Big Success on the Small Screen: Women Screenwriters Discuss Change and Opportunity at NYWIFT Panel Discussion

On the seventh floor of one of the busiest office buildings in New York City, the employees of the Writers’ Guild of America, East are usually wrapping up their day at 6 PM, sending last minute emails and shutting down their computers for the night. However, on the evening of June 18th, approximately one-hundred eager attendees, from college students to seasoned professionals, streamed into WGAE’s open and welcoming space to hear some of America’s finest female screenwriters speak about women writers redefining the small screen landscape.

The event was sponsored by the Writers’ Guild of America, East; the Lower East Side Film Festival; and New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT). The WGAE and LESFF have been hosting this event for the last few years, but NYWIFT came aboard for this year’s event and brought in its own diverse membership. NYWIFT member Janete Scobie helped produce the event.

After Scobie had attended similar panels mostly involving male writers, she knew that creating a panel of strong and diverse women was important. The panelists represented a broad range of writing styles, small screen landscapes, and backgrounds. Among the panelists were Laura Eason (House of Cards), Alison McDonald (Roots, Alpha House, Nurse Jackie), Natalia Leite and Alexandra Roxo (Be Here Nowish), and moderator Lauren Duca (creator of Middlebrow and an entertainment reporter for The Huffington Post).

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(Panelists Laura Eason, Alexandra Roxo, Natalia Leite and Alison McDonald)

“Right now, it’s a golden time in television,” said Scobie, herself a writer of novels and dramatic TV scripts. With the recent explosion of quality programming and plethora of excellent shows with strong female leads, it was vital to create an opportunity for other women (and men) to see that the seed had been sown for women in screenwriting. Scobie explained that Netflix and other new media channels give fresh outlets to diverse voices. “This expansion has created more opportunities, incredible growth of quality programming, and powerful stories that were not part of the television landscape before,” she said. “There are more opportunities for women to create their own content and get it produced. Shows with strong female leads and diverse casts are wildly successful and can make money.”

The evening was filled with interesting and varied answers to the questions posed by the audience and by moderator Lauren Duca. However, one common theme amongst the panelists’ responses was the importance of creating one’s own opportunity. There’s no one way to writing success; the panelists all came from different backgrounds. McDonald and Roxo attended film school and acted with various organizations, while Eason’s position on House of Cards was her first experience writing for television in her entire career – she began as a playwright.

With a predominantly female audience, the inevitable question of “Where are we now?” persisted throughout the evening. As illustrated by the panelists, although women and people of color have more opportunities than ever before, getting into the industry and finding success is not always easy. “I can’t say how many times my scripts were rejected because they were the voice of a black woman or [because] they involved a more diverse cast of characters,” McDonald said. “Agents said [this script] wouldn’t be successful so I just tucked it away in a drawer for eight years until I finally sold it to ABC.”

Those looking to break into “the business” often struggle with networking and gaining an advantage by having a mentor in the field; not everyone has connections when just starting out. Roxo suggested an interesting paradox among women: they know they need to open up to other women in order to get one a job, but they can also feel intensely competitive with one another. Women can be a risk to each other, Roxo said, as writing teams will often already have their “token woman, or token person or color, whichever fills their diversity requirement.” McDonald agreed, stating, “We need to cultivate a network. NYWIFT is a great example of women supporting other women.”

After finally getting a foot in the proverbial door, one of the greatest challenges that each panelist had experienced at one point (or at many points) in her career was being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Writing and development in film and television is still dominated by white men. When discussing the pitfalls of the profession, McDonald said, “Women are a risk to producers. I’ve often experienced a crew who were not women-friendly. We’re fighting a perception of weakness, and there’s an atmosphere of anarchy.”

Roxo agreed, explaining the difficulty of being a female leader. “It’s tough for some men to get past the idea of a woman being in charge. I’ve been on a few sets where I was directing or producing and I had men under me who would make rude, sexual remarks while I was speaking or just would ignore me,” Roxo said. “You have to be firm to show you mean business and to be taken seriously, but then you’re fighting the trope of being the ‘bitch’ men make us out to be when we’re in charge since we’re not passive.”

While Eason did not experience such overt sexism, she still felt pressure when first stepping into the House of Cards writers’ room. “I remember feeling a bit out of place at first. It’s overwhelming when you’re one of the only women sitting in a room full of experienced male writers, especially when you have never written for television before,” Eason said, “but I reminded myself to stay confident because the person that hired me had read my plays and enjoyed them and thought I was good enough to write, so why shouldn’t I believe the same?”

It’s this kind of self-confidence that women must have in order to be successful; the belief that they too can compete with the best no matter gender or race is vital to survival in a fiercely competitive industry. As these diverse women explained throughout the evening, each person’s story is worth telling. “We’ll definitely see more shows that reflect this diversity and the reality that different groups/communities experience,” said Scobie. “I’m excited about this time in television and hope my stories will be produced, too!”

NYWIFT produces more than 50 programs such as this one throughout the year. Check out the NYWIFT website for a listing of current panels, workshops and networking events.

– Gabi Bisconti

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