Manitoba·Opinion

Women generally outnumbered in film industry – but not in Manitoba

Manitoba's film and television industry is dominated by women and have completely turned the tables on men when it comes to owning the major film companies, producing the biggest budget film and television productions, and running the organizations which lobby on behalf of the industry.
Women dominate Manitoba's film scene, says Winnipeg writer Don Marks. (iStock)

Women all over the world claim that they are under-represented in corporate board rooms and government bodies.  They say they are discriminated against when it comes to employment advancement, equal pay for equal work and other inequities, and they have a whack of surveys and statistics to back up their claims. 

The film industry is no different, except in Manitoba, where women have completely turned the tables on men when it comes to owning the major film companies, producing the biggest budget film and television productions and running the organizations which lobby on behalf of the industry.

Companies like Original Pictures/Kim Todd (Falcon Beach, Fargo), Buffalo Gals/Phyllis Laing (Less than Kind, Keyhole, Mad Ship) and Eagle Vision/Lisa Meeches (Sharing Circle, Indigenous Peoples Music Choice Awards, Capote) are all led by women.  Male success stories such as Frantic Films are vastly outnumbered.

Why Manitoba?

Why are women in Manitoba so successful in an industry that is so th​o​roughly dominated by men everywhere else in the world?

It helps that a woman has led the way since the provincial government recognized the potential​​ to create jobs that a thriving film industry could provide. 

In 1987, Manitoba established the Cultural Industries Development Office to provide seed money for local video and audio productions, training funds to develop a skilled lab​​o​u​r force, and incentives to attract outside productions that would employ these workers.

It wasn’t long before Carole Vivier was fronting a burgeoning industry that was dotting cityscapes and landscapes with trucks and trailers to carry the lighting and sound and sets for more productions year by year.

And it takes a lot more than a devalued dollar and tax breaks to make Manitoba more appealing than other North American centres. Vivier was tireless in finding locations which showcased the uniqueness of this province,​ as well as its ability to stand in for other locales.

Vivier didn’t show favo​u​ritism toward women.  It was a man, Derek Mazur, who was making most of the early noise with the Credo Group, which produced major Canadian films like The Diviners.

Fortunately for women, Derek didn’t show favo​u​ritism (or male chauvinism) either.

As Phyllis Laing of Buffalo Gals says: “Derek didn’t treat women as little girl ‘go-fers’.  He provided challenges and allowed the women around him to take on huge responsibilities.” 

Then again, Merit Jensen of Merit Motion Pictures is quick to point out that a woman, Joan Scott, played just as large a role in the success of Credo as Mazur did.

Old girls' club

More important is the simple fact that women tend to hang around with other women and “you read the room,” says Vivier. The concept of “networking” that the "old boys club" has used so well was bringing women together to share experience and expertise, contacts and resources in an “old girl’s club” (Laing’s words, not mine).

It basically gets down to opportunity. The way the film industry has developed in Manitoba has provided the right kind of opportunities for women​ and they have run with them.

Jensen offers the most human example of that.

“My lifestyle demanded that I create my own company because with a new baby in tow, I had to control my schedule and my responsibilities,” says the head of Manitoba’s leading production house for documentaries.

Laing points out th​e​ inherent skills and interests that women tend to have are most suited to the role of producer or show runner.

We all benefit from the pioneer spirit of the prairies, but I think in Manitoba, there were women like Nellie McClung and it has just carried on from there.- Carole Vivier

“Women like to organize things and the situation in Manitoba provided opportunities for women to apply their natural abilities,” says Laing.

Still, there has to be something in the water for so many women to break through and so th​o​roughly dominate here​,​ while exceptions to the rule like Sherry Lansing and Oprah Winfrey remain few and far between elsewhere.

“We all benefit from the pioneer spirit of the prairies, but I think in Manitoba, there were women like Nellie McClung and it has just carried on from there,” says Vivier.

Those are very humble beginnings.  McClung rallied with Henrietta Edwards, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby and Louise McKinney in 192​7​ to form the “famous five” which ​eventually succeeded in enshrining the principle that women were “persons​"​ under the British North America Act​.​

Women have only been able to vote for half of this country’s history​,​ so those prairie ovaries went into overdrive to have a film five of Vivier, Todd, Laing, Meeches and Jensen so thoroughly dominate a male-dominated industry. 

It really says something when a culture​,​ which is as dominated by males as First Nations are​,​ has a woman (Meeches) leading the way.

The humble Meeches is quick to credit Eagle Vision producer Kyle Irving for luring “A list” actor, the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to Manitoba for the A-list production of Capote. 

Then, for one reason or another, we just have these “get up and go” gals in this province.

Nobody of either sex usually wants to run the political lobby group that holds endless meetings with bureaucrats to convince them of the merits of higher tax breaks to attract “runaway productions” rather than let them go to Alberta or Ontario. 

On Screen Manitoba, which took over for the Manitoba Motion Picture Industry Association, has a woman chairing its board and another female serving as its CEO.

Entrepreneurial women

Laing laughs when she recalls out-selling the neighbour​hood​ kids by offering a more unique refreshment stand.

“Every kid had a ​K​ool-Aid or lemonade stand,” says Laing.  “I sold my dad’s beer at ​six​ cents a glass.”

And finally, you cannot discount the positive effects that role models provide for those who would follow their lead. As Laing recalls, she became extremely motivated to do well in her chosen profession when she saw long-time ​d​irector Norma Bailey being honoured with a “Best Director” award for Ikwe.

Norma was pregnant at the podium.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer who is sorry that space limitations caused him to leave out many women who are successful in their own right in the film industry, like Vonnie Von Helmolt, Lesley Oswald, Alexa Rosent​ret​er, Nicole Matiation, Coleen Rajotte and so many others.

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