Helenna Santos-Levy launched her online magazine, Ms. in the Biz, just six months ago, with the simple goal of connecting women working in Hollywood with one another. Today it has 61,000 readers in 151 different countries. The magazine, which is written by industry professionals for industry professionals, covers a range of topics from career tips to fitness, wellness, beauty and fashion to practical tips on using social media, auditioning, and becoming a repeat-hire.
Santos-Levy has clearly tapped into a need among women in Hollywood to come together and share their stories, both of the obstacles they face and of how they are successfully getting past them. The difficulty of both recognizing systemic problems and not letting them hold you back was the topic of conversation at Ms. in the Biz's first public event: a panel of actors, managers, casting directors, directors and producers entitled: Navigating Hollywood's Cutthroat Corners: How to Thrive as a Woman in Entertainment.
Though the panelists agreed that the statistics for women in film are dismal--from 2002-2012, only 4.4% of the directors of top 100 box office movies were women--they disagreed on specific ways to address sexism in the field, leading to a genuinely lively conversation. Though JoBeth Williams (Veteran Actor and SAG Foundation President) suggested that a return to character-driven dramas would be better for women actors that the current emphasis on "fighting movies." Erin Stam (Executive Producer, 27 Dresses) offered, "We've got think about crossing every genre. We've got to say we can make Gravity, we can blow things up, and we can make character dramas. We can do everything." When the younger producers encouraged everyone to be a "multi-hyphenate" (actor-writer-producer-director), Williams reminded a struggling audience-member that when you spread yourself too thin you are in danger of losing touch with the very creative passion that drives you. Liz York (Talent Manager, Principal Entertainment), who once had a client call from a TV set where a director had just asked her to suck in her stomach, suggested that as women we have to stick together to make saying such things unacceptable. On the other hand, Katt Shea, who once had her own special effects supervisor tell her he had to wait for the director to start a meeting (she was the director), urged women to let moments like that pass.
Agreement did emerge that "navigating the cutthroat corners of Hollywood" is a matter of having faith in yourself, a passion for making things, and a savvy business sensibility that both turns your passion into your brand and serves to remind you that getting rejected in this town is almost never personal. JoBeth Williams advised the actors in the room: "You have to be a business person, and it's very hard because one of the reasons that we're actors is because we're sensitive, because we're emotional and we have these rich emotional lives. And so when we walk in and we audition, we're putting our little emotional, jelly-like selves out there, and so every time you don't get hired you're crushed. And the only way I have found to combat that is to remind yourself that it is a business and you are a business property and you are trying to sell a property. So put it out there, and if they don't like it, fuck 'em. Move on."
The spirit of the panel, which Santos-Levy introduced by comparing it to The View, was more inspirational than practical, with women on the panel and in the audience agreeing vociferously with calls for women in the industry to support one another and love themselves. When several women of color in the audience were urged, in response to questions about navigating racial issues, to simply have more faith in themselves, I was reminded of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In philosophy that it is not structural inequality but an absence of confidence that keeps women from being successful in business. It is not uncommon in Los Angeles, where everybody has a dream, to hear that success is merely a matter of will power, but that point of view ignores systemic disadvantages to the poor, the non-heteronormative, and people of color as well as to women.
I spoke with Santos-Levy, who plans to continue the conversation online and in future panels, including one on diversity. Her goal, she said, is "to find holes in what's offered for women in the business, have more really frank conversations about what's happening," and share practical advice on solving problems for women in the industry. In the meantime, like Lean In, Ms. in the Biz is having a perhaps inadvertent impact on the system by enticing and enlightening male readers who are inspired to form new partnerships and hire more women. As one male audience member at the panel shared, "I've got to say that I feel like I've just walked in on gold. It's amazing what all of you are saying, and when I leave here I'm gonna tell people, 'You've got to hear what I heard today."