Five years ago, I entered into the filmmaking arena a minority, an underdog. I didn’t go to film school, I’m just over 5’ tall, I’m young…. and I’m female. If you were able to place bets on me at a casino the odds would be something like 341:1.
That’s not too far from where a lot of other women feel like they are at in their filmmaking careers, but here’s the secret:
On paper, you may be the underdog. But don’t for one second let yourself believe it.
I went from working at 3M in an engineering lab to all-access on the sidelines of the Superbowl in just 19 short months. From there, I went on to take a major role in the production of A Game of Honor and, over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to work on a number of different productions, large and small.
As I look back, I’ve discovered a lot about what it takes to succeed as a female filmmaker and I want to share five powerful ideas I’ve learned with you.
This is a tough industry. It’s a harsh landscape for any filmmaker, but it’s especially challenging for women who have dreams to succeed in this space. Make no mistake, women are still the minority, but we don’t have to be the underdog.
It’s important to point out that with immense challenges also come opportunities to succeed.
Some may say that being DP of a feature-length doc and winning some Emmys in just five short years are significant triumphs, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I also feel that is something that’s within everyone’s reach.
You just have to want it enough to go for it, regardless of age, race, or gender.
So how do we handle being repeatedly marginalized, dealing with inappropriate comments on set and making the most out of fighting an uphill battle? Ladies, this one is for you.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned about how to succeed as a female filmmaker.
1. Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You
It’s hard enough to take on a leading role in filmmaking. We have to really put in the hours, know our stuff and earn the respect of others.
For women, it’s exponentially harder.
We often have to do so much more to get the same opportunities as our male counterparts. Is it fair? Of course not. Does it piss me off? You bet it does. But we can either complain or we can go out and create our own reality.
I’ve been told I’m not fit for a shoot because I don’t do steadicam. I’ve been told I don’t know enough about football to tell the story properly. I’ve been discounted because of my physical size and strength. And I’ve heard more inappropriate sexist comments on set than I care to share.
Any one of those would make someone uncomfortable. That is the space we work in, but those same things also fuel me to push past it.
It’s easy to fold and just accept what the industry norms are when we’re faced with so many challenges but instead of fighting with words, ignoring it, or accepting it, we can turn that unfavorable situation into something positive:
If women have to work harder to get the same opportunities, then let’s push ourselves harder to not just be good, but to be better. Keep your foot on the gas pedal.
By raising the bar, you will bring more to the table. Do that enough, and you’ll make yourself so invaluable that people will want to put you in a leadership role.
It’s the same thing we say to people when they say ‘I hope to be like Stillmotion some day’. Our reply is always the same.
Don’t strive to be like us, strive to be better.
2. Cameras Don’t Tell Stories, People Do
I’ve seen so many filmmakers focus on the tech: MoVi, Epics, HMIs and all the latest gear. If you’re not a gearhead, that can be uncomfortable. The focus here is to realize that filmmaking is so much more than that.
Filmmaking is just a form of storytelling – being able to craft a story that takes people to another place, connects them to something new, and shows them a different perspective. This is all accomplished through the experience you create.
As a studio we’ve always believed that the experience is directly tied to what goes on screen.
How you make first contact, how you conduct that interview, and how you interact with the crew and the talent all translate to how your final story will feel.
[do action=”pullquote-tweet”]The experience we create will do more for our story than any piece of gear ever could.[/do]
As women, our ability to connect gives us a huge opportunity to take leading roles, especially in directing or producing, and create strong experiences on set. That in turn will translate to stronger stories, and much more enjoyment for your crew and talent.
On set communication is paramount. Directing and DP-ing are all about having a vision and being able to communicate that vision.
Connecting with your talent, connecting with your crew, and ultimately connecting with an audience is all about the ability connect with an emotion and then communicate it. The better you are able to communicate that emotion the more people will be able to invest themselves in that emotion.
When we make first contact with a client, we share openly with them about who we are so that they feel comfortable doing the same with us. Amina has been doing that for years. Because she’s genuine and curious about their work and their lives, she is able to create a remarkable experience during the shoot because she knows so much about them. It’s incredibly powerful and remarkably effective.
Similarly, on set it’s equally important to create the right experience for your crew. It’s not uncommon for things to go wrong on a shoot and people often start butting heads. To avoid this, it’s necessary to set the stage to resolve issues when they arise. I often put myself in a connector role to help facilitate communication between parties.
When one shooter has different viewpoints from another on how to approach something, I speak to each of them individually to ensure they feel like they are being heard, and then encourage them to work through it together with me so that we can all come to a mutual agreement. That is very different than just coming in and dictating what you want.
