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Notes from the Field: Women Media Makers on Succeeding in the Industry

five women panelists
Strategizing Your Creative Future panelists. Left to right, moderator Julia Halperin, Nicole Dorsey, Germaine Franco, Linda Reisman, and Maryam Keshavarz. Photo/Erin Clossey

By Erin Clossey

Four years ago, Visual and Media Arts Professor CristinaKotz Cornejo told the audience at the first Women in Film/Media Summit that over the previous 17 years, the number of women directing the top 250 grossing films had declined by 2 percent, according to a San Diego State University study.

This year’s report shows the number of women directors working on the top 250 films declined by 3 percentage points – from 11 to 8 percent – from 2017 to 2018. According to USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative Report, out of 1,223 directors, just eight are women of color.

“So, without significant change in the gatekeepers who wield the power of access, real change won’t happen,” Cornejo said at the second Women in Film/Media Summit, held November 18 at the Paramount Center. “Today is that time to engage with our panelists, and their testament to defying the odds.”

In the Summit’s opening conversation, moderated by Assistant Professor Julia Halperin four women filmmakers talked about Strategizing Your Creative future. Below are 13 ideas for succeeding in film/TV/media.

Lean on your squad

Maryam Keshavarz, writer/director: I’ve been really lucky. It’s kind of happened organically, but there’s a bunch of women directors that either we were at the festivals together or whatever … There’s not that many of us that continue to work, on the feature level at least, and it’s been so amazing just, we ask each other all the time, ‘What do you think about this person?’ or ‘We’re looking at this piece,’ and every aspect from crew, company, to childcare, to ‘How do you do this? I’m going to lose my mind.’ And we get together informally and it’s kind of grown over the last couple of years.

Seek out mentors, and be willing to learn from them

Germaine Franco, composer: “I think you should look at all of your relationships, whether it’s through school, or friends and family, and see who you might approach. I approached [composer] John Powell, who’s a Brit, and I met him years ago through my brother, who’s an artist… We had this lovely relationship, and [my brother] said to me, ‘You really need to ask John,’ because he’d been working with him in London, ‘ask him to work with him.’ ….

I didn’t ask him for a job, I just said, ‘May I learn from you?’ And we sat down, and he was in the middle of The Italian Job, and literally, it was sink or swim. There was no time to instruct me on how to fit into the music production team. I would just look around and see what needed to be done, and I would do that. I would constantly say, ‘What does John need so that he can write? What can I do for him that makes his job so he’s focusing on creating?’

And I think that’s important. [O]nce you’re in the door, you have to really, really be grateful and acknowledge that it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Basically, my motto was, ‘Make Myself Useful,’ whatever that might be.

Better yet, find a mentor and a champion

Nicole Dorsey, writer/director: I think Michael Solomon, my producer on Black Conflux, definitely was both a champion and a collaborator. Obviously, he produced the film, so we’ve been working together for a while. But … I made the film back in Canada, and we have government funding [that] I was lucky enough to receive. The next stage of funding, which was regional funding, which was a step up than usually first features receive, I think that was a big part due to him. He brought a certain level that was able to support me to then go and get that funding. I don’t think I would be here without him going on my behalf and convincing people that I have the ability to make this film, that they should invest in me.

So, of course, it’s really, really important and valuable to have the people that you can communicate with, and learn from their experiences, and who support you and you can call. And I have been lucky enough to have those people in my life. But it took many, many years to find that person who would actually go to bat for me, and would put their name beside my name in that way. It’s not easy to … find that champion, but I think it’s a large part of the process in getting to that next level.

Festival labs: Great resources, if you can get in

Germaine Franco: I’m part of a music and sound design lab that’s for composers. There are so many labs. I just got an email two days ago about all their initiatives for people of color and women, and it was an endless page, so there’s so much support. You have to gather your work and get some response for the music and sound design lab, but you get to go to Skywalker Ranch and get a studio, record with an orchestra.

But it’s not just that. Sundance, really, truly, I think, opens the doors to people of all countries, religions, an array of people, and I know it’s difficult to get in, but … apply for the labs. … I know it’s tiring but you can’t give up.

If you don’t get in the first (or second, or fifth) time, keep trying

Nicole Dorsey: I had applied to the Toronto International Film Festival. I applied so many times I reached the limit on how many times you’re allowed to be rejected. And my film was playing, and the programmer urged me to apply again, which I guess technically I wasn’t allowed to, and I got in. So, you just keep going, really.

If you don’t get in, it’s not the end of the world

Linda Reisman, creative producer/Emerson distinguished producer-in-residence: I don’t know, there’s this idea that Sundance is the gold star. I know plenty of filmmakers that have made amazing films that have not shown at Sundance, didn’t get in, or people who haven’t gotten into the labs, so I think it’s also about how you keep going and boost yourself as a filmmaker and find other avenues for your work.

