Creative Forces

An Unstoppable Force

Meet some of the women who are creating a more inclusive film industry

When independent filmmaker Cristina Kotz Cornejo began teaching at Emerson in 2001, she experienced something that's very familiar to women working in many segments of the film industry: She was often the only woman in the room. This was common in her production courses, when frequently every one of her students taking the class was male. And yet, said Kotz Cornejo, who is now professor and associate chair of the Department of Visual and Media Arts (VMA), despite the authority that her role gave her, some of these male students would still question her expertise. 

"I looked a lot younger than I even was…and you get challenged- students questioning whether you know technology, having to prove yourself," she said. The department worked hard to attract more female students, and over time, it was successful. But, Kotz Cornejo said, they would see women self-selecting themselves out of more technical classes, "and that self-doubt that they would have of whether they could do it."

While these stories are disheartening, they are hardly surprising. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women accounted for 13 percent of writers, 17 percent of executive producers, 24 percent of producers, 17 percent of editors, and 5 percent of cinematographers. Just 7 percent of directors of the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016 were women. It is even more difficult for those who belong to other underrepresented groups, such as women of color, transgender women, and people who identify as non-binary. And the #MeToo movement has shined a bright spotlight on the abuses of power and inequalities that exist in the film industry, and beyond.

The issue of women's representation in the film industry exploded into public consciousness just last year, but, at Emerson, for a long time, faculty, students, staff, and alumni have worked hard to support women who dream of making films. Kotz Cornejo is particularly excited about two recent female hires in the VMA Department: Leslie McCleave, who directed the documentary The Blind Boys of Alabama: How Sweet the Sound, and Julia Halperin, who directed the thriller Barracuda, which premiered at South by Southwest last year. 

"Emerson has an opportunity and an obligation to change the industry, especially in regards to gender representation, and especially in positions of power in the industry," said Brooke Knight, associate professor and chair of the VMA Department. "We've had a long tradition of placing graduates within the entertainment industry, and given the close-to-parity numbers in our department and the opportunities we provide our students, we should be able to shift the industry to greater gender parity." 

To be sure, issues of gender identity are complicated. But as members of the Emerson community teach classes on gender and feminism, organize symposia, deliberately screen more films by women, and break down those barriers themselves while bringing other women along with them, the future of the film industry looks bright.


Even before Kotz Cornejo came to Emerson, she dreamed of assembling an event that would bring together women in the film industry. "Once I was in a position to actually organize something at that level, it just felt like a natural extension of who I am as a female filmmaker," she said. She collaborated with Emerson's student film organization Women in Motion to create the Women in Film & Media Summit, which took place at Emerson in November 2015. Among the luminaries speaking at the event were Kelly Edwards, HBO's vice president of talent development; Linda Reisman, executive producer of The Danish Girl and senior producer-in-residence at Emerson; and Toni Barton, an art director and production designer who's worked on the television shows Daredevil and Girls. The students were also given opportunities to meet the speakers and panelists. In the film industry, building a network isn't just important, "it's imperative, actually," said Kotz Cornejo, and a critical part of bringing more women into the film industry. She hopes to hold another summit the next academic year, and every other year thereafter-until it's not needed, she said.

Another way VMA highlights women in film is through its Bright Lights film series at the Paramount Center, which includes discussions, often with faculty members or the filmmakers themselves. In the Fall 2017 season, for the first time, more than half of the films featured were made by women, and program director Anna Feder has committed to keeping gender parity moving forward. "It was such an easy thing to do, honestly," said Feder. "Rather than just going to the films that everyone was recommending to me, I was looking for the films by women. And they're there, and they're amazing. The challenge is just that these are not necessarily films that have a lot of marketing behind them." That means audiences have to take a chance on films they've never heard of. If art houses truly care about women in film, Feder said, they "need to be intentional about their programming and their communication with their audience, and the audience needs to be intentional about the films they decide to go see."


In her course Creating Feminist Media, VMA affiliated faculty member Colleen Kelly Poplin, MA '10, MFA '16, instructs students in tackling thorny issues such as institutional representation, access to power, beauty standards, and internalized misogyny by creating their own socially conscious film, video, or audio projects. "My class was born out of my own experiences as a technically inclined production person not getting the opportunities that I saw other people around me getting," Kelly Poplin said. The class addresses the problem in two ways-most obviously by helping students create feminist media, but also by giving them a chance to hone their production skills. The course, which she has taught twice, attracts mainly women and non-binary students, and Kelly Poplin has not been surprised to find that some of these students' technical skills were lacking. 

"The experience at Emerson overall, whether intentional or not, is that in the higher technical and more production-heavy classes, women are given roles like producers, or, in the group classes, I've even heard of some students being assigned as craft services," she said. She and other faculty are trying to change that by forcing revolving roles on sets and in production courses. "So [as a student] you don't get to decide what you're doing.…Maybe it's more rough for you, maybe you have a fear of failure, but this is the only thing that's going to provide the necessary foundation for media projects," she said.

