Dawn Steel rose to the top of a Hollywood studio, but heck, did she have some battles: we chart the life and times of a Hollywood one-off.
When Dawn Steel passed away at the age of just 51, the obituaries were pretty much in line. She was a trailblazer. She did a fair amount of damage to the glass ceiling. She had amazing hair. As Amy Pascal, one-time head of Sony Pictures once told me, “she was magnificent … I just looked at her and said I just want to be her.”
Pascal wasn’t alone. When she landed the job of Columbia Pictures president in 1987, Steel became the first female overall head of a major Hollywood studio. It was only a two-year stint in the role in the end, for reasons I’ll come to, but the ramifications of her work and impact live on today. Heck, did she have to battle, though.
Steel was born in New York in August 1946, and by the time she was in her early 20s she’d landed a job working in sports publishing, penning pieces about baseball and American football. As she wrote in her own memoir, “girls who had played with dolls might have been intimidated working in sports publishing. Not me.”
She started as a receptionist, but from the off knew that she didn’t want to follow the ladder to the secretary job that many women at the company were left to aspire to. No, she wanted to meet athletes. She wanted to write. And that’s exactly what she did.
She was sent on assignment to cover a New York Giants baseball game taking place at Yankee Stadium, and was turned away at the door – in spite of having the correct press credentials – “because you’re a girl”. She dug in, as did the press team. In the late 60s, women weren’t being let into the press box at Yankee Stadium, and in the end they gave her a seat in an “auxiliary press box” instead. “The guys in charge learned that some girls fight back,” Steel wrote. “I learned not to take no for an answer.”
Her career soon soared. Within a year, she was the first-ever merchandising director for Penthouse magazine (something she wrestled with), and by the mid-70s she’d set up her own merchandise firm. Notably, she attracted the ire of Gucci when she released loo roll with its logo on. The subsequent court case was settled out of court, but brought her a lot of attention. She was hired as a merchandise consultant to Playboy a few years later.
But here’s where she made the jump to the movies.
In 1978, Paramount Pictures was one of many studios in transition. The traditional moguls of Hollywood old were in decline, and the 70s had ushered in independently spirited maverick filmmakers such as Hal Ashby, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount in many ways was ahead of the industry in embracing them, and Steel was hired to be the studio’s Director of Merchandising and Licensing in 1978.
Her first job? Planning the marketing tie-ins for the then in production Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Different times, but this was a small division she oversaw, with the likes of merchandising pretty much off the rest of the studio’s radar.
The movie was troubled, and that meant she had no footage to show licensees as she attempted to persuade them to put the Trek logo on their products. She couldn’t even tell them a release date, given how over budget and schedule the film was going. She thus went lateral. At a time when this wasn’t commonplace, she corralled the stars of the film together for a showcase event.
It was some show. Laser effects, fast-moving patter, audience involvement, stars… the invited crowd of potential licensees were wowed. But unbeknownst to her, also in the crowd was studio movie president Michael Eisner and producer Don Simpson. They were impressed. Eisner called Steel into a meeting two days later and offered her the job of vice president of production for Paramount’s movies. By the time she left the studio in 1987, she’d been promoted to senior vice president of production and then president of production.
She was pivotal to the making of 1983’s Flashdance (along with aforementioned producer Simpson), and hits that she was involved in included Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, The Accused, The Untouchables and Fatal Attraction.
The Real Thing
Whilst she was building up her career, across town at Columbia Pictures, there were problems brewing.
The studio had been bought by Coca-Cola in 1982, and after some initial hits – notably 1984’s Ghostbusters – it started to accrue losses from its movie division. It turned to Oscar-winning British producer David Puttnam to head up the studio in 1986. His tenure remains infamous. Puttnam declared that he wasn’t looking to make tentpole movies so much, sought smaller productions, and was critical of the American system of movies.
This didn’t win him friends, and projects such as Ghostbusters II stalled because creatives didn’t want to work with him (amongst the stars who refused to work with him were Bill Murray, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman). He was removed from the position after a single year in post. From the outside looking in, he didn’t miss Hollywood, and Hollywood didn’t miss him.
But Columbia was in trouble. It had sunk to eighth place out of the nine major studios operating at the time, Coca-Cola was reassessing its involvement in the movie business, and Columbia needed a movie boss who could turn things around.
Meanwhile, at Paramount, Steel was about to find out just how brutal that business could be. In 1987, she gave birth to her daughter, Rebecca, and was planning a month of maternity leave before she returned to her desk. She never got the chance to go back. Whilst she was still in her hospital room after giving birth, filled with flowers from well wishers, she was handed a Variety article that effectively said she’s been replaced at Paramount. The studio had hired someone to do much of her work, even if it hadn’t removed her from post. But it made page one of Variety for a reason. The rest of the town knew she was effectively out.
