Woman Levy, Sandra

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Director and Producer

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Sandra Levy has been described as one of Australia's most significant contributors in the area of film and television in the last thirty years. She was appointed as CEO of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in mid 2007 following on from her roles as Head of Drama at Zapruder's Other Films (2007), Director of Development at Channel 9 (2006), Director of Television at the ABC (2001 - 2005), Head of Drama at Southern Star (1989 - 2000) and Head of Drama at the ABC (1986 - 1989). As well as being a successful television and feature film producer, she has been a board member of several significant arts and screen organisations including the Australian Film Finance Corporation, the Australian Film Commission, the Australian Film Television and Radio School and Deputy Chair of the Sydney Theatre Company She is currently a board member of the St James Ethics Centre and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Macquarie University in 2010.

Levy was born in Sydney, to Jewish, communist parents from whom she inherited a love of the arts and a capacity for intellectual jousting. 'My father was a very rigorous thinker,' she says, 'and I learnt a lot about debating and holding my opinion against the weight of his opinion' (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 2004). These skills and characteristics held her in good stead for the development of her career; her strength of resolve is renowned in the industry. When former business partner at Southern Star was asked in 2004 to describe her he offered, 'a single word: determined' (SMH, 4 December 2004).

She studied English literature at the University of Sydney but admits to being a very poor student who was easily distracted by life off campus. A fringe member of the bohemian collective 'The Push', she was radical in political outlook and belonged to an anarchist cell. 'If you've got left-wing parents, it's very hard to rebel against them adequately, so you have to go further' (SMH, 4 December 2004). She eventually graduated with a BA and a Dip Ed but did not last long as a teacher leaving to start as an ABC trainee where she fell in love with script editing and producing. 'It was like all the skills I had, all of the interest I had in ideas, and in the literary, intellectual, political and creative interests came together' (SMH, 4 December 2004). Her first production job was in ABC-TV Education, creating programs with and for children. She claims that no-one in the organisation really paid much attention to what she was doing. 'We taught ourselves and learned from each other … I began friendships with people like Jan Chapman which have lasted through my life' (Hogan, p. 168).

Levy was one of several women at the ABC who used the symbolism of International Women's Year in 1975 to lobby for radio and television programs that reflected the concerns of women and also created work opportunities for them. 'We set up a women's unit and decided to celebrate it in a serious way' (Hogan, p. 172). They wanted to create a series of programs staffed and run by women about women's issues, but management refused. At the end of the year, she and Aviva Zeigler went to lobby the ABC-TV head of features, Geoff Daniels, and stated their case for making a documentary about what had happened during International Women's Year. A fifty minute special was approved and Year Without End was made. Importantly for Levy's career, she made a good impression upon Daniels. He was appointed Head of Drama, and he gave her a job in the department in 1977.

Having gained valuable experience and worked her way up to the Executive Producer role Levy decided to leave the ABC in 1981. She was married, had a baby and the 10BA tax concession environment created an environment that encouraged independent production. She oversaw some successful productions involving significant women in the industry; High Tide, with Judy Davis, Claudia Karvan and Gillian Armstrong being key. In 1986 ABC TV, with a charter to increase Australian drama production by over 300% asked her to come back as Head of Drama. 'I couldn't turn it down'(Hogan, p. 170), she said, although when she returned, the first thing she discovered was that funding did not increase commensurately. Despite that, and because of her ability to think imaginatively, she presided over a period of high volume local production. Come in Spinner, GP, True Believers and Police Rescue (The telemovie) are examples of the high quality content ABC drama produced. 'It was a big slate'. (Hogan, p. 170).

Levy left the ABC again to work at Southern Star (1989 - 2000). She returned to the national broadcaster in 2001 as Head of Television. Some have suggested that she was a divisive figure in this role; she was called 'the dragon lady' by those who disliked her. 'She is much admired, much feared and has a talent for making enemies,' says one ex-colleague. 'I've never seen anyone able to fillet you quietly the way Sandra Levy can,' says another. (Simons) Her success, however, at attracting people back to watching ABC-TV was indisputable as the ratings showed. But did she denude the news and current affairs departments in order to achieve this? Her critics claim she did.

Levy left the ABC in 2005 and moved through commercial television station Channel 9 and independent production company Zapruder's Other Films before her appointment as CEO of AFTRS in 2007. She was reappointed in 2010, according to then Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, because of her 'strong leadership credentials' (Cowie).

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • 'Sandra Levy', in Hogan, Christine (ed.), Look at Me! : behind the scenes of Australian TV with the women who made it : 50 years, ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 2006, pp. 166-73. Details

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