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15 Lessons We Learned From 4 Years of Interviewing Hollywood's Top Filmmakers

We launched our virtual workshop series featuring the top women of Hollywood 4 years ago today. Here are our takeaways from Q&As with 86 successful filmmakers.

At the beginning of 2020, our organization — then called Women's Weekend Film Challenge — expanded our programming to Los Angeles. But on the heels of our incredible screening at ArcLight Hollywood, where we premiered the six films we made with 170 women and non-binary filmmakers to an audience of 400 industry members, the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, we couldn't run our signature film challenge, which at the time was our only program. Unable to bring people together on set for in-person networking, we launched our virtual workshop series.

We created our virtual workshops as a way to bring career development to filmmakers around the world in the safety of their own homes. We knew that our community was stuck at home, but we realized that the big-name filmmakers we looked up to were in exactly the same situation. These successful creatives were eager to give back to the next wave of filmmakers, and our virtual workshop series became a source of hope and community for the thousands of people who logged on to watch.

These workshops became so popular that we've continued them (albeit with less frequency) even after the world got back to normal. Our filmmakers gain a lot by hearing career advice directly from their heroes, and many of our workshops offer opportunities for attendees to get live feedback on their work samples.

Over the past four years, my co-founder Tracy Sayre and I interviewed 86 of the top women in Hollywood — showrunners, directors, editors, cinematographers, casting directors, writers and more — as part of Moonshot Initiative's virtual event series.

Here are 15 filmmaking lessons I learned from these conversations:

  1. The number one lesson is that everyone has their own path to success in the film and TV industry. Some started out as lawyers, or software engineers, or athletes. Some jumped in right out of college; others got their first industry job in their 40s. Some used connections to get their foot in the door. Others worked their way up, starting as an intern or assistant or PA. Some started in unscripted and pivoted to scripted TV. Others credit their directing chops to spending years as an editor. Becoming a successful filmmaker is not like becoming a doctor, which is difficult and time-consuming but has a prescribed path that everyone takes. For filmmakers, it’s never clear what unpaid gig will open doors or what random connection will give you a big break.

  2. People like working with people they like! This shouldn’t be a big surprise. When you’re slogging through your 11th hour on set in freezing rain or up at 3 a.m. in the editing room, you want to work alongside people who make you laugh and whose company you enjoy. Like everyone always says, it’s about who you know. This may make it hard to get your foot in the door initially, but once you have a few gigs under your belt, this should be a relief (as long as you’re pleasant to work with). If people like and trust you, they’ll hire you again and again. There are, for example, many directors who ONLY work with one composer because of their talent and great personality.

  3. For every film or TV pilot you want to make, you should be able to answer these two questions: Why are YOU the person who should tell this story? And why should this story be told NOW? This is when your unique background, experiences and perspective should shine through. Think about your favorite films and series. Can you imagine anyone else telling that story in exactly that way?

  4. On a similar note, when you sell a pilot or find an investor for your film, they’re not just buying into your idea; they’re buying into you as a creator. What are you bringing to the table as an artist that no one else could? If I gave 10 writers the same logline, they’d write 10 completely different screenplays. And if I gave a script to 10 different directors, they’d each interpret it differently. Your own uniqueness is what makes your take on the subject special.

  5. Take the time to learn from those who have come before you. Even though there are some aspects of how the industry works that are hard to know from the outside, there are many, many resources about every role of production, from webinars to books to podcasts. The most successful people in the industry have gained a lot of knowledge, and many have shared much of that knowledge publicly. Look up recordings of film festival panels or Q&As they participated in, as well as magazine and podcast interviews.

  6. There’s value to every step of your career, and several of our guests have warned against rushing or “skipping ahead” so to speak. One editor told us that you can’t just skip past the assistant editor stage; she learned so much about cutting and recutting episodes as an AE. Showrunners have discussed how new writers often want to jump to being a showrunner, but by working up the ranks of the writers' room, you learn so much about how to structure an episode, and you get to watch how various showrunners lead.

