Cathy Schulman is an Oscar-winning producer. Her credits include “Crash,” “Bad Moms,” and “Darfur Now.” She is also dedicated to making certain women are represented fairly in the industry, spending nearly a decade as Women in Film's board president lobbying for gender parity, and launching the diversity-minded Welle Entertainment.

#WeFilm Q+A: Cathy Schulman

#WeFilm Q+A: Cathy Schulman

Cathy Schulman is an Oscar-winning producer. Her credits include “Crash,” “Bad Moms,” and “Darfur Now.” She is also dedicated to making certain women are represented fairly in the industry, spending nearly a decade as Women in Film's board president lobbying for gender parity, and launching the diversity-minded Welle Entertainment.

Great Big Story: What motivated you to become a filmmaker?

Cathy Schulman: My earliest memory of a feminist thought happened at 13 years old, and it coincided with the same moment I knew I wanted to tell stories. I could see that people were influenced by everything they saw on screen, and that women were nowhere to be found. That meant that everything we were seeing was through a male gaze, so how could our stories, stories about women and girls, be witnessed?

GBS: How was the first time you were on set?

CS: I walked onto a movie set for the first time exactly eight hours after I was hired to be a producer’s assistant. Before that, I had only been on theater sets. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but I saw a woman in charge. It was Kathryn Bigelow directing her second film, "Blue Steel." I thought, “I can do that,” but I didn’t work with another female filmmaker for decades after that—as much as I tried to.

GBS: You have had great success with films like "Crash," "The Illusionist" and "Bad Moms," but it also hasn’t come without hardship. How do you believe being a woman has influenced your journey?

CS: Throughout my career, I’ve felt like I’ve had to try twice as hard as men do, overcome oversized punishments for minor mistakes, and fight against presumptions that my career isn’t as important to me as a man’s career is presumably important to him. The hardest part of my emotional and intellectual journey has been to remain convinced about the quality of my own ideas and to remain kind in the face of anger and jealousy.

GBS: Does being a woman affect what projects you choose to work on?

CS: It does, more and more as I get older. I was initially able to separate my passion for stories that were directly meaningful to me, as a woman, from whatever I could get made, because back then no one wanted to make anything about or for woman. Now the industry’s comprehension that the majority audience for content is, in fact, women and girls, allows me to use the positive economic marketplace as the driver to find support for the projects I best relate to. From the beginning, I have focused on film about race and class, as well as gender and diversity.

GBS: As a producer for high-profile movies, do you feel there is an added pressure because you are a woman?

CS: I don’t feel any added pressures from being a woman, but I do feel there is a mythological presumption that blocks me from certain opportunities. I feel entirely capable, but men can be hesitant in trusting my ability to be responsible with money because of a widespread biased concept that I (and women in general) might get too busy “multi-tasking” as a mother, wife, sister, or daughter to remain focused on my work—and their money. If it’s true that multi-tasking is something women do better than men, which I actually think is a crutch for men rather than a scientific fact, then women would be better at their jobs due to their ability to multi-task! And men would make perfect movies that always make money because they presumably don’t multi-task. We know that isn’t true either.

GBS: While producing, have you ever been the only woman, or one of few women, on set?

CS: Yes, most of the time I was one of a few women on set. Overall, it never bothered me, but I did often feel like men treated me in an infantile fashion. For example, their lack of comfort having a female boss got translated into thinking it was “cute.” They would say patronizing things. Once a male crew member picked me up multiple times and swung me around in circles with my legs flailing like we sometimes do with little kids for fun. I asked him to stop, but he simply wouldn’t, and I finally I had to lodge a complaint because I simply couldn’t get out of his grasp. Another time, payroll was late. I was in my trailer in the middle of the night in Eastern Europe trying to solve the problem when three guys shook my trailer and knocked it on its side. It wasn’t until this year, when I finally made a film with almost all women on set, that I finally realized how stressful being the only or one of a few women on set had been. The main things that dissipated were competition and power games, and the main things I experienced were collaboration and compassion.

GBS: You had been told in the past, “Cathy, it sounds like you want a big boy deal,” by an industry male executive, after telling him how it’s been hard for you to make money despite being a producer in very successful projects. How does this reflect the current filmmaking industry?

CS: Yes, this happened recently, and frankly it surprised me more that someone would actually say that in today’s public and politically correct environment, rather than the fact that the conversation took place. At the time, I said, “I want to make what I deserve, and my success should determine that.” That fell on deaf ears. The thing is, as much as we’ve made progress waking people up to diversity, we haven’t mastered an inclusive environment at all. A woman and/or diverse person can get a job, but fair pay, fair treatment, and sharing in success are still obstacles on the horizon. Diverse hiring can easily be both superficial and tokenistic. The high stakes for inclusion in power and wealth are still entrenched in cronyism and controlled by the patriarchy.

GBS: From directors, to gaffers, to runners, there is a much lower number of females performing these jobs than men. Why do you think this is the case?

CS: This is a pipeline problem. Women can and will do any job men can do, but they need to know what jobs exist and have pathways to get there. There is a huge amount of trench digging and road building we need to do as activists to make way for the next generation of female artists and technicians in film and television. It starts in schools and requires mentorship, sponsorship, and care-taking along every step of the way. While strengthening these pipelines, we need to make culture change from the top down in every company and institution that can make decisions about what content to fund and who is hired to work on it.

GBS: What still has to change to level out the playing field between men and women in filmmaking?

CS: We need to have diverse decision-making tables at the very top so it becomes instinctual to make content that serves all audiences. Once we do that, opportunities and staffing will level out. This is very hard work though, because most industry boards and green light committees are not yet diverse, and worse, they are not inclusive for the diverse people who are slowly being invited to the party. Good ideas from diverse people get ignored and dismissed all the time.

GBS: You mentioned in the past that a producer’s job is about having problems, so you’ve had to start liking them so they would become enjoyable. How has this attitude shaped your career?

CS: This has been the key to both my survival and my success. It took me many years of stress over “problems” to finally realize that the bigger the problem, the more intricate the solution is. And when I forced myself to plow through complexities to solve obstacles, I experienced an immediate spike in intelligence, know-how, and self-confidence. Essentially, I’ve found that problems are the cogs that trigger my learning curve. As it regards gender equality in media, we will be in a much better place if we spend less time talking and speed up problem solving!

GBS: What advice would you give to a female filmmaker starting her career now?

CS: It is crucial that women acknowledge and use both their right and left brains. In today’s screen industries, success is very rare for people who don’t invest in understanding the nuances of the fast-changing business we’re in, as well as the creative side of things. Men have traditionally approached media employment this way, even though their level of business education and acumen coming in isn’t higher than their female contemporaries. It’s as if women found it “unseemly” to reveal their interest in making money. It’s crucial to be open and opinionated about this, because we have to make content with a positive return for its investors, and that gets harder and harder the more crowded the field becomes.

GBS: What’s one thing the general public could do today to help women in the industry?

CS: I am most excited about a project I’ve been working on called ReFrame. This industry-wide systemic change program has been designed to make lasting change for women, providing pathways to sustainable careers. Many films and television shows have embraced the ReFrame Stamp, which identifies content that has been made with gender balanced people behind the camera. Seeking out and supporting this content, as well as demanding the stamp be used by networks, studios, and streamers for all qualifying films and television shows is a great way for the general public to be active in selecting and demanding fairly made media content. The ReFrame Stamp can be found on the ReFrame site at reframeproject.org; the Women In Film Los Angeles site at womeninfilm.org/reframe and the IMDbPro site at IMDbPro.com/stamp.

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