She would agree a production deal with Paramount to become an independent producer. But it was short-lived, because in October 1987 she became the first woman to ever head up a Hollywood studio.
Steel’s tenure at Columbia Pictures was inevitably a challenging one. In the post-Puttnam era, instant savings needed to be made. The slate he’d left behind needed trimming, nd the studio needed some quick hits. Steel, thus, turned to two potential sequels. She quickly repaired relations with Bill Murray, and Ghostbusters II finally came together. Likewise, The Karate Kid III found a way forward, another project held back by the sequel-averse Puttnam.
These two films, whatever your take on them, were instant, required commercial projects, greenlit in large part to lift Columbia Pictures’s box-office fortunes. But that wasn’t all. Martin Scorsese called and asked her to unlock legal problems that were holding up a restoration of Lawrence Of Arabia. She made that happen, with Peter O’Toole hired to re-record dialogue that had faded as the classic movie’s negative had corroded. Films also made on her watch included Casualties Of War from Brian De Palma (starring Michael J Fox and Sean Penn), Postcards From The Edge, When Harry Met Sally, Awakenings, Flatliners and Look Who’s Talking.
She did this against the backdrop of a writer’s strike that made it tricky to get films moving. It was an impressive slate of projects. But it wasn’t enough to keep her in a job.
The seeds to her departure were actually sown before she’d arrived. Coca-Cola had been scorched by the movie industry and wanted out, at a time when Sony was looking to buy a film studio. It completed its acquisition in September 1989 and while she was asked to carry on, a new co-chairman, producer Jon Peters, was hired. Within days, it was clear that things weren’t going to work and that the writing – once again – was on the wall. Her exit was finally agreed and confirmed in January 1991, and she reignited her plan to be an independent producer. Her former bosses at Paramount – Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg – were now running movies at Disney. They offered her a production deal at the studio, and she took it. At the time, Disney was a studio that counted every penny, and under Katzenberg’s stewardship its live action output was moving away from paying for big movie stars.
Lessons had been learned from the costly 1990 tentpole, Dick Tracy, and Steel often found herself frustrated by the parameters at Disney in which she worked. Yet she knew how to put a deal together, and she was expert at pushing metaphorical boulders up hills. Plus, there was a project in her back pocket that she’d been pursuing for some time, and it felt ideal for Disney.
That said, the studio pushed back a little. Directors were vetoed, the budget was trimmed pretty much to the bone. But in December 1992, she was able to head off on location and shepherd Steel Pictures’ first production, Cool Runnings, to the screen. It would become Disney’s biggest live action hit in 1993, the same year she published her infamous memoir, They Can Kill You But They Can’t Eat You, which is where her quotes in this article are sourced from.
Steel would ultimately form Atlas Pictures a year or two later with her husband, producer Charles Roven, and they put together a slate of pictures including 12 Monkeys, Fallen and City Of Angels. But tragically, Steel wouldn’t live to see the final two films released. In April 1996, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, and would fight a near two-year battle against it. But ultimately, it caught up with her, and the world lost Dawn Steel in December 1997 at the age of just 51.
Over 20 years since the world lost her, the work of Dawn Steel still has impact. Her good friend, producer Lynda Obst, talked to the Los Angeles Times about the opportunities she opened up for women whilst she was in positions of Hollywood power. “I don’t think she did it for ideological reasons– she did it because they were talented,” Obst wrote. “She took a lot of heat for women taking power. Having power in Hollywood at that time made men uncomfortable.”
As the late, great Nora Ephron would also add, “she brought a lot of women to the table with her. She was not the kind of powerful woman who wanted to be the only woman in the room.”
Steel was certainly combative, and rubbed people up the wrong way regardless of gender. But she also fiercely backed her filmmakers, and enthused about projects. Director Rachel Talalay for one recalls a time going into Steel’s office to pitch the Tank Girl movie, a project that Steel ultimately passed on. But not before she’d leapt to her desk, stood on it and declared at the top of her voice “I am Tank Girl!”. That said, her reputation – loud and hot-tempered – was, she’d argue, blown out of proportion by the implicit misogyny then – and still, to a notable degree – existing within the Hollywood system.
Steel was survived by her husband and daughter, both of whom work in the movie industry. And she’s also survived by the impact of her work, the stories about her from the people who knew and worked with her, the high-profile trail she blazed.
As she wrote in the foreword to her memoir, hers is “a story of a woman who climbed the male ladder of success. A woman who learned that you cannot expect anyone to rescue or take care of you. This is about learning that the most important resource you have is you. And that you can find success, power and happiness… as a woman.”
And ultimately, that’s just what Dawn Steel did.
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