Tema Staig, Women in Media & the #WiMCrewList: 'Feminism is Good for Everyone'!

Tema Staig Photo: Reggie Burrows Hodges for the Bluestocking Series
Tema Staig is the producer, production designer and visionary activist who founded and runs Women in Media (WiM), a networking group for above and below the line women and the men who love making movies with them.

Women in Media hosts regular networking events and supports women-focused screenings and film festivals, like Seeking Our Story, Etheria Film Night, and Bluestocking Film Festival. It also created the annual #AltOscarParty which invites everyone who believes more women should be included by the Academy to skip the ceremony, have a nice dinner with drinks, and watch movies directed and created by women. And, with Seeking Our Story, Women in Media encourages women to review women-directed films on Rotten Tomatoes and offers to amplify their reviews.

Most recently, Tema created the Women In Media Crew List (#WiMCrewList), as a resource for all those who want women in their crew. Any woman, wherever in the world she works, can request an invitation to sign herself up to the list’s Google doc, which has tabs for 25 crew departments and a tab for resources (details below).

How did you get into producing and production design? And who were your role models?

I think my early experiences, having few people to guide me has shaped my desire to help women get a leg up in the industry. It takes time and effort to build a network of supporters if you aren't born into the business.

I started as an art and lighting director for night clubs at a young age. I went to school for fine art and started doing scenic art for theater to improve my skills. This entailed translating other people's vision and was highly technical. Painting and sculpting for theater was great, but I wanted to do more than translating other people's ideas. I wanted to be the person coming up with the visual language, creating 1/4" models and elevations as opposed to the technician. I've always drawn and loved theater, so it was a natural route for me to take.

When I first started, I was very naive about the business. I called theaters up and down the US east coast to see if anyone would hire me to design. Everyone said, "Who are you? Yeah.... go back to grad school." So, I did. After 3 grueling years at NYU, I realized that I also think cinematically. I should have known, having taken six film history classes in undergrad, but no one talked about production designers. We never discussed any position beyond writing, directing, producing, or cinematography, which is a real shame. I think women have a lot to gain by working in creative and technical jobs below the line.

After leaving NYU, I designed for film, commercials, and theater. After I art directed Kissing Jessica Stein, I got a fellowship with The Independent Feature Project in New York. Through them, I got to meet Patrizia Von Brandenstein, who is formidable and a freaking brilliant production designer who won an Academy Award for Amadeus. I also got to work with innovative designer, Thérèse DePrez on American Splendor. As faculty, I was fortunate to architect a production design program with Barbara Dunphy, who is a total legend in the design world and a class act. All these women have very different styles. They are all fabulous.



What was the catalyst for starting Women in Media? Did you always intend the organisation to focus on film rather than television and other media?

WiM started as a women in film group LA Film School where I was teaching. Gabrielle Kelly and Nancy Hendrickson started it, and at first I wasn't very active. Gabrielle went on to work in Singapore and Nancy put out a mass email asking for faculty to help with an event, which I ended up co-chairing. After the event, Nancy left the school, and I became the faculty advisor. I changed the format and the name, since we had women working in multiple disciplines. Storytelling is story telling, no matter what the medium is.

As faculty advisor, I discovered that there was a real need for women to have a community where they weren't discriminated against by the guys at the school. The group got so large and popular that guys started complaining that there wasn't a group for them. Of course there is, it's called 'The Film Industry'.

I met Samantha Shada of Seeking Our Story, and went to her screening of The Piano by Jane Campion. I offered to join forces with her to bring more folks to her screenings and grow WiM networking to the greater LA community. It's a terrific partnership! We've built a community of women and likeminded men who really love working together and referring each other. We also get to learn more about women directors of historical significance and see their films. Women have been in the film industry since the beginning, but you'd never know it from the way the history is told. We need to change this, as it discourages people from taking women seriously.

Who helps you and in what ways? What roles do your partner organisations play?

WiM is more about getting women film makers visible and working than asking for help ourselves. We bring our unique networking format to support women focused events. They attract a greater audience who otherwise might not have had that awareness.

We have a large social media following, so we're approached by festivals for promotional sponsorship fairly often. We're able to say that we'll participate if, say, there is an opening night film directed by a woman, they have parity or close in their programming, or if they have a 50/50 (or better) panel. Festivals that previously struggled to find women did indeed find them, and we are thrilled to join forces when that happens.

Why are women-focused screenings and film festivals important? 