It can be hard to know when it’s time to drop a project and move on to something else

Linda Reisman: I think it’s a gut instinct on material. … Certainly, when you’re a producer, you have to be juggling a lot of different projects, and they’re in different stages. Maybe something’s being written, maybe something needs casting, maybe you’re looking for a writer – but they go in and out of focus depending on where they are.

I think for one or a couple of things that I’ve given up, I just felt that the time has come. I don’t think there’s a black and white prescription for this. I wish there were, because I tend to be usually in the 10-year range of getting things made.

Some projects you believe in never get made, the point is to keep writing

Maryam Keshavarz: After my first film, I had written a bunch of scripts that I was really passionate about, and got close, and [they] didn’t get made, and I was actually waiting on an actress for this other script that I was convinced was going to happen. She was doing a Netflix show, and it just kept getting delayed, there’s reshoots.

[A]n old college friend of mine … he did a lot of music theatre, he had come to LA and his show had gotten canceled. I said, ‘Hey, I have this idea for a script.’ We just wrote this script, literally in a couple of weeks, whereas other stuff took years. And I showed it to my agent, he’s like, ‘I want to send it to this actress.’ Literally, that film got made within a few months of writing the first draft, where the ones you were convinced that’s your baby … you just don’t know. … I think you have to keep writing ….

… Keep writing so you’ll be ready for anything

Nicole Dorsey: Always have a slate of projects ready at all times because you never know who you’re going to meet or what’s going to be required at any point in time.

Even recently, there was a company who had seen my feature and they had some development money they needed to use by the end of the year. They asked if I had anything genre, which I didn’t, but I made it up overnight, and I pitched it, and we got development money for it.

So, I think you never know which opportunity might come. Having four or five, whatever many projects at some stage is really helpful to have, so that you’re ready to seize an opportunity.

The industry will try to define you. Define yourself

Maryam Keshavarz: Typically, when you meet with agents they want to know what you’re about. They want to know your path. It’s almost like they have to be able to pitch you as X, Y, and Z…. It’s this thing where you have to be packaged and marketed to different companies, and it’s the antithesis, in many ways, if you consider yourself an artist, because you’d like to think every project’s unique… That’s how they position you.

But it’s also your job to realize that you don’t have to do that. It’s on us as writers and directors to kind of push ourselves, move beyond what we think we are. I’ve always done dramas and now I’m doing comedy, because why the hell not? … I think as artists we have to sort of fight against that system, even though we’re part of that system, to find new things that interest us.

Don’t be afraid to defy expectations

Germaine Franco: There’s also the cultural element. When you’re a person of color, they that that, ‘Oh, that person is a Latina, so she must only write Latin music.” Whereas if you’re a British composer, no one ever says, ‘Oh they only write Handel, The Crown.’

I recently did a film called Tag, which was a bro comedy, and I actually had a very successful composer who was a colleague come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god, Germaine, you wrote a score about guys. How was that for you?’ … Yet the males have been writing music about dramas from the female perspective. So I think we have to be careful to say that a person is a human being and we bring our culture, we bring our heritage and our belief system, but those barriers are kind of marketing things.

The industry is changing, and that’s good

Linda Reisman: I grew up making films that were distributed theatrically in movie theaters, and I think that that process is becoming harder and harder and more obsolete. So as a producer, I have to really look at every project and figure out what is the best platform.

I’m all for streaming. I think this is the future. This is where we are now. There are so many opportunities for original content well beyond Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, Peacock, Disney +. I think, coming from a more traditional model, I am thinking more and more about distribution and what makes sense, and focusing a bit more on limited series.

Nicole Dorsey: I think it’s a really exciting time, because there are so many different platforms which your work can go on. Obviously, we have all these streaming services, but [virtual reality] is changing rapidly, and especially when you get into doing … digital location scouting and video walls, which I’ve been looking more into for a project. Or even The Irishman that’s come out, what they’ve done on that project with real-time rendering, can really change how you create something from the start. I find all that super fascinating. Even now, I just read a graphic novel that’s going to be a podcast, so I think I’m going to be directing a podcast and using that as a launch pad for a series.

Take care of yourself

Germaine Franco: If you can make yourself exercise every day, or a couple of times a week, that will help you relieve the stress, because there’s a lot of stress, not just from sitting at the computer … but there’s a lot of mental energy that you spend, so you have to find ways to relax your physical and mental spirit.

And eating right. I had an assistant that was working with me, and he wasn’t eating well, and he got ill. I feel like you need to make sure you have good nutrition. I know that sounds basic, but we live on Power Bars and drinking lots of coffee all day, and it does affect your body.

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