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'A Force for Good’: Legal Eagle Marcus Guides Showtime

Showtime’s Gwen Marcus is one of the cable industry’s most well respected attorneys, but she didn’t go to law school to be a lawyer. She wanted to be an executive in the entertainment business.

“I used to go to work with my dad — who I’d have to say was my premiere mentor — and his office was next door to what was then the Warner Communications building,” Marcus said. “I told him I wanted to work in that building. He told me there were two ways to do that — go in as a lawyer or as a secretary. In those days, it was harder to move up the ladder as a secretary, so I went to law school.”

After graduating from New York University School of Law in 1981, Marcus went to work for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison specializing in theater law. Three years later, her friend’s fiancé was looking for someone to work with him at a fledgling cable network. The attorney needed a No. 2 lawyer in a two-person department at Showtime. She interviewed for the job and was immediately hired. She has been with the programmer ever since.

Ironically, the friend didn’t marry Marcus’s boss and he wasn’t with the company long. Within three years, Marcus was running Showtime’s legal department. She also oversees human resources and administration, but her influence goes far beyond those realms. Indeed, no critical decisions are made without her input, said Showtime CEO Matt Blank.

“People respect Gwen and they like working with and for her,” Blank said. “But she also has a strong business sense and she knows how the business works. She is great at helping bring people together and she’s not afraid to step in when there is something to be done.”

She is also not afraid of expressing her opinions and ideas, and Blank welcomes the input. Marcus’s involvement in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community has been instrumental in helping Showtime create and launch groundbreaking series such as Queer as Folk and The L Word. She has also helped shape the company’s benefits packages to be more inclusive over the years.

“Even before I came out [as a lesbian], I’d look at the employee handbooks and I’d point out that the benefits used terms such as 'spouse’ and 'marriage’ and I knew they weren’t inclusive enough for our employee base,” said Marcus, noting that she received significant support from Tony Cox (Showtime’s first CEO) and Blank in making changes to the language and the benefits themselves.

“Neither Tony nor Matt were satisfied with me having a narrow role at the company,” Marcus said. “They encouraged and required me to get involved. Tony put my office next door to his, and it remains there today. And Matt broadened my responsibilities to include HR, operations and programming. They were both instrumental in helping me learn about the business. But they also taught me about the importance of interpersonal skills and a sense of humor. When I give advice to young people coming up in the industry, I tell them to be fun and be someone other people want to be in the room with.”

Blank said Marcus follows that advice herself. “She is really funny and fun to be around,” he said.

Marcus says she loves her job and can’t really imagine doing anything else. But she also has a great love of the theater, and her partner recently helped her fulfill her dream of conducting the orchestra of a Broadway musical. “I studied conducting in high school and I used to fantasize about conducting a Broadway play. But I never really thought I would ever do it,” Marcus said. “Nine is my favorite musical and my partner bought for me at a charity event the opportunity to conduct the closing music during a performance. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

When it comes to Showtime’s programming, Marcus likes “to think I am a bit of a role model for Matt [Blank]. When we launched Queer as Folk, we knew it wouldn’t sit well with everyone. But Matt was courageous in tackling these subjects. We didn’t want to offend anyone — straight or GLBT. I was the sounding board and served as a resource of sorts. And my involvement has continued with shows like The L Word. I helped Introduce the production folks to people who had insights into that community and lifestyle.”

Blank credits Marcus with helping shape the network’s inclusive environment, as well as its HIV/AIDS advocacy. And she has used her position and contacts to raise money and HIV/AIDS awareness in her community, as well as the cable industry. Steve Villano, president of Cable Positive, said Marcus has been a tireless supporter of the organization. Cable Positive awarded Marcus with its Brad Wojcoski Memorial Award in 2002.

“Gwen is a force for good,” Villano said. “The culture at Showtime has always been supportive of Cable Positive and our mission, and I credit Gwen with much of that.”

Marcus is a board member of the Theatre Development Fund, and the LGBT Community Center of New York, which awarded her with its Corporate Leader Award in 2006. She has also been recognized by numerous organizations, including the Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the YWCA of the City of New York (which named her a Woman Achiever in 1999) and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (for which she served as co-chair of its New York Leadership Council).