If you look at things from a human standpoint and connect with those around you, you’ll be able to create real moments that will not only result in a better story, but also be a better experience for everyone involved.
So, sure, gear is important… and it can be a lot of fun. But your voice and the experiences you create for people are exponentially more impactful to the story you’re trying to tell.
3. You are unexpected in your field. Let that be a strength.
Because women in the film world are rare, it seems that sometimes people aren’t quite sure what to make of us.
Whether it’s our nature or not, people expect women to be less competitive. That expectation can offer you a competitive edge. The lack of testosterone is a benefit here. You can use a more sensitive approach and can catch people off guard with that. You can leverage the novelty of your approach on set into a better shoot.
From getting access to places cameras generally aren’t allowed to disarming people with the questions asked during an interview, use that to your advantage and leverage it to make the most of each situation.
I can’t tell you how many times a producer has sent me into a scenario simply because they knew the people on the other end would be more receptive to a woman than ‘another camera guy’.
There are a few people at CBS who call Patrick the bull in the China shop. He can certainly get things done but not always in a way that doesn’t get us in trouble – and in those scenarios I’ll get the call 🙂
I got a lot of those calls when we were working with LT, Lawrence Taylor, one of the most badass, fiercest football hall of famer of all time. This guy can literally crush people with his bare hands and most people find him just a tad scary.
I wasn’t exactly comfortable around him either, but I was probably the first or one of the few female DPs he’s seen in all his years in front of the media, which ended up being a huge advantage for us. When we needed him to change out of his bright white shirt on a bright sunny day, or when we needed to ask for more time, or when we need to get more access – guess who went in to make the ask and made it happen?
The key here is to lead with the unexpected, but then follow through with the delivery. Let surprise be your tactic. Then get in there and knock their socks off.
4. Warning: You are going to have to raise your voice.
Okay, I don’t mean go around yelling at people. I mean that you are going to have to speak up.
Set the expectation that you are a valuable resource and that you have every intention to make significant contributions. It’s important to set that expectation for both the people you are working with and for yourself.
This means listening to the story and making sure you are doing what you can to further it. It means speaking up when you have a good idea that will help. It means standing up and fighting for what you truly believe in, even when it’s hard.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s a challenging space for young women in an old boys club, there’s no question about that. But don’t submit to defeat before even trying.
It’s totally normal to have doubts, but if you put them aside for a moment, you will find that you are completely capable. Feeling like an impostor is totally normal, but giving in to that feeling isn’t going to get you anywhere good.
If we don’t lay down the groundwork, people will never see the incredible value we have to offer.
I’m only 5’2” so just about everyone is bigger than me. To make things even more challenging we often work with directors who are really tall guys. Like, really tall. So it’s not easy for a small woman like me to speak up and challenge them on things.
When I went to Taiwan to work on a piece that involved Jeremy Lin’s escape from the hotel to play street ball I was asked to bring a slider. When I mentioned to the director that I didn’t need to bring one it didn’t go over so well.
Sure it would have been easier for me to just go along with it and do what he asks but that would have meant I wasn’t doing my part in furthering the story. So when I explained why didn’t fit, that a slider felt too produced, that it didn’t have the raw feel we were going for, it made sense and we agreed to go without it.
I believe that setting the right expectations that I have more to offer is a large part of the mutual respect that keeps the working relationship a strong one, and continues to get me larger opportunities.
5. Don’t Be Ashamed To Put Your Career First
Despite what a lot of us were told growing up, you probably can’t have it all. No one can. You have to make some hard choices.
Regardless of all the advances women have made in society, we are still faced with a lot of tough decisions as it relates to family and relationship obligations. Women are still often required to take on the majority of the caregiving responsibilities in the household.
In fact all of the familial names we give women: mothers, girlfriends, grandmothers, sisters, are often synonymous with another word: caretakers. This undeniably affects our ability to chase our dreams.
We often voluntarily put ourselves and our needs behind those of the ones we love; only to realize later that our understanding of those needs were short sighted. That we get so caught up in the details of being a caretaker, that we forget to build something larger for ourselves and our families that we can all rely on.
It’s vital that you look deep within yourself to find what it is you truly want to do. Ask why you’ve chosen filmmaking as your calling. And then do everything you can to support fulfilling your dream.
That means surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and support you in your efforts. It means early mornings and late nights when it truly makes a difference. It means being away from home to work towards something you believe in. It means making the necessary sacrifices to go for the win.
Don’t half-ass it. Make the effort to do it right.
