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Women Producers and Filmmakers on Telling Their Own Stories – and Making Room for Other Women to Do the Same

Power Women Summit: ”The more stories there are, the less we have to fit into one box,“ says ”Jane the Virgin“ creator Jennie Snyder Urman

Several of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers, producers, writers and showrunners appeared at TheWrap’s Power Women Summit on Friday to discuss the various ways they’re revolutionizing the industry by working their own perspectives into the mainstream — and making room for other underrepresented voices to do the same.

Historically, that hasn’t been the easiest thing to do in this business, said Skydance Television president Marcy Ross, who had to fight to get the Netflix comedy “Grace & Frankie” in front of viewers even with all of the proven talent attached.

“[When] we were developing it, Marta Kauffman, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and my brilliant partners at Skydance — All women, that was by design — We took it to an agency at that time, a room full of men,” said Ross. “We presented the package, where we’re going to go with it, the whole theme of disenfranchised older women, and they started to laugh.”

Five and a half years before the series would go on to become one of Netflix’s flagship comedies with multiple Emmy nominations to its name, Ross and company were told, “This is going to be such an estrogen-fest. You’re never going to sell it.”

Amy Ziering, the Oscar-nominated producer of “The Invisible War,” received similar pushback from executives when she and her partners were trying to sell the documentary about systemic sexual abuse in the military.

“We could get into any room,” said Ziering, who at the time already had a proven track record of multiple successful documentary features and even an Emmy nomination. “But what was so amazing to me was that what we heard was that no one cares about women’s stories. No one cares about women being raped. And of course, no one’s going to care about women being raped in the military. So we couldn’t get a penny.”

“I wonder if they would’ve said that today. I would hope there’s more consciousness,” said Ross. “Actually, I hope there’s more f—ing fear.”

Such attitudes meant that not only were these women forced to carve out their own path to tell their own stories, but once they were given the opportunity, they felt a duty to give others the chance to do the same.

“I really wanted to create an atmosphere where people who were best for the job were getting the job,” said Carly Craig, creator and star of the YouTube Premium comedy “Sideswiped.” That meant taking chances on women — both in front of and behind the camera — who don’t have as much experience.

“My co-showrunner, Robin Schiff, and I just packed it full of women,” she said. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that was safe, not abusive and that was fun. I mean, we’re doing entertainment, and I really wanted to make the show entertaining while we’re doing it.”

“Jane the Virgin” creator Jennie Snyder Urman similarly made it a priority to bring other women into the room when she was developing her CW dramedy. And not just women, but Latinx writers and other people of color.

“I’ve always wanted to tell stories about women, because the more stories there are, the less we have to fit into one box, or one set of assumptions,” said Urman. “I had to really connect with who [Jane] was, and make sure to hire enough people to make sure that the stories and the voices in the room and behind the scenes can fill in the gaps of what I don’t know.”

She continued, “That opened up a whole new level of my consciousness and my commitment to increasing diversity … That’s one of the most important things you can do, is to help others on their way up.”

Urman spoke on a panel sponsored by CBS Eye Speak, a CBS initiative to promote female empowerment and help develop the next generation of leaders through insight and opportunities, which also included “Fruitvale Station” and “Sorry to Bother You” producer Nina Yang Bongiovi, “Manchester by the Sea” producer Kimberly Steward and “RBG” directors Btsy Cohen and Julie West.

Yang Bongiovi and her producing partner Forest Whitaker work exclusively with directors of color, often filmmakers who haven’t yet been given their first break. That roster includes Boots Riley, the rapper and activist behind this year’s critically acclaimed “Sorry to Bother You.”

“People say, ‘You guys are crazy for doing this,’ but our films are not just critically acclaimed, they’re profitable,” said Yang Bongiovi, adding that a proven history of success allows her to take big risks on movies like Riley’s.

But to this day, that hasn’t always been an easy road to walk, especially in an industry resistant to change and beholden to outmoded narratives like the idea that films anchored by actors of color don’t sell well overseas. “I had to yell at these two men and tell them to stop it,” she said, describing a recent meeting with potential new investors who didn’t were trying to cap the budget on a project because of its diverse cast.

“It takes a little bit of patience. I’d be mad all day if I took every grievance,” added Steward, explaining that people even underestimate her as a woman of color. “In those moments where I am patient, I try to teach … Being here is a representation of that. To show that this market is diversifying, that women are in positions of power, and now we can work to give that access to everyone.”

Having that access and telling a wide range of women’s stories can make a real difference in lives of people even outside the industry. Ziering saw that first-hand when she made her followup to “Invisible War,” the acclaimed documentary about campus rape, “The Hunting Ground.”

“Not everyone, but I would say 60 percent of the students who spoke to us said, ‘I’m only talking to you because I saw that woman in the military get up on screen and talk. And because I saw her, I have the courage to do this,'” said Ziering.

And maybe that went even further than Ziering’s own work. When “The Hunting Ground” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, dozens of young sexual assault survivors took the stage at the Oscars alongside Lady Gaga in a show of solidarity and hope.

“Consciously or unconsciously, maybe that helped infect the Hollywood movement. All these actresses could say ‘If these kids can stand up, why can’t we tell our stories?'” said Ziering. “That’s the power of women. That’s why we need to represent [ourselves] and tell our stories.”