoulder: An archive project is in the works to create video documents of members' experiences during the past 25 years in the field.

"We hope eventually to put this information online so it will be useful for people considering careers and to high school students, so that if someone is wondering what it is like to be a film editor or video person, (they) can go to the NYWIFT site and see a streamed interview," board president Marcie Setlow says. "It will be useful for future generations."

A women's film preservation fund also has been established to restore and preserve works in which women played a major part. "Very few women know about the early contributions of women," Lawler says. "We're trying to make available this work so young women coming into the field can see there's this whole history of women contributing."

Which makes a nice circle for NYWIFT, an organization that clearly has no intention of slowing down. The irony, of course, is that the closer NYWIFT gets to its ultimate goal of industry equity, the less necessary it is perceived as being.

"A goal would be to make advocacy work not necessary anymore," Lawler says. "But even if there were 50% women in every occupation in the industry, women would still want an organization where they could get together and support each other in their careers -- that's just what women like to do."

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