Until women are no longer marginalized and their work is no longer swept under the rug, I'm afraid that we do need women's festivals and screenings for visibility. As a rule, people in the US don't give women credit for their work – it's systemic. It permeates every aspect of society. For example, a director friend was lamenting that she and her a.d. husband were talking to another, male, director who proceeded to ask her husband questions about HER film. She was right there! I ask you, WTF?

Think of it this way, Most people can name tons of women actors because of the women's track at award shows. Most people cannot name more than one or two women directors (if that) because they are left out of the single track director category. They get very little exposure. This is true of every category at award shows. Visibility translates into jobs. We need places to be seen and heard, and frankly, it's not happening in the cineplex or major award shows – yet. If Boyhood could get nominated and win awards, then American Honey should be in the running as well.

The good news is that more and more festivals are reaching parity. It's a question of being 'woke' as the kids say. I applaud festivals for attaining parity and I hope it will become a habit. Maybe it will rub off on The Academy with enough public discussion. I would love for women's festivals to become a 'quaint' idea. I would love to be put out of business because people are no longer sexist.

I’m intrigued that you’ve now partnered with the European Independent Film Festival (
EIFF). I think it’s the first cross-border partnership of this kind, between a #womeninfilm activist group in the States and an international film festival. 




How is a partnership with a general international film festival outside the US different than your partnerships with women's groups within the US? What does it involve? Who benefits and how?

We aim to help build awareness for women-friendly events whether we are able to participate in person, or via social media. It's good for us because they help spread the word about the #WiMCrewList and we help spread the word about women at their festivals. It's always better when we can be there in person, but cross-promotion is also good. Members of both of our communities benefit from this partnership and exposure. We hope to have more international partnerships in the near future.

When EIFF approached us, we had questions about parity as we always do. They are run mostly by women, feature lots of women directed films, have workshops aimed at women, and an award for women. We would like to have a more international presence, so it made sense.

Conversely, we were approached by a different group who had a women's event, so it would, on paper, look like a good fit. We checked out the rest of their programming, and they all but completely ignored women for every other event they did throughout the year. We had a difficult conversation, but a valuable one, I think. We offered to join them when their practices changed. If they could find great films by women for one month, surely they could find great films at a 50/50 ratio throughout the year?

The #WiMCrewList is perhaps a natural extension of the networking that you’re so good at? When you wrote about it in Women & Hollywood, in 'The Case for Gender-Blanced Crews' you argued that the ‘top-down’ approach, focusing on women directors, producers, actors, and writers hasn’t worked, over decades, and that it’s important to hire ‘not just from the top down but also from the bottom up in order to create sustained meaningful change’. Your goal is to normalise a 50 percent average of women crew on every set. The 
#WiMCrewList is now long. How’s it going? Is it being regularly used to hire people, inside and outside the US?

This is the exciting part! 
 The list has only been in existence since January '17 and we're so thrilled with how it's grown. I've gotten numerous anecdotal reports of people hiring 50%-90% of their crew from the list, not just in LA, but when they go on location. I've been able to hire women from the list – and the best part is that it was soooooooo easy and a real time saver! Having contact information, IMDB, union/non union status, and websites in one easy to sort document makes 'shopping' for crew a breeze.

High profile directors and producers are asking us for access. We love that studios and bigger budget indies are beginning to use the list to hire more women, just as our indie men and women are. We are grateful for all the people who have shared the list via social media and peer to peer.

We encourage folks to take pictures of women doing their crew jobs and tagging @WomenNMedia. We'll retweet. This is great PR for any production as consumers are very socially conscious. #GrabYourWallet is a thing, and that goes for movies and t.v. shows too.

What's #GrabYourWallet?

After Donald Trump's Grab 'em by the pussy video was exposed, Shannon Coulter started a very effective online boycott, suitably titled #GrabYourWallet. This was a great way for frustrated American women to use their power of the purchase against Trump family businesses. She did it with a website, a Google doc, and social media posts that quickly went viral. People called businesses to let them know they were cutting up their credit cards until they dumped Trump products and they shopped elsewhere. As a result, Nordstrom, a large chain store, dropped the Ivanka Trump label due to poor sales performance months later. On line activism can be powerful when it inspires people to on the ground action.

In that W&H article, you also observed that women make films in every crew position at the lower budget levels and ‘our biggest disconnect comes with bigger budget indies and studio projects that repeatedly do not hire women’. Women have the same talents and experience as their male counterparts, but ‘don’t get hired below the line, whether it’s due to stubborn lack of will, knowledge, or effort on the part of those doing the hiring’. Do you have a view on the federal EEOC investigation into Hollywood’s failure to employ women directors? If it’s successful, do you think it will make a difference to Hollywood’s employment of below the line crew?

