Cathy Schulman at Athena Film Festival
Jodie Chiang Cathy Schulman at Athena Film Festival

Over the course of her Hollywood career, Cathy Schulman has produced 22 films, picked up an Oscar for her wildcard film "Crash" and, as president of Women in Film, has become a leading force for gender equality in the arts. On Saturday, February 7, Schulman, who currently serves as the president of Mandalay Pictures, was recognized and awarded at the Athena Film Festival for her leadership and creative accomplishments in the film industry. But, as Schulman noted in her master class on production, it takes a symbiosis of business savvy and creative passion to make your way to the top of the male-dominated industry.

READ MORE: Why We Need Diversity Incentives for Film and Television

Here are Schulman's tips to help young producers navigate their own path:

1. Be persistent.

"'Crash' was such an underdog movie. The script had been floating around for years. I was unable to get it financed except in a bottom-dwelling kind of way. I showed it to everyone in Hollywood when I had 40 minutes of footage and everyone hated it. But when it was finished, we went to the Toronto Film Festival and it was a great night because we got a standing ovation for nine minutes. But two days later the movie hadn’t sold. Peter Rice of Fox Searchlight told me 'I'm so sorry, honey. I know how much you love it, but it's a real turd. It's just not theatrical.' Four days later Lionsgate said they could bottomfeed it. They thought it would do well in a single marketplace, which was the urban marketplace, which was relatively limited but dependable at the time. We begged them to test it in five different markets and it tested 100% in a couple different markets and they eventually embraced that. Then, they sent it to Oprah and she came on board and the rest is history." 

"Crash"
Lionsgate "Crash"

2. When you crash and burn, keep going. 

"It's not good to pick fights with really big rich guys!" - Cathy Schulman

After 25 years in the movie making business, one is bound to end up with some enemies. Schulman's 15-year legal battle with Michael Ovitz showed her that the hard way. "The lawsuit became one of the most determining things in my life. I was his former partner at APG and it ended in a terrible fireball. It's not good to pick fights with really big rich guys! It taught me so much because I went through terrible periods of two bankruptcies, lost everything. I went through such crazy times and became stronger and stronger and I started to develop these very uncharacteristic female traits, which was I was taking one punch and getting right back up. I was always strategizing and it became this incredible motivator for me to make these big jumps in my career. I founded my own company called Bullseye Entertainment and out of it came some really great movies like 'Crash' and 'The Illusionist' and I was doing what I wanted to do for the first time by myself without having to answer to anybody." 

3. Always be selling.

"This job is all about selling all the time. It’s a crucial point in developing yourself as a producer. Prepare a sale to everyone you have to sell it to. In the bottom of your heart you know what's wrong with your project. You love it, but really you're full of self doubt (if you're like me). So, throw all that self-doubting shit at yourself in the mirror and practice making all those no's turn into yes's. Get ready for everything anyone is going to say. You have to make all their doubts go away to get the financing you need."

Cathy Schulman
Jodie Chiang Cathy Schulman

4. Use both sides of your brain. 

"Passion is important, but you can’t depend on passion alone. That’s too wishy-washy for me. It’s a combination of show + business. You have to be thinking of two sides of your brain. You have to constantly be thinking on both sides and if you’re not, you have to force yourself to do so. Movies only come together when those two things meet comfortably and they're not meant for each other. The creative process and business are like oil and vinegar. But, in the end of the day they make the dressing. Ugh. That was a horrible metaphor." 

"Trying to work in the studio world is pretty inaccessible for most people." - Cathy Schulman

5. Spend time in "the world of other."

"In today's movie making world, 25% of work product is happening in the studios. 75% of work product activity is happening outside of that. But, most of the money is being made in that 25 percentage. I call it the world of other rather than Indie films. Independent brings all these connotations like it has to be artsy and the reality is that movies like "Rush" are independent. Trying to work in the studio world is pretty inaccessible for most people and not really worth focusing your business energy on unless you’re one of the lucky few eight white men that do it. Spend your time in the world of other." 

6. Use the resources available to you.

"The filmmaking community is just that--a community. Join as many organizations as you can. I like to start with Film Independent and Women In Film because the amount of networking you can do and the access you can get will help you  enter into this business. Also, hook up with people who have already done it for your first project...Don't be stubborn about being completely independent the first time you work on something. I also don’t recommend getting into business with idiots."

7. Beat the statistics.

As President of Women in Film, Schulman has made it a priority to conduct significant research on why there are so few women in power in the media. "The biggest discovery over the couple years of research is that the #1 preventative factor that keeps women from achieving leadership is lack of availability of financing. At a film school level, it's 50/50 male and female. When you get to major festival level in terms of people submitting and getting into festivals, 23-27% are women. By the time we're talking about directing, writing, producing movies over 50 million dollars, 4-9% of women are in leadership roles." Schulman noted that Women in Film will be making an announcement in April to launch an advocacy program to give women the tools to actively combat gender inequality in the filmmaking world. 

Read More: 7 Highlights of Athena Film Fest's Strong Women-Centric Lineup