Over the last few years I’ve logged roughly 350,000 flight miles, which means I spend a fair bit of time on the road and I’m not at home much. This is challenging, especially when I’m not around for holidays or special occasions, but sometimes that’s what is required for me to pursue my dream to inspire others and tell meaningful, impactful stories.
It’s one of the toughest balancing acts to accomplish, but in doing so, I hope that it will not only challenge the way I see the world but also bring new perspectives to those I share our films with.
These are all ideas that’s helped me in the past and I’d love nothing more than to see more of you out there succeeding.
With that, we’d like to offer something we’ve never done before – our very first Why She Should Lead Scholarship.
The 2014 Scholarship recipient will be awarded complimentary admission to EVO, our 4-day filmmaking intensive in Portland, OR. EVO is our most in-depth, hands on, and intimate workshop, and it’s being held this July 14-17.
It is regularly priced at $3,997, but we are offering a full scholarship to one female filmmaker.
It’s our way of supporting women in the industry and to encourage discussion about the challenges and advantages of being a female filmmaker.
Deadline for applications is June 16th.
Maribeth is leading this wonderful initiative. You can submit your applications online by June 16th and she’ll be leading our selection committee to choose the winning filmmaker.
Submit your application here. It’s quick and easy 🙂
We invite you – both men and women – to join us in supporting female storytellers everywhere, and empowering them to make the most of their amazing ability.
Share this post with the women around you and encourage them to pursue their dream, whatever that may be. Let’s change these odds together.
We’re in. Are you?
Joyce, thank you! It’s so good to be reminded of your ability and worth. And to know that other women are facing the same issues as filmmakers, as well as some of the same feats. Being able to get into dressing rooms, to have the ability to evoke feelings in edits, and in interview settings having people open up more-these make the struggle as the minority on set all worth while. Thank you for this post!
And thank you Jennifer for joining in this discussion. Our voice is so much louder when we speak together.
Thank you for writing this Joyce! There are lots of strong women in this industry with a story to tell. Thank you so much for supporting us so we can continue to grow in filmmaking!
It is my hope that we all have the support to tell stories that move us. Would love to see that happen more often 🙂
Thanks for writing this article, Joyce. Thought-provoking commentary on an issue I think about a lot, as a self-educated female filmmaker and business owner. I’m lucky that I can make hiring choices at our company, so I have surrounded myself with kickass, talented, bold, young female team members. I notice the reaction sometimes when we show up for shoots, or even walking through the airport carrying equipment. It still blows my mind that people are taken aback, or intimidated, to see women doing something technical, physical, intellectual and challenging– and doing it well. I hope you keep the discussion going on this topic, to encourage more of us to think about how we get ahead, and to inspire others to get into the industry.
Also, I think you should force Patrick to drop his bull in a china shop act and have some of those difficult conversations with clients– diplomacy isn’t just a job for us ladies, and maybe it’s something certain male filmmakers need a workshop to learn more about….?
Hey Melissa – I’m so glad to hear you share some of the same challenges and triumphs. It’s refreshing to hear from more women and I would like nothing more than for that to continue so it’s more prevalent in our community.
As for the bull in the china shop, yes it’s a different style and method of going about things, but it isn’t always like that. Stillmotion as a studio often pushes the limits and sometimes our enthusiasm gets the best of us, which then gets us in trouble. It’s not all on P, I’ve certainly gotten in my fair share of trouble when I’m not ninja enough to stay under the radar but it’s always because we are thinking of Story First. And usually when the producers see the shot, they get why we went for it 🙂
Thanks for sharing your thoughts here with us!
I was about to comment about how proud we are to be a studio of 4 amazing women and two pretty awesome dudes, but then I saw the most amazing of those four women, my wife, had beaten me to it.
The scholarship is an awesome opportunity and as soon as we read this we knew we had to encourage at least one of our team members to go for it.
That’s awesome Tom. We’re looking forward to seeing her application – and who knows, maybe we’ll be seeing her at EVO next month.
Hope all is well for you guys 🙂
Thank you for this: DON’T BE ASHAMED TO PUT YOUR CAREER FIRST… as I’ve been struggling with the concept of “balance” lately, feeling guilty for neglecting certain friendships and relationships… but I feel so compelled to throw myself into my work right now. Something it seems a lot of people don’t quite understand. Glad to know I’m not alone. 🙂
Have fun in Asia!! 🙂 HUGS!!
That’s certainly one of the most challenging things to work through but it’s a decision we each have to make individually. And it reaffirms how important it is to surround ourselves with people who will support us in doing what we love.