Yes. Maria Geise who started this investigation is dedicated to gender equality on set. This investigation is necessary, as the studios have historically talked about gender equality, and hired only a few token women. In the end, it's utter bullshit. They have initiatives that don't lead to meaningful jobs or pitches. They basically give lip service to equality as Paramount and 20th Century Fox hire zero.... yes, ZERO women directors. The DGA has 1350 women. There is simply no excuse.

The Studios can use the #WiMCrewList to hire more women in the crew. It's not that hard, they just have to find the will to do it. If they have a problem doing so, they need to do some soul searching and figure out how to correct that problem. That being said, most corporations do not change out of the goodness of their hearts. They only change their culture when their consumers take a stand.

You also referred to the hiring of women directors by Ava DuVernay and others. Ava DuVernay also has an inclusive crew policy. Has the timing of the #WiMCrewList been ‘just right’, in an historical moment when we may be reaching a tipping point that normalises women’s equal participation in onscreen storytelling?

We like to think so. It won't happen without persistent pressure from multiple sources. Ava is a great role model for the industry, and others are following her lead. Surely studio heads are embarrassed by their lack of parity and inclusion. By pointing this out and tagging studios on social media, they will be forced to evolve.

You’re a working producer and production designer. It seems to me that part of your brilliance is that the #AltOscarParty and The Crew list invite participation, so don’t require a lot of ongoing time investment from you. Is that so? But the networking events and screenings must do, because each event and screening is a new-and-different one. How do manage all that you do?

Busy people tend to make themselves even busier, it seems! I'm a fidgety person who gets bored easily, so I like having multiple projects going. I have specific times when I answer emails for WiM and do that organizing. WiM events are very social, so I get spend time with my friends and make new ones, so it doesn't feel like a burden. I'm also really fortunate to have help from our partner organizations. It's very grass roots.

Speaking of.... our next event is the #MayDay17 march and rally on May 1st. We're partnering with Women's March LA on an Educationathon at Pershing Square in Los Angeles. There will be speakers, performers, and booths to educate people about their rights, voting, and labor. Women (and men) need to be armed with knowledge about our rights as workers, immigrants, and civilians under the Trump/Pence administration. All are welcome.

What advice do you have for others who want to develop similar projects?

Research well. You may think you have a unique idea for a need that no one is addressing, but that might not be accurate. You don't want to be redundant if someone else is already tackling that need. Instead, join forces.

Often, women worry about activism affecting their work opportunities. Has yours?
No. Feminism is good for everyone. If you are being retaliated against at work, you need to form a union.

What drives you forward? Have you an endpoint in mind?

I want to put myself out of business. I want women to have an equal seat at the table so I can retire and just talk about movies all day without feeling the need to expose folks to Alice Guy Blache (first narrative film maker, not first woman narrative film maker, first narrative film maker, full stop). Lotte Reiniger (first animated feature director, full stop). Dorothy Arzner (Paramount's first talkie director and creator of the boom mike). When these three women are given their rightful place in the canon and taught in every film school, I can think about retiring.


How to participate in the Crew List

Email WomenNMedia@gmail.com with a request to join the #WiMCrewList.

WiM social media links


Website
Twitter
Facebook


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Research from the legendary Martha Lauzen (in 2016) shows that where women direct, they are more likely than men to employ women on their crews.

Martha Lauzen Celluloid Ceiling Report 2016

But — thanks to Tema’s #WiMCrewList and increased awareness and pressure — that’s changing. We’re more welcome. And it’s up to all of us #womeninfilm to list ourselves if we want work and to tell our mates about the #WiMCrewList — regardless of whether they hire or want to be hired?

There are other crew lists, as well.

In the UK – the Barb Crew, on Facebook and Twitter, which also uses a Google doc.

And four for cinematographers–

Illuminatrixa collective of professional female cinematographers based in the UK and working internationally, with the most gorgeous Instagram feed where individuals choose and talk about images, and on Twitter and Facebook

The International Collective of Women Filmmakers, which also has an extraordinary Instagram feed and is on Twitter

In the US, contact CinematographersXX here, on Facebook and on Twitter; and, 

In India, the Indian Women Cinematographers Collective, announced on International Women's Day last month, with some wonderful images of some of them in action and a website under construction.

Finally, there's The Director List (Facebook, Twitter)  and the Directed by Women (Facebook, Twitter) sites.

I love them all, in all their diversity. Let me know if you have another list to add?

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