Gwen Marcus’ first love was the theater. The self-proclaimed “theater geek” performed in school plays and attended performing arts camps as a young girl. As much as she loved theater, Marcus says she realized early on that she didn’t possess the natural talent necessary to succeed in the industry as a performer (or, she adds, as a waitress). Rather than giving up on her passion, Marcus refocused and decided to work as an executive in an entertainment company.
Marcus’ father, reflecting on the more sexist times of the 1960s, cautioned her that she would need to enter the business world at a fairly high level. As a lawyer who had successfully made the transition to business, he suggested that she attend law school. That became The Plan: to leverage a law degree into a corporate career within an entertainment company.
The Plan was strategic. As an undergraduate, Marcus attended Brandeis University, where she studied Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, an interest she had developed in high school. While Marcus saw college as her last chance to study something completely unrelated to law, she also knew law schools valued diverse academic backgrounds. The Plan paid off, and Marcus enrolled at New York University School of Law (chosen for its reputable entertainment law department) immediately after earning her bachelor’s degree.
In fact, there was only one kink in The Plan–somewhere along the way, Marcus realized she really liked being a lawyer.
Q: How did your career begin after graduating from law school?
A: I got a position as a summer associate at the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison because they had a very well-regarded entertainment department. I was very much a squeaky wheel and made my preferences known, and I was hopeful that I would get lots of assignments in the entertainment area. They asked me back as a full-time associate after I graduated from law school, and I got a position in the entertainment department. I was there for three years.
Q: How did you make the transition in-house?
A: I’d always heard that you should start looking outside between three and five years out. I was friends with someone who was engaged to be married to Showtime’s first general counsel. It was a brand-new department at Showtime, and he had this position for someone to come in as a No. 2 in a department of two, and he asked her, his then-fiancee, “Do you know anybody?” And she recommended me. I think the moral to the story is: Be nice to everybody, because you never know from whom you’re going to get your 30-year career.
Q: How did your career progress at Showtime?
A: In-house, being No. 2 in a brand-new department of two, you have to basically do anything and everything that comes your way. It was a wonderful opportunity to basically learn everything from A to Z about our company. So when our then-general counsel moved on, I was very well-equipped to move into the top spot, which I did essentially five years out of law school.
Q: You’re co-chair at the Gay Center. Can you tell me how you got involved and about the work you do there?
A: At one point at Showtime, we very much focused on programming to underserved audiences. For many years we had films that had LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] scenes and focus and characters, and then we of course made a huge splash with Queer as Folk and The L Word. I think that, because of my involvement in those shows and because of Showtime’s tremendous commitment to inclusiveness and diversity, the New York City LGBT Community Center reached out to me and wanted to work with Showtime. They gave me their corporate leader award in 2006, and through that experience, I got to know the tremendous work that they do and got more and more involved.
Q: How has identifying as gay shaped your work at Showtime?
A: Obviously, I’m a lawyer, so I don’t decide what programs to greenlight, but being part of senior management and being a lesbian and out at the time, our then-head of programming did talk to me and wanted to make sure, as did our CEO, frankly, that our initial forays into the LGBT area would be well-received. It took a lot of courage, at the time, to come out with something like Queer as Folk when we did. This was well before LOGO and well before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and we were really quite pioneering at that time.
When I started at Showtime, it was the early ’80s, and I was closeted at work. When you think back to a situation where a young lawyer was afraid of revealing who she was to where we are now, it’s quite remarkable. In a large part, that had to do with Showtime’s corporate culture, and in a large part it had to do with our programming. Those changes are really quite dramatic, and to the extent that I played a part in that, I’m very proud.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: There’s a deep connection between the personal and the professional. It’s not just the LGBT stuff, but it’s also my theater background and how we, at Showtime, work on deals that result in programming that matters. I can’t tell you how proud it makes me when we have programming on the air that advances the causes
of civil rights and First Amendment rights. It just makes what we do that much more meaningful.
Q: What’s your proudest moment?
A: A couple of years ago, I was honored by Multichannel News. Typically, the women who give these wonderful speeches appropriately thank their husbands and their families. It was quite a thrill when I was able to give that same speech in 2009 and also say in that room of hundreds of cable executives, as everyone was able to do before me, that I too would like to thank my spouse.
My speech was interrupted by tremendously warm, heartfelt applause, and I grinned from ear to ear and thought to myself, “My, how far we have come,” because that is not a speech I would have given when I started my career.
Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would your dream job be?
A: I would want to be a conductor of Broadway musicals. I started conducting on an amateur basis in high school, and I honed my skills in the privacy of my boudoir. A few years back, there was a charity auction for the Actor’s Fund. Unbeknownst to me, my partner had bid on this charity auction, and it was to conduct the exit music of one of my favorite Broadway musicals, “9.” I just could not believe that sort of dream came true.