  7. On the flip side, don’t turn down opportunities that you’re qualified for just because you don’t “feel ready”! A lot of talented people suffer from imposter syndrome. Definitely take opportunities when they come; just don’t feel “behind” if you’re moving step by step.

  8. Respect the work of those in all other departments. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and every piece is integral. Can you imagine a film without sound design, or lighting, or costumes, or sets, etc.? The whole thing would fall apart!

  9. Don’t just network up; network laterally. It’s great to connect with and learn from those ahead of you, but your strong network of peers is who you’ll grow alongside. Those are the people you can turn to for feedback or refer for gigs. You can help lift each other up.

  10. Be nice to everyone. That casting assistant will become a casting director; that PA will become a producer. (But hopefully you’re nice to everyone anyway.)

  11. In terms of practical tips, you wouldn’t believe how many filmmakers recommend watching your favorite movies with the sound off! This way, you can pay attention to the cinematography, lighting, editing, etc. Watch how your favorite filmmakers build their films.

  12. Fun homework: Almost all of our guests have recommended watching a ton of films and series, both as a way to learn and as a way to keep up with the industry. It’s a way to feed your brain with the visual language of various genres.

  13. Another piece of homework: Many screenplays and pilots are available online. Read them! You can also find series bibles and lookbooks for various projects. This will help you see how the pieces come together for the final product you see on screen.

  14. Take care of your mental and physical health, whether that means meditation, therapy, journaling, exercise, nutritious eating or a good sleep schedule.

  15. No matter how high up someone is in the industry, they’re still human! It’s been so refreshing how kind and down-to-earth all of our workshop guests have been. They’re so eager to help the next wave of women in film and TV.

Head over to our YouTube channel to watch highlights from our virtual events. You can also become a monthly donor to access a library of full recordings of many of our past virtual workshops.

Virtual workshop guests have included:

Susan Johnson ("To All the Boys I've Loved Before"), Tayarisha Poe ("Selah and the Spades"), Nisha Ganatra ("Late Night"), Lynn Shelton ("Little Fires Everywhere"), Karyn Kusama ("Destroyer"), Andrea Bunker, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson ("Someone Great"), Alma Har'el ("Honey Boy"), Elle Johnson ("Self Made"), DeMane Davis, Luci Romberg, Michelle Lee and Janeshia Adams-Ginyard, Meshell Ndegeocello, Leslye Headland ("Russian Doll") Inga Brege, Emma Norton ("Normal People), Mimi Leder ("The Morning Show"), Alexandra Rushfield, Stella Meghie ("The Photograph"), Nancy Schreiber, Linda Mendoza, Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight"), Shannon Baker Davis, Akilah Green, Kasi Lemmons, Terilyn Shropshire, Julia Kots, Caitlin Gold, Márcia Mayer, Ita O'Brien, Alice Wu, Jennifer Dunnington, Charise Castro Smith, Obehi Janice, Jennie Snyder Urman, Amber Horn, Kristina Thomas, Ina Mayhew, Orly and Lynnette, Jenny Hinkey, Erica A. Hart, Mia Schachter, Felicia Pride, Isabel Sandoval, Noemi Gonzalez, Samara Bay, Stacie O'Beirne, Ruthy and Daniella, Eugene and Elvira, Lotta Forssman, Jami O'Brien, Tracey Deer, Ana Isabelle, Natalie Qasabian, Christina Lee, Alissa Nutting, Angela Kang, Lucia Aniello, Alice Brooks, Krystin Ver Linden, Jasmine Russ, Mitzi Miller, Felicia D. Henderson, Julie Margaret Hogben, Alyssa Thorne, Meg Schrock, Camille Friend, Lyra Tan, Rebecca Neipris, Pam Davis, Carmen Cabana

Did you learn something during any of our virtual workshops that stuck with you? Comment below to share your favorite filmmaking lessons!


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