Miranda Banks, an associate professor in the VMA Department, is taking an unorthodox approach to addressing inequities in production classes-through a card game. Banks developed Room at the Top, a card game designed for groups of 12 to 200 people, in Emerson's Engagement Lab as a form of "playful intervention." In the game, players take on the role of media makers, competing both as individuals and as team members to win the top prize in a media festival. In designing the game, Banks researched students' experiences working on projects and their career aspirations. 

What emerged from that research was "how much students wanted to work with people just like themselves," Banks said. In the game, players are racing against the clock to create the most interesting project while also challenging their assumptions about how they choose collaborators.

"A game lets everyone see the issues at stake from a different perspective," Banks said. Last fall at New Student Orientation, more than 200 first-year students chose to play Room at the Top, and the feedback was very positive. This year, she's taking it to schools around the country and is in talks to bring it to corporations as well.

Banks pointed out that faculty members also have a lot to learn when it comes to creating a classroom without gender, racial, economic, and other imbalances. She and her colleague Jennifer Proctor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn co-authored The EDIT 10: Best Practices for Inclusive Teaching in Media Production, through the faculty-led initiative EDIT Media (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Teaching Media). Suggestions include screening examples in class from a diverse group of media makers, assigning teams and encouraging collaboration, and providing opportunities for solo work. The EDIT 10 has been adopted by the University Film and Video Association as best practices and is now included in the VMA faculty handbook. "Emerson is a learning community, and we all have to be reminded that being a professor in this community means that we, too, have some learning to do," Banks said.


Still, there are many female Emerson graduates who have followed their passion and succeeded. Pam Abdy '95 is head of film at Makeready, a new production company launched by Brad Weston. Previously, she was president of production at New Regency and former executive vice president of Paramount Pictures. When Abdy started working in the film industry in the mid-1990s, gender discrimination wasn't talked about-it was just the way things were. "At my first job, when I was an intern at Jersey Films and I became Danny DeVito's assistant, everyone was like, 'You can't do that job; guys do that job.' And I was like, 'Whatever. I can do it,'" she said. It wasn't until she was further along in her career and she was in executive positions that it became more apparent that there were more men than women represented in leadership positions. She's sustained herself by maintaining close relationships with women in the business-she's had a monthly dinner with nine female friends for the past decade, and she's in frequent touch with a group of women who mentored her. Now, she said, "I'm trying to pay it back to the next generation. It's very important to me to support and hire young women and teach them and mentor people.…I've had some really great people support and champion me, and I feel it's my duty to give back to other people."

For Hadeel Reda '90, a producer and executive producer who is president of Purple Pictures, all of the discussion coming out of the #MeToo movement is gratifying. "To be able to see that oh, wow, we weren't crazy. That was not normal. I love that the next generation coming up actually won't be putting up with that. You see a little more of a pep in women's struts. There's more confidence," she said. She also notes that things can be even more difficult for women who belong to other underrepresented groups. "I've always had kind of a double whammy," she said. Reda's career has included many facets of the film industry, including financing. "I would put projects together, everything from funding to packaging, and in an instant, have a man come in and take credit. And it was completely acceptable," she said. During the difficult times, her passion for her work has always buoyed her. She's particularly proud of her two most recent projects, American Wrestler, which deals with issues around immigration, and Ride, which tackles race. However, she stresses how important it is to have a support system outside of work. "It gets really grueling; it gets very hard. And if you can't go and recharge with loved ones, yeah, it's easy to quit," she said. But, she said, the past year has been positive. "I never thought we would be seeing this change in my lifetime, and that it would be happening as quickly as it is happening. That's definitely something to celebrate," she said.

Devynne Lauchner '14, a production designer and set decorator, is one of the Emerson alumni coming up in this new reality. She benefited from networking with female Emerson grads from the very beginning of her career. When she was looking for an internship in LA, Dana Olinsky '13 was working in the costume department for Mad Men. Olinsky told Lauchner about an internship opportunity in the props department, which Lauchner got. "I still work with the people from Mad Men, four years later. It just goes to show you that Emerson is everywhere," Lauchner said. In fact, when asked what her advice is for women wanting to break into the industry, she laughed and said, "Number one? Go to Emerson." She added, "Be motivated, be positive, be determined, and don't be afraid to reach out to people." As with most aspects of the film industry, production design is male dominated. Only four women have won an Academy Award for production design. But Lauchner sees big changes on the horizon. "The attitude in Hollywood is changing. Now, more than ever, women are receiving the opportunities and recognition they have earned and deserve."

Originally written by Lisa Scanlon Mogolov for the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of  Expression Magazine. (Photography by Derek Palmer)