Byline: Mandy Ellis
Working toward gender parity and advancing the careers of women in screen industries isn’t a clock-in-clock-out, 9-to-5 gig for Maikiko James, director of programs at Women in Film (WIF); it’s how she runs her world. Even when she’s not creating cutting-edge initiatives that push women’s films and abilities to the forefront, she’s politically engaged, transforming society from entertainment to civic engagement to the global economy and job market. A screenwriter and improv performer herself, she deeply understands her community, which is how she’s able to form diverse, uplifting communities like INSIGHT, and nurture projects like the Emerging Producer Program and Writing Labs.
EMINUTES, who recently provided a sponsorship to WIF, sat down with James to chat about the incredible programs she’s created and run, why WIF works hard to achieve gender parity and advance the careers of female filmmakers, what unique programs they offer for growing their diverse members’ networks, and why improv is critical for business and life.
You’ve been with Women in Film for about seven years. What have been some major initiatives or changes while you’ve worked there?
I’m proud of our writing labs and our Episodic Lab’s numbers show over 30 percent of women staffed in the last five years, which is incredible. The advancement of our helpline, which we’re the only helpline that supports people who experience harassment or abuse in entertainment. And the evolution I’ve seen in advancing representation and equity. We know women, especially women of color, are not represented in the tiers of decision-makers so we started programs like INSIGHT, our production program, and our mentorship program.
We’ve also had to make some major pivots this year where we used to be super event based and have in-person activities, which I miss, but we made the pivots well. We have our speaker series and our labs all online. And we were really concerned about what happened with backsliding the advancement of parity during the pandemic; women were twice as likely than men to not be able to go back to work or be hired. So we have our Hire Her Back campaign, with the Hire Her Back fund for emergency grants for women who suffered during the pandemic.
In what specific ways does WIF work to advance and accelerate the careers of women in screen industries?
Our goal is parity and we’re far from that across the field. The advocacy part is that Hollywood needs to be transformed. For so long, it’s been a profit-driven old boys club being predominantly white and older. We see that changing, but very slowly. It’s 2021 and still nowhere near representative of how the world looks. WIF has been intentional, like our board is now 50 percent women of color, and it’s emphasizing that when we say representation, we really mean it.
And people need to know and trust you, and that’s the underscore of WIF’s work is creating a network of genuine people who care about one another, recommend each other, and help with having opportunities for people across the industry, from behind the desk to in front of the camera to behind the camera. It’s really about who you know and relationships are so important in Hollywood.
Why is it so critical for unique storytellers from the female filmmaker community to become more visible within the film industry?
Media is powerful and dictates our cultural narrative. For many people, film and TV are their window into other parts of the world. But people aren’t being shown authentic narratives of diverse stories or even seeing those stories at all. You may be telling them stories about people of color, but they’re often not written, produced, or directed by people of color, and that’s so core to changing how society works in being represented accurately and authentically.
Film, television, and celebrity culture, as much as we want to deny it, are powerful. But there’s room for so many different types of stories, and it’s important to help everyone believe that their stories matter and they can tell their stories. It’s important for all people to know that their stories are equally as important as others.
Why is it important to support a project like WIF’s Emerging Producer Program?
It’s our newest career offering, and we’re really excited to launch it with EMINUTES, because it’s a program designed to help rising producers. Many people go into this field because it’s so vast, but aren’t sure what kind of producing they want to do or how to do it. It’s the most in-demand position yet there are fewer of them than writers or directors. Our intention is to help people find the sustainable producing paths, but also learn their various options.
Producers are the heart and soul, bread and butter of our industry. The producer is the one who gets the Best Picture award yet everyone’s watching the Oscars like, “Who is that?” And producers work across many different disciplines: feature films, television, independent, digital. So it started because WIF didn’t have a program for producers only.
What are some of the insights and fundamentals those in the Emerging Producer Program receive during their one-year course?
