22 Success Tips for Women Filmmakers in a Male-Dominated Industry

There’s been a lot of talk the past few years regarding the roles and opportunities for women in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter cited a San Diego State study on women in film that revealed that only 7% of the 250 top grossing films of 2016 were directed by women (who, in case you forgot, actually make up over half the population.) The conversation got a power boost two years ago when the “girl on fire” herself, Jennifer Lawrence, wrote an open letter addressing the wage gap from her male co-stars on “American Hustle” (despite the fact that at the time, her franchise films “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” made her arguably the biggest star on that project).

So what’s a girl to do to get ahead in this business?

I took an opportunity to speak with some women in the industry who have great insight into how you can make a name for yourself, progress in your career, and help to lessen the size of that gender gap. These tips and ideas might not outright shatter that proverbial glass ceiling, but they’ll put some cracks in it for sure.

Tema Staig, Women in Media

 

Tema Staig is a Production Designer, professor, and the Executive Director of Women In Media, a non-profit organization that facilitates the networking and hiring of women above and below the line in Hollywood. With over 80,000 social media followers, plus relationships and connections with women in various levels of the business, Tema is a respected “general” in the fight for gender parity in the film and television business. I had the opportunity to Skype with her in L.A. to get her insight on the topic. She starts us off with the first five tips.

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#1. Be humble, but take credit where credit is due.

“Don’t let anybody steal your credit. And this is very, very common. I found that occasionally when I’m production designing, I’ll come up with an idea, I’ll put it out there, the director will say ‘Ah. I don’t know. I don’t know.’ Then 30 minutes later the director will say, ‘Hey, I got this great idea.’ And then I will say [sarcastically], ‘Great idea!’ And he’ll look at me and say, ‘Oh, you thought of that already, huh?’ Tema laughs at the memory of the story.

“Be nice about it, but definitely take your credit. People will, whether they mean to or not, definitely take credit for your work.”

#2. Broaden your social circles.

Networking is a horrible thing, but you have to do it. It’s partly why we have Women in Media. We try to take the sting out of networking; a lot of people are really terrible at it. We have a method where people get up, they introduce themselves, what they do, and they give any wants and needs. Like, I may say, ‘Hi, my name is Tema and I do production design work and I’m looking for commercials.”

“People don’t cold hire people. They like to hire people whom they know—or people who are referred by people they know.”

I asked Tema if she felt it was necessary for a person to move to one of the coasts (i.e. Los Angeles or New York). I know from many other interviews I’ve conducted or seen myself, for some aspects of the industry, coastal living is advantageous. But as Tema will allude below, there are enough opportunities all over for women to take advantage of.

“We have our crew list, and people can put themselves on the crew list. And there’s a place for location. One thing you can do is find somebody in your area and see if they want to go to coffee.”

#3. Study your craft (and the craft of your colleagues).

“When you have down time, study, study, study, study. Keep up your skills. And when you go to seminars, you will meet more people too.”

This idea of studying and keeping your skillset sharp not only applies to whichever discipline you count as your primary job. Tema shares that it’s also important to learn the language and skills of various other disciplines.

“This is especially important if you’re going to become a director. It’s important that you can talk to your DP about focal length and angles and discuss what kind of camera you want to use. All of that stuff is important. And that’s important as a production designer as well. And people do respect you more if you know the technical language. The more you know about your position and technical sides of other technical positions, the better off you’ll be. It’s really good to understand how other people operate so you can be helpful to each other, or keep out of their way for that matter.”

This is one tip of Tema’s that I think is particularly important for women in the industry. Let’s face it, we men can tend to think we know it all (#mansplaining). When you’re working with other men (particularly in technical fields) and you know their stuff as well as your own, it not only increases the amount of respect you receive, but it guards against the pride and overconfidence of those that work with you who might be tempted to think they know more than you.

#4. Join social media and online groups.

“Join any lists or groups, whether they’re on Facebook, or Listserves or sites like Film Powered [a networking and skill-sharing site for women in the industry].  I also recommend The WIMPS [Women in Moving Pictures Salon] List on Facebook, put together by Emily Best of seed&spark. Edge, which is geared towards women making genre films. That’s a wonderful group.”

#5. Attend and engage at film festivals.

“I recommend going to festivals, especially if you are involved in any capacity on any project at the festival. Whether it’s a short film or a feature.  If you’re a PA, if you’re the director, if you’re the DP; if you’re anything in any form of the crew, I recommend going when your films are screening. You will make really good connections. And don’t be shy if they have a Q&A. If you’re one of the department heads or creative members, they may be interested in having you up there; or they may have you stand up to be recognized before the Q&A, or during the Q&A. And that’s a great way for people to get to know you as well.”

Julie Harris Walker, The Herstory of Hollywood Podcast

 

Think like a boy.  Be fearless. Dream bigger.

