By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood July 21, 2011 at 2:45AM
The movie business is just like a mafia family: incredibly powerful, for the most part inaccessible (unless you have family ties), it's a patriarchal system that keeps its status by enforcing omertà - a code of silence - about its inner workings. The few female directors who make it to the top are often born into influential show biz families or have a formidable protector driving them forward.
For the rest of us, trying to get a foot in the door can feel like a never-ending game of "Whac-a-Mole" – in which we're constantly smacked down despite our best efforts.
After the umpteenth episode of blatant sexism, I've decided to speak up for budding female directors, offering some words of advice. I wish I had been taught these things in film school; unfortunately they are not in the curriculum.
Before we start, all you have to know is that I'm 31, Italian, currently based in France, and I've been working as a director, cinematographer and editor for six years (nine counting film school). A relatively short time, yes, but long enough to learn some essential surviving skills.
Lesson #1 – Develop a Thick Skin
Our culture celebrates wunderkinds. There is an exception though: in the male-dominated world of film directing, if you're young and female, you will have a hard time being taken seriously. The reason: there are very few visible examples of female directors under the age of 40.
Clients are often surprised when they meet me for the first time after speaking on the phone or corresponding via email. "Oh but you look so young!" is the typical reaction. When I meet new people during social gatherings, and I introduce myself as a filmmaker, I'm always asked, "Are you a film student?" "No, this is my job." What invariably follows is unmistakable skepticism. This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't occur on a daily basis. In social situations, with film crews, while meeting people at film festivals... The underlying message: we do not believe you are competent.
A few weeks ago, I was in the offices of a French TV network. My feature-length project "The Illusionists" – which I wrote and I'm directing – had won their competition and had already passed a pitch session. I was to meet the head of the TV network, who was interested in discussing the development and financing of the film. The first words to come out of his mouth: "We love The Illusionists. What a great theme! And we think your website and social media presence is brilliant. You have gold in your hands. We can help you build a whole Illusionists brand. I see books and merchandising... But before we begin, please tell us how much you've filmed so far. And can we help you find a director for the film?"
I couldn't believe my ears. "Can-we-help-you-find-a-director-for-the-film?" On every page of the treatment and proposal were the words "written and directed by Elena Rossini." I explained to him that, as he could have read in my resume, this is my job. The head of the TV studio had a smirk and a skeptical expression stamped on his face for the rest of the hour-long meeting. It was as if, at 5"7, I was pleading to join the NBA.
The lesson: you will have to learn to carry on working despite the mistrust and incredulity of people around you. It can turn out to be a great motivator: "I will show them what I'm capable of."
The easiest way to develop a thick skin: seek constructive criticism. It will make you stronger and improve your work.
Lesson #2 – Most Essential Qualities: Confidence and Perseverance
I started researching and writing "The Illusionists" three years ago. Had countless meetings and exchanges with producers and TV stations in France and the UK, which ultimately led to... nothing. On several occasions I was very close to signing contracts, only to have a sudden turn of events at the last minute. Usually a request to change the tone and direction of the whole film, dumbing it down (typical suggestion: "We're not interested in your experts. Remove Umberto Eco and put yourself in the film instead trying out beauty treatments.")
I believe in the project so much that I kept going. Without a shred of good news for some 1100 days. Then the project caught the attention of an Italian journalist. An article about me appeared in the prestigious daily "Il Sole 24 Ore" – and, like a domino effect – wonderful opportunities have followed from there.
I recently launched a crowdfunding campaign for "The Illusionists" on Kickstarter.com and I received an extremely generous donation from a friend, which I didn't expect. She wrote me: "I've never seen someone so passionate and dedicated, you deserve all the help you can get!"
The lesson: have faith in your project and your abilities and rejoice in the knowledge that perseverance will pay off. You have to be your number one fan.
Words of wisdom: A 40-something producer once told me: if you want to make it in the business as a director, you have to have an ego the size of Texas.
Lesson #3 – Most Essential Accessory: Passion
Passion is contagious. It attracts people. It's a powerful tool for convincing producers and financers to invest in your project. It's the glue that keeps a film crew together.
A tip: To stay passionate about what you do, keep a "film work" gratitude journal. It can do wonders for you, helping you maintain a positive outlook, through good and bad times (and there will be plenty of those).
Lesson #4 – Talent, Intelligence, Charisma? Nah. Your Networks Are Your Most Crucial Asset.
When I realized "The Illusionists" wouldn't go anywhere with TV networks and production companies, I turned to professional women's associations for help. Since last July I have been a member of the exclusive global network "85 Broads" and "DIRE – Donne Italiane Rete Estera," a network for Italian women working abroad. And it is no coincidence that, thanks to the help of these accomplished women, this has been the best year of my life, professionally speaking. The expression "sisterhood is powerful?" Oh so true. In the case of "The Illusionists," not only have these two networks offered sponsorship for my film, but prominent members of both organizations have put me in touch with other extremely influential women. The result: a chain reaction of outstanding news and opportunities for publicity, financing, and the development of the film – from women on three different continents.
Lesson #5 – Trailblazing
If everything you try in traditional channels leads to disappointment, venture outside the beaten path. Become a trailblazer.
I'm doing so with "The Illusionists": developing an incredibly ambitious documentary, with filming locations in three different continents, all the while remaining "outside the system." And guess what? This has been the most exciting period of my life. Sure, it takes 10 times more work, but by seeking funds via a crowdfunding platform, I've attracted the attention of hundreds of people who have become enthusiastic supporters of the project and in many cases they have volunteered to help. I can feel the warmth of their support during each step of the way. And I'm now even more motivated to make "The Illusionists" as good as it can possibly be.
What truly encourages me is this quote by Margaret Mead: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
You can get more information about Elena on her website.
Photo credit: Danielle Voirin