Producers’ careers can span a number of different formats so we want to create an opportunity for people to understand that the different types of producer, television, film, development, production, and physical production is different than being a creative producer. The other big part, especially for independent producing, is that you’re your own boss and have your own production company. So understanding what it means to be an entrepreneur and how to manage your business.
Another huge learning part of being a producer is building relationships, and especially for women of color that’s been one of the barriers to becoming head decision-makers. So how do you create your network? How do you build a community that supports and believes in you? And producers are always in demand, but you can only be in demand to people who know you. So how do you build those relationships and also grow your reputation as a dependable producer in the field? What does that look like, especially if you’re working with lower budgets or a strapped crew, or if it’s a huge budget and massive crew?
The last one is financing. Helping women with some educational programming about, what is financing, how do you find it, how come it seems like everyone has a rich uncle to finance their first short? Breaking down what it means to look for funding, and how do we start breaking down barriers where some people seem to be able to have access and others don’t?
How has EMINUTES’ sponsorship impacted WIF so far? Do you have any plans with the sponsorship so far?
What the EMINUTES sponsorship will provide, which is invaluable, is the entrepreneurship part; how do you start your business? Do you need to start an S Corp or an LLC? EMINUTES has the expertise to guide our participants through the process. And they’ll be supporting our participants once they make that choice to ensure they have the correct foundation, which is incredible.
It’s also something that women don’t necessarily have access to at the start to their careers. What does it mean to start a healthy business from scratch, or get their questions answered around taxes and accounting. In our initial meetings with EMINUTES, we’ve been given great insights on who are the types of advisors you need to stay afloat and not be hit with major expenses. And EMINUTES will be supporting us with educational and informational resources, but also in-kind and financial resources for our participants to kickstart their businesses.
Walk me through the INSIGHT community you founded at WIF. How does it help women of all backgrounds get the support and guidance they need?
INSIGHT is a unique program I co-founded with colleagues. It’s more like an ecosystem of people to share information and get to know one another. It’s like a space where you can feel less alone in Hollywood, especially if you’re used to the experience of being the only one in the room. And you can talk honestly and candidly about how prejudice, bias, and racism still exist in Hollywood.
When we talked about it, we went back to this notion that there’s a closed loop in Hollywood. If you’re not “in,” it’s really hard to get “in.” So how do we address that? INSIGHT was an attempt to create a collective of people who were already “in,” but also to create a new community of people that could become your resource. Instead of needing to bang down walls and “ask for permission” from people who control the purse strings, you had a community that wanted to support you and make your content in a self-sustaining way.
You’re an Upright Citizens Brigade and Groundlings-trained improvisor. How does that background help you at WIF?
I tell literally everyone, it’s something they should learn to do, and not necessarily for the sake of being a performer, but because life is an improvisation. Actually learning the skills is so key to building healthy relationships and learning to listen. Improv is about listening and responding in natural human ways, which quite often is funny.
That’s also why they say the core part of networking isn’t about going in to find out what people can do for you. It’s about going into the room and finding out what you can do for others, and that’s core to improv as well. You can come to WIF for support for your own career, but I find it’s more fruitful if you go in trying to figure out who in the community you can also be in relationship with and how you can work together.
What should we be looking for in the future of WIF and all its top-notch programs and filmmakers?
The hope is to have moved the industry to a place where people feel seen and hireable in a way that doesn’t feel discriminatory. Anytime you go through a WIF program, you have opportunities to meet people who can give you a job. And our new programs, like the Emerging Producer Program, are helping build more decision-makers and give access and resources to those who don’t look like the standard and represent the new cross section of society.
What advice would you give to aspiring female filmmakers?
If you’re telling stories, be an observer who’s conscientious of the world that you’re trying to capture. But be confident in the stories you have to tell and know that yours are worth telling. Be intentional and considerate about your relationships and take care of one another. Always treat everyone with kindness because you never know if that person is going to be the one to get you a job.
BIO: Maikiko James is the director of programs at Women in Film, a 50-year-old nonprofit that advocates for parity and advances the careers of women in screen industries, in Los Angeles.