Julie is an experienced producer and the sales and marketing VP for Entertainment Partners, a leading entertainment production software and payroll accounting firm. She’s also host and producer of the podcast “The Herstory of Hollywood.” I reached out to Julie for her input on this topic, and this is what she had to say.

#6. Don’t wait for all of your qualifications. Jump In!

“As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg mentions in her wildly popular 2010 TED talk, men tend to jump in if they have a few of the qualifications needed, whereas women wait until they have them all.  Something about us wanting to be sure we will succeed before we even start. Know that you are smart, you can learn, you can figure it out, and if you think you can do a job jump in there and do it.”

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#7. Women think it is a meritocracy, men know it is tribal.

“What does this mean?  Find your tribe.  Don’t work your ass off in isolation and wait to be discovered.  Find your people, collaborate, make genuine solid advantageous relationships.”

#8. Find a mentor.

“People are accessible.  Find out who made your favorite work.  Love how a movie is shot?  Find that cinematographer and reach out. Social media is a miracle.  I have met lots of real people on twitter. It’s a thing.”

This is one theme that I have personally seen raised many times. It was addressed in the 2015 Hollywood Reporter roundtable of studio executives wherein Universal chairperson Donna Langley and 20th Century Fox co-chairperson Stacey Snider both mentioned the benefits of being mentored and the importance of mentoring others.

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Universal Chairperson, Donna Langley on THR’s Roundtable for studio executives.

And you don’t need to be mentored by just women. In my interview of Tema, she mentioned this: “I don’t think it has to be women necessarily doing it, men can also take women under their wing. [For instance], they just honored Stephanie Rothman who got her very first gigs working for Roger Corman. He mentored her for many, many years. Hopefully, things have changed, people are more enlightened, and there is a Stephanie Rothman out there who should be getting that Roger Corman help.”

#9.  Negotiate.

“Women tend to be so grateful for the opportunity, we forget to ask for the money. [Editor’s note: the open letter from J-Law about her salary difference was specifically related to this issue.] Men don’t forget to ask.  They seem to know their worth and ask accordingly.  Do that. No one has ever lost a job for negotiating salary. In fact, people value what they pay for.  Do your research, know what the boys are making and ask for at least that.  Especially in your very first job, because that sets up your salary trajectory for the rest of your life. Don’t blow it.”

Jen McGowan, Director

 

Jen McGowan is a director and the founder of the aforementioned Film Powered website. Her feature film debut “Kelly & Cal”, starred Juliet Lewis and Cybill Shepherd and won the Game Changer Award at the 2014 SXSW film festival. Jen is another dynamo in the movement and fight for gender parity. When Jen speaks, people listen.

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#10. Do good work.

“Always.  Fight as hard as you can to get the absolute best tools you can then do the absolute best job you can with those tools and then let it go.  That’s all you can do and it’s what you must always do.”

#11. Don’t assume the worst of people.

“Allies and advocates come in all shapes and sizes.  Just as you don’t want to be judged on the single characteristic of being a woman, others in the business don’t want to be judged on any single part of themselves.  Learn to listen and you’ll find a lot more friendlies than you might at first think.”

#12. Take care of yourself.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint.  Take care of your mind, your body, your spirit.  Get enough sleep.  Eat well.  Stay inspired.  Surround yourself with people who add to your goals not detract from them.”

#13. Whatever your means are, live below them.

“That will allow you to turn down jobs that are not creatively advancing and say yes to those that might give more opportunities in other ways.”

This tip from Jen made me think of “A Story of the F— Off Fund.” It was a piece written by Paulette Perhach for Billfold a year and a half ago. The premise of that amusing article was to save up a few thousand dollars, then enough to live half a year without anyone’s help. That way, if you’re ever placed in any kind of compromising or degrading situation, you have the means to say “F— off” to the powers that be. (Another name for it if “F.U. Money”). The best way to save up for that fund is directly related to Jen’s tip here.

#14. Dream big, but don’t be reckless.

“I work towards achieving equity all the time, but I don’t behave as if the world is equitable now, that would be disastrous.  The world is not fair.  The business is not fair—but we can make it better if we’re honest about where we are now and where we’re aiming to be.”

Yolanda T. Cochran, Producer and Academy Member

 

You may remember our in-depth interview with Yolanda and her long career path to becoming head of physical production at Alcon Entertainment, production consultant for Netflix, and now an independent producer, P.G.A. Board of Directors member, and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You just know she had a thing (or four) to say about this.

#15. Advocate (for oneself and for other women) and understand that meritocracy is a myth.

“Advancement will not be born simply from working hard and doing a good job.  You must also find opportunities to advocate for yourself in the workplace.  This includes highlighting accomplishments to superiors.”

#16. Use language wisely.

“Be direct and concise in verbal and written communications.  Avoid the language of ‘unwarranted apologies’.  Speak up and out in meetings and group settings.  Become skilled at seamlessness and diplomatically restating your input in group settings, so as to ensure that credit for the input is attributed to you (rather than others who may restate it and ‘be heard more clearly’ or as if it is a ‘new idea’).”