I’m excited to see the new films you’re working on – would love to check them out. And thanks for sending all the SE Asia recommendations 🙂
Love this Joyce! “We often have to do so much more to get the same opportunities as our male counterparts. Is it fair? Of course not. Does it piss me off? You bet it does. But we can either complain or we can go out and create our own reality.” Thanks for sharing, great post.
Glad you enjoyed the read 🙂
I know two women in the Canadian Film Business and they’re both Producers. I have seen them work; they take no prisoners.
Another strong lady is my wife (5′ 1″) of 44 years; a sister of one of the Producers. As the President of the local Nurses Union she had to deal with the ‘men’; she too took no prisoners.
My niece sent me this and said, “this is Aunty Chris”. It read: The woman who needs no affirmation from anyone for anything is the most feared person on the planet”.
I have met you on two occasions in Toronto and respect your work, what you know and what you do.
Thank you for this post. I hope other women read this and heed your message.
Would love to meet these two powerhouse producers someday 🙂
Brian, I saw your mention of knowing two women producers. Would they by chance have interest in either African Art Cinema films or children’s film. If so please have them e-mail me at email@example.com. Joyce hope you don’t mind me trying to network here. I’ve just done 2 1/2 years in Ethiopia and I saw that if I didn’t come home the movie was never going to get made. Its entitled: The Theft in his Gate.
ushaaa…ushaaa,too hilariuos,sensitive and ubiquitous!To imply men in this industry or any male dominated industry like the army are soft on men but harsh onwomenits a bit far-fetched because men aren`t having it tough in this industry either!
Sounds too feminist andsexist too…because in the kitchen women aren`t too soft with men either…and of course other female related industries!would it not be better if women who feel so strogly like you stick to female domineered industries!
It’s attitudes like yours that make guys like me cringe. Gender should never be the issue. A track record and talent are what counts.
It is a male dominated industry and to get into it the female and/or any new person has to push harder to get noticed.
Joyce is simply saying that other females should not give up on their dreams of making it in the film/entertainment industry.
It is unfortunate that a poor attitude and low self-esteem block the decision making process needed when deciding who to hire. Generally, one tends to hire themselves thus perpetuating the gender bigotry.
We never implied that this industry is soft on men, just that it’s especially challenging for women. As I said in the post, I feel it’s a harsh industry for anyone.
Your comment about women in the kitchen isn’t a fair statement to either party. Are you implying women should stay in the kitchen? Or that men can’t cook? I believe there are many, many world renowned chefs who are male – and I don’t think that means they had it any easier than anyone else. And it would be a shame if none of them pursued their dream to succeed in the culinary world.
The goal of this is not to pull us apart but to bring the community together in the hopes of supporting all filmmakers, male and female, to succeed in telling stories they love.
Thank you so much for sharing! Coming from someone who literally knew no one when I started, googling “female filmmakers” just to find someone to chat with- I can only say thank you for sharing and helping support other females in our industry!
Will we be seeing an application from you for the Why She Should Lead scholarship? 🙂
Always a supporter of opinions that aim to make the world more equal and fair. Funny thing is, I don’t share this perspective . I work in Southeast Asia, and at this point in time, I probably know an equal amount of women (if not more) than men in filmmaking in the region. Producers, camera operators, editors – you name it. I exist in a more independent, less mainstream environment though, and perhaps that’s got something to do with it. Anyway, just wanted to share, and also say that your achievements are great encouragement for those of us who are trying to make a living by telling stories that we love. It’s a tough businesses no matter where you’re from, and what your gender is. We should all stick together and support each other regardless. Thanks for sharing!
Ash – It’s wonderful to hear that there are more women taking on leadership roles in the SE Asia filmmaking community! Mainstream or not we have to start somewhere and I’m excited to see this shift happening in your area. Thanks for sharing these words of encouragement.
Btw I’m headed to SE Asia for StorytellingWithHeart in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Will we be seeing you at one of those workshops? 🙂
10 out of 13 people in my class are women, and all of us are doing documentaries independently. We carry whatever equipment we need to carry. We go wherever we need to go. We don’t see any difference between genders in filmmaking. We are just as strong as us. So as long as you believe in something and work hard for it, you will be at the place you want to be. Fuck the industry. Work with people who appreciate your skill. And most importantly, believe in yourself. Go girls!
Well said Carrie.
We may face a different set of challenges but I’ve never really thought of myself as a female filmmaker, just a filmmaker. And if you don’t believe you’re capable then you certainly won’t be so thank you for encouraging all of us to push forward.
This is such an amazing opportunity, and what a great blog post! Reading the supportive comments of the women AND men is very inspiring!
