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Donna Bunce, event sponsor Twyla Martin and dean Bob Bassett-1.As many of you know, I love Chapman University and support it through my work with Women of Chapman. Our support group has contributed more than $2 million to the university’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, which is considered one of the country’s top film schools. Always innovative, thanks to Dodge College’s creative Dean, Bob Bassett, Dodge has been hosting a Women in Focus conference for 14 years, and this year’s effort was especially interesting given that the focus was on women in comedy.

The day began with a lovely luncheon on Hirsch Sound Stage B at Dodge’s Marion Knott Studios, where the guest panelists joined young film students from Dodge and other Dodge supporters for a delicious lunch. Bassett, who holds the Twyla Reed Martin Dean’s Chair, introduced the ladies who underwrote the event, which included, of course, Twyla Reed Martin (also event chair), as well as Laurie Rodnick, Eve Kornyei Ruffatto, Harriet Sandhu, Adrienne Brandes, and Diana Martin.

Following lunch, everyone gathered for the panel discussion in the 500-seat Folino Theater, which was also packed with Dodge film students. Billed as “building a dialogue between emerging and established women in the film industry,” I thought it was great that four Dodge College Master of Fine Arts students were honored for their work. Let me take a moment to acknowledge them. Film Production major Shayna Cohen, ’14 received the Meredith MacRae Memorial Award from Women in Film, Los Angeles; Film Production major Meredith Hicks, ’14 won The Zonta Club of Newport Harbor Award; Cinematographer Julie Ann Paholio, ’14 received her honor from the Eastman Kodak Company’s Entertainment Imaging Division; and Film and Television Producing major Alexis Stathis, ’15 was honored with the Excellence in Production Award from Entertainment Partners.

The distinctive panel of women were a mix of producers, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers, screenwriters, choreographers, and even a studio head. Dawn Taubin, known for her successful career in entertainment marketing and public relations, who is currently a Dodge College Professor of Public Relations and Advertising, moderated the panel. Donna Langley, Co-Chairman of Universal Pictures, which had the highest grossing year at the worldwide box office in the company’s 100-year history in 2012 under her leadership, shared her story in making Mama Mia. “No one thought it was a good idea, but I was convinced it was a movie I wanted to see,” she said. Langley’s point was, “Even when people tell you you’re nuts and you have a passion for it, go for it!”

As to sexism in the industry, Anne Fletcher, who has proven herself a master at directing comedy (The Proposal, 27 Dresses) and at choreographing numerous successful films (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Hairspray, Boogie Nights), said, “Sexism is going away.” To which Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World, Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals) quipped, “If being civil doesn’t work, let the air out of their tires!” Diablo Cody, who won a WGA Award, an Independent Spirit Award and the Oscar for  Best Original Screenplay for her film Juno, advised, “A lot of women’s stories haven’t been told, so when you’re pitching your story, be the strongest person in the room.”

Dealing with mega stars, such as Jack Nicholson, was discussed by Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, It’s Complicated, Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride). She said Jack had never been directed by a woman, and it was war in the beginning on the set of Something’s Gotta Give. “I had to stand up to him, and he became a good friend,” she said. “He has never called me Nancy. He calls me ‘Chief.'” As to being pigeon holed for doing certain films, Spheeris joked, “I’m queen of the pigeon hole. After doing Wayne’s World, I couldn’t do any other film. I was this girl from a trailer park!” When Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live fame and more recently as a star in Bridesmaids, was asked when she knew she had made it, she quipped, “When David Letterman introduced me as ‘Mia’ on his show.” Meyers summed up the panel discussion by saying, “Remember, you have a story to tell as a woman.”

Selected photos: Michael Munson