#17. Recognize and navigate bias.

“Unconscious bias that negatively impacts women in the workplace is a reality.  Unfortunately, it exists in and comes from both males and females.  The prevalence is unintentional (hence the emphasis on UNCONSCIOUS), but nonetheless can work against your progress and interest.  Learn how to recognize these biases, how they are acted upon (in the delegation of duties, pay and promotions, etc.) and the best strategies to navigate around them to your advantage.”

#18. Be epic!

“Find what you love and are passionate about.  Then dig in, work hard, and be undeniable.  Immerse yourself in it.  Learn as much as can about it and be bold in whatever is your craft.  Then advocate for yourself in your achievements within it.  Also, find mentors and advocates of your own.”

Lydia Hurlbut, CEO of Hurlbut Visuals

 

Hurlbut Visuals is the production and filmmaking education company founded by A.S.C. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and his wife Lydia. Shane and Lydia are leaders film and video production education via Shane’s Inner Circle (which was actually Lydia’s idea to start). While Shane teaches the craft, Lydia keeps the ship running smoothly. As an executive in this industry who works with professionals at all levels of the business, she has some valuable pearls of Wisdom.

lydia hurlbut

#19. Believe in yourself.

Women are often quieted, silenced, intimidated or bullied. Over time, it creates doubt in one’s innate gifts/talents. Surround yourself with people who know you, believe in your talent and allow your talent to shine.

#20. Trust your intuition.

Trust your intuition—that “gut” feeling or just knowing something but not understanding why you know it is hard to explain. It is one of the most powerful qualities women (and men) possess. Pay attention to your intuition and let it guide your decisions.

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#21. Embrace change.

“Don’t be afraid of change. Change forces growth in new and unexpected ways. It is scary and wonderful all at once.”

#22. Gain a new perspective on obstacles.

“Whenever I am thrown obstacles in both business and life, I try to view them like a puzzle or game. How many strategic ideas can I come up with to get around the obstacle? Trying to find a way around something is so much easier than trying to force your way over or through it. The barrier is difficult but your brain comes up with more creative solutions if you are not in fear or anger mode.”

Bottom up vs. Top Down Change

 

I want to end this piece with some profound commentary from my conversation with Tema. One question in particular I found important was how to address the issue of gender disparity in Hollywood.  Knowing all of these great insights is great, but at the end of the day, there needs to be some external changes in the industry as well.

I asked her, “Since women aren’t in power, will the fight to get parity for women be won from the bottom up? Or will it be from the top down?”

“I think it needs to be a multi-pronged approach. I don’t think it can happen in one direction. We’ve been trying for a good 40 years from top down, and clearly, that hasn’t worked. It has to be a group effort.

“There are all of these diversity programs and shadowing programs, and basically what it says is that we don’t trust women to do the job, which is really obnoxious. When you see women who’ve already directed, or DP’d or produced, or projects that have gone to Sundance or have gone to Venice, it’s probably time to give them a chance to grab that brass ring, and do your project. That happens to guys all the time.

“Like [Colin] Trevorrow. He did one successful, low-budget indie, then was given a multi-million dollar Spielberg film. And I don’t begrudge Mr. Trevorrow for getting the job,[but] women should get the same opportunities.

colintrevorrow
Filmmaker Colin Trevorrow was given the reins of “Jurassic World” (a $150 million budget) after the success of his indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” (a $750,000 budget). He’s now slated to co-write and direct Star Wars Episode IX. Photo © RedCarpetReport (CC BY-SA)

“I think there’s so much momentum now, that I think we will see change. But honestly, we shouldn’t have to prove this anymore. Films by women make more than their male counterparts, as a rule, in terms of rate of return. But after “Thelma and Louise,” people were saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to see all this content about women now.’ That didn’t happen. So, we’ve been through this, and we’ve been disappointed for many decades. It was Kathryn Bigelow getting an award [the best director Oscar for “Hurt Locker”] then we go how long before another woman being nominated? So basically, it’s about having the will, and for us to continue to remind people that we’re here, we can do this, and just hire us. That is all.”

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Kathryn Bigelow accepts the Best Director Oscar at the 2010 ceremony. Image © Oscars.

“Let’s hope that we have better choices from the studios and bigger budget indies in a sustainable way.  We have to keep on it not just for the next year or two, but the next decade, until it becomes habitual. It has to just become normalized, or else we’ll just slide back.”

In 89 years, only four women have been nominated for best director, and the only to have won was Kathryn Bigelow for the 2009 film “The Hurt Locker.” When I was doing research for this article, I found this same statistic in a 2014 Forbes article (at that time, it had been 86 years). Three years later, that statistic has not changed. I would say it’s time for a change.

What have been your experiences (as a man or a woman) with regard to hiring and/or working with women in the industry? Do you have any tips to add to this list? Join the conversation.