Agreed! I love hearing the comments from both sides too
Hi Joyce! Love this article, thank you for taking the time to write this, 🙂 One day, I hope to attend one of Stillmotion’s workshops. You guys are such an inspiration to my husband and I. I had a random question. I see you with a side bag in some of your photos. What bag do you use and why do you like it? I’ve been using a backpack but it’s not so female friendly and have been looking for a sling type style, 🙂 thanks!
For shooting I often use the Shootsac, holds a few lenses, batteries, cards, filters and whatever else. For everyday travel and going to the studio I use the Kelly Moore thirst relief bag for my laptop, headphones, hard drives etc.
Hope that helps. And we would love to see you at one of our workshops soon 🙂
I’ll echo the gratitude of these awesome comments, and say thank you again– not only for your honesty and willingness to challenge some of the hidden assumptions we’ve grown used to, but for actively modeling the advice that you share. From the brief moments I got to see you shoot in San Francisco, I was inspired by the way you carry yourself with a camera– directed and proactive, with a respect and reverence to the world inside your frame. Now, after seeing more of your work and applying the things I’ve learned from Stillmotion to my own work, I’m overjoyed to see this initiative come to life. Super huge kudos, I’m looking forward to applying and sharing this opportunity with my community up here. Hope you’re well, and having some badass ninja adventures these days 🙂
Thanks for the kind words but I can’t take credit for the whole thing, kudos should go out to the entire team at Stillmotion for supporting me and helping making this scholarship a reality.
Hi Joyce, thanks for sharing this! I feel truly inspired and totally agree that filmmaking should not just be a career, but a calling.
I’m excited that Stillmotion is finally coming to Indonesia! I will be attending the seminar. Looking forward to seeing you there. 🙂
Hey Joan – We are headed there today from Vietnam, see you soon 🙂
Hi Joyce! Thanks for the article. That’s very inspiring and helpful. I’m new to this filmmaking thing, but knowing someone out there who looks just like me has persevered and became successful give me more courage. I also realize now who some people I met at Vincent LaForet’s Directing Motion Tour thought I resembled: you! Awesome.
I have a filmmaking ninja look-alike? Send me a photo of you 🙂
Thanks so much! What a great article! My professor just sent me this article, and I am so grateful that he did! This website is such an amazing resource! Thank you, thank you! Scholarship=amazing opportunity!
Awesome! Glad you find our EDU to be a helpful resource for you.
Andrea – do you go to film school? And if so which one?
Was bummed I couldn’t take off for the Singapore leg workshop – just submitted the scholarship application, hope it reached on time. Thanks for all the sharings, love reading about it!
I wonder… perhaps one way to succeed as an underdog is to get inspiration from films about underdogs.
Hi – I was hoping I would find a community like this. Thank you for this thoughtful article.
I would love to see the work of these other women. Does anyone know of a website where female filmmakers gather and share their work?
Also, I’d be curious to know how many women submitted applications? I didn’t find this page until today, so I’ll have to hope you offer the scholarship another time, but I’d love to know if you received a lot of applications (I hope so).
I know 157 women applied because I was one of them and they sent an email but I do not know of a website where female filmmakers can put up their work.
We had 157 submissions and Maribeth, our community care builder, led the charge in both setting up the application and selection process. I’m not sure if there’s a dedicated website for female filmmakers to post their work but several of the Why She Should Lead applicants have commented over on our Facebook page and you can connect with some of them that way.
We would love to see more filmmakers continue the discussion, whether that’s on set, on the blog here, or in person.
As a 5’2″ female filmmaker, I can relate so well to all of these. I attended the DMTour with Vincent Laforet and I attended Alex Buono’s Storytelling Tour last year and can say it is quite intimidating to walk into a room filled with older men who have experience I definitely haven’t accumulated as a 22 year-old pursuing filmmaking. Thank you. I’ve been working hard for the past few months and have probably watched every free tutorial available on your site. I also bought the monopod you guys always recommend and it’s perfect for me. Thanks for all that you do.
It can certainly be intimidating but realize that we all have something to contribute regardless of what stage we are at in our filmmaking career. If you have experience and expertise to share, that’s awesome. If you don’t yet have the experience, you can still be proactive in helping on set and bring a great attitude so you’re adding to the overall project. It’s awesome to hear you are pushing yourself at such a young age and I’m excited to see where this takes you in the coming months 🙂
Thank you for your blog, I’m excited about learning more. It’s funny, I saw this title and thought I HAVE TO read this. I work in the area of brand storytelling, and in March will be going to the UN to sit in on a global round table discussion about gender inequality. This was a great piece of info, practical and front-lines.
Thank you again and look forward to learning more:)