1. Cultivate a strong, distinctive voice.
“It’s really all about voice,” said Lucy Stille, a literary agent at the Agency for the Performing Arts during the panel, which was moderated by Melissa Silverstein, founder/editor of Women and Hollywood. “The more distinctive your voice is, the better off. If your passion for your project is real and you can articulate it, you’re going to find someone who will respond to that.” Mary Harron, director of “American Psycho,” also emphasized the need for a clear vision. “You have to have a project you really believe in, and you have to have a strong conviction of how to do it,” she said.
Jennifer Kushner, Director of Artist Development at Film Independent, added that this distinctive voice is what attracts attention from development executives who will help bolster the chances of getting your project off the ground. “At Film Independent, we’re looking for diamonds in the rough,” she said. “What do you want to say? What is your story that only you can tell? That’s what will make you stand out more than trying to be what you think people will want, or what you think will sell.”
Mynette Louie, president of equity financing company Gamechanger Films, said that it was important to survey the landscape to ensure that your material is original. “We don’t want to finance a movie that’s already on TV,” she said.
2. Have a great mentor or advocate.
“You need to have a really strong advocate,” said Stille. She added that an advocate can either be a person or a company that believes in your potential and will go out of their way to see you succeed. “Look at someone like Kathryn Bigelow, who started out like a rocket, fell from grace and is now back. Part of it was that CAA strongly believed in her and kept pushing her despite the fact that she was to some extent still in director’s jail.”
“You need someone who’s going to go to bat on your behalf,” said Kelly Edwards, VP Talent Development at HBO. “You need someone who will make calls and say, This person’s really good at their job. We all need that. We all have that go-around person. If you don’t get a mentor, you’re missing a very valuable beat.”
3. Get into television.
“TV is your friend,” said Harron. “There is so much television. When you’re a studio and you’re looking at a film that costs $100 million, there’s an assumption that women cannot be as tough with all those union guys. TV is a whole different ballgame. TV is a place where women can work.”
“The big bottleneck is really first-time directors getting their shot,” said Edwards. She cited the recent DGA statistic that 82 percent of first-time directors are men. According to Edwards, HBO is committed to influencing a change. “In the past two years we did a very ambitious director’s program. We created films that we aired on HBO and HBO Now and HBO Go. It got folks their first credit. The design was that it wasn’t just for the filmmaker, but also for the crew: All editors were women, and there were female DPs. You can’t work at HBO unless you work at HBO. You can’t be in the club unless you’re in the club. Now all of those people are in.”
4. Be business savvy.
“It’s really important for you to find a business partner,” said Louie. If you’re a director, this means one thing: Find an excellent producer. “They will help you translate your art into the commercial marketplace.”
“Everyone who’s had any lengthy career in film has a partnership with a producer,” added Harron.
But pairing with a producer is a complex, nuanced process. “Finding the right producer is like finding a life partner,” said Kushner. “You have to find the right fit. It’s a long road to travel with somebody. Find someone who brings something of value to your project, and whom you trust.”
Beyond producers, developing a long-term relationship with a casting director can also prove immensely beneficial. “Pay attention to casting. Develop relationship with people who can cast,” said Stille. She harped on the importance of being familiar with the business realm. “You have to read the trades, follow trends, network, do all the things you would do in any business. Create spaces where people can find you.”
5. Be thick-skinned, and don’t ask for permission.
“When you’re getting beaten up on set, how do you maintain who you are and be the hammer that you have to be in order to control your crew?” asked Edwards.
“The default style, especially for directors, is very male,” said Silverstein “We think of directors yelling at the crew. That’s what people are accustomed to. That’s what we expect. One of the most important things we have to do is change people’s expectations of what it’s supposed to be like on set. If you’re not yelling at people, that doesn’t mean you’re not competent.”
Stille pointed out the fact that women have a complex relationship to failure in Hollywood. “There’s a fear-based thing that happens after women have had a successful first film,” she said. “We need to counter that sophomore jinx for women. They get paralyzed. They’re so afraid to pick the wrong movie that they don’t pick a movie at all.” This is “If a woman makes a bad movie, she goes into director jail, and it’s very hard to get out. That’s less true for men.”
“Women get very wounded by failure,” added Harron. “More than men. We’ve got to be like Brett Ratner. Just bounce it off. We can’t internalize!”
“If you’re a woman or a person of color, you do take failure more personally,” echoed Kushner. “You may have limiting beliefs. Self-doubt is instilled in you. You do have to have that tough skin.”
Tough skin translates to adaptability and resilience, two qualities that all successful directors possess. “It’s not a meritocracy,” said Silverstein. “You need to figure out the tools.”
Edwards said that the self-doubt women are conditioned to feel can be communicated inadvertently. In order to command respect, she advised harnessing confidence, which will, in turn, exude power. “Sometimes we’re giving signals we don’t understand,” she said. “You need to make sure that you’re centered. You’re walking in a room with power, not with the ‘I need from you,’ but with the ‘I’m going to give this to you. Here’s my gift’. You have the power, confidence. The intention. You’re going in with that strength. We sit there and we ask for permission. We don’t need permission!”