Aug 29, 2021
Community Feature: An Interview With Evette Vargas About Women in the Film Business
I spoke to Evette recently over zoom, and it was both illuminating and inspiring. I learned a lot about what it takes to break into a creative industry, the specific challenges women face within the film world, and the importance of mentorship not just to collaboration but to an education that extends beyond how to do a job but how to exist within an industry and cultivate one's worth within that industry despite all odds.
David Grillo
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10 min. read

Evette Vargas is an award-winning writer, director, producer and immersive storyteller. Named by the New York Times as an “Artist to Watch,” Vargas has produced series for Amazon, MTV, Bravo, DirectTV; and interactive content for Fast And Furious, Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Madonna and Wu-Tang Clan. Vargas executive produced, wrote and directed her digital series Dark Prophet, starring Henry Rollins, which was in contention for two Emmys. Vargas set up a drama series at MGM Television with Marc Guggenheim and Rosario Dawson serving as executive producers and she sold her drama series, Muses, to TNT Super Deluxe. A staunch activist for inclusion and equity, Vargas founded The Writers Room 5050 to mentor storytellers and create opportunities for their next-level success. A member of the Writers Guild of America, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and Producers Guild of America, Vargas was born in the Bronx and learned to tell stories at the dinner table where imagination ruled.


David Grillo: Let us begin by diving into the theme of mentorship, being a mentee, and what that means for young women in film, and how important mentorship is to the collaborative aspect of the film industry. As an example, Chloe Zhao, who just won best director for Nomadland had Spike Lee as her professor and mentor, and this kind of thing is everywhere in an industry built on talent but also relationships. What would be the approach for young women trying to get their bearing in the film industry and look for mentors? What would be that first step?

 

Evette Vargas: So, on one end, it is a business of intellectual property, that is, the creation and exploitation of intellectual property, but it is also a business of people. The first thing to do is to get yourself on set, be it interning or bcoming a P.A.—Hustle, hustle, hustle, to get any one of those entry-level positions, which are coveted but constant, but you get yourself on set so you can start meeting people and pound the pavement to begin cultivating relationships. Anyone you remotely know in the industry, speak to them, and find out about the production, it could be a commercial, it could be a music video, just get yourself on set, and/or become an assistant, whether it be to a producer, director an executive or working in the mailroom at an agency because it is all about beginning to establish your relationships. 


In addition to that, specifically for young women, become involved in different organizations, whether it be Women in Film or Film Independent, there are a number of great entertainment-specific non-profit organizations that put you in positions and gives you opportunities to network while you learn and practice your craft, as a lot of these organizations have their own programs and fellowships. Women in Film is a great place to start for women, and Film Independent is a fantastic organization, and for directors, there is the Alliance of Women Directors, but there are so many and, again, it is another great way to meet people and potentially find mentorship. Now in doing so, you want to make sure you are clear in telling people what your objectives are because no one can help you if they do not know your objectives. Make sure what you inspire to is included within your personal story while highlighting experiences in your life that make you unique, give you particular sensibilities, make you memorable, and inform your voice as a storyteller or your perspective on the world and life. All that is important because, ultimately, what you will be bringing to any project are your perspective and voice. 


Collectively, all of these things will put you in a position to meet people and grow your network, and when it comes to mentorship, most of the time, it happens organically. That is, you form a relationship and make a human connection with someone who wants to help you, and, therefore, some form of mentorship comes along with that.


D.G: When entering the business, are there challenges that are specific to women? And how have you seen women help each other face these challenges together? Are we starting to see the fruit of the labor of so many women throughout the industry, yourself included? 


E.V: You know, I think it’s starting. Historically women have had to play different kinds of roles within the industry, and there have been generations of women in the industry that felt they had to operate as a man would—Women that felt they had to be cutthroat to compete, and they weren’t necessarily friendly to other women. But now, I think, that certainly has changed. Women are tremendous leaders, excellent multi-taskers, they tend to be strong communicators, and for the most part, bring a tremendous amount of empathy which is really needed, along with a certain amount of emotional intelligence. And I know because I’ve seen it and experienced it myself that women have been bonding and banding together, working together, and empowering and supporting each other. It definitely is the newer way, and I would say that we are really at the beginning. I say that because it is really the beginning of women finally starting to have more power in the industry, allowing women to support, uplift, and hire other women.  


Women are also communicating much more in terms of the details of their careers, including one of the most important factors, which is pay, because, of course, historically, there has been a pay disparity across gender lines. But with women disclosing information, we have been bonding and banding together to address pay disparity. All of this makes us stronger and has brought us together, and will continue to bring us together. If you have the goods, you should be paid fairly and equally. Now to bring it all together, the change, really, is women realizing that they are not in competition with other women, that’s a huge shift, and that we are stronger together, not just because we're united and support each other, but because we are sharing information and resources so we can compete and bring each other up collectively and hire each other. 

 

D.G: Yeah, that’s fascinating, and it springs another question to mind, and it might be a difficult one to truly answer but worth reflecting on.  When did this sea change happen, and where would you attribute the shift? My kneejerk answer is Me Too, especially since the ground zero of me too was in the film industry. 


E.V: Absolutely. Me too was a huge factor, Me Too absolutely is the milestone that can be pointed to where this shift occurs, and that coincided with a couple of different things: Donald Trump being elected, that was a major, milestone a turning point where collectively, women said: this is unacceptable! I am not going to have that particular human being tell me how to use my body or tell me I am not worthy of earning as much as a man. This banded women together along with me too. These two moments were critically instrumental for waking up women, and for those who were already awakened, it lit a fire under them to take action. And now we see more women in politics, particularly more women of color, and we've seen more women take action since Donald Trump became the nominee; how about that, so it’s been 5 or 6 years now that we’ve seen a huge shift where women collectively are expressing the need to stand up and take control and have our voices heard and do it together. 


In addition to that, going back to the industry and the issue of pay disparity over the course of the last decade, that information leaking has been another milestone along the way—a call for action where we need to go to our reps, our unions, our industries and say that this is unacceptable. These events lit the fuse and continue to light the fuse because, of course, we're not there yet. 


D.G: That is great to hear, and the issue of pay disparity particularly is so puzzling. From where I stand, you do a quick google search, and you'll find that the top male actors get paid up to ten to twenty million dollars more than the top female actors. Now, if you were to tell me that Leonardo DiCaprio is worth 20 million dollars more to a franchise than Cate Blanchette, I would tell you your insane. From within the industry, is it an open conversation, where on a set, people are talking about how to ensure that there isn’t a disparity in pay between the women and men working on set? 


E.V: This is where finding things out only once they are disclosed is so important because the same agent can represent both Leo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchette and negotiate different rates, where the agents themselves have set a value on their clients. And it happens everywhere it is writers, its producers, its executives, cinematographers; it is everywhere above and below the line. And again, it is education and communication, women speaking and finding out how much their male counterparts are making, and then going back to their reps and putting their feet to the fire. Unfortunately, for women, a lot of the time, they are not in a place where they are negotiating the deal, and historically women have undervalued their worth. So how to address it is education, know your worth. And this is something else women have really been mentoring each other on, it is about discovering your worth if you don’t know it and standing up and demanding your worth once you do, and if someone is really undercutting you, you should walk away from a job, because if you work at that rate, it is going to be harder for you to negotiate later. This is important in the film industry as what you were paid last can quickly become your standard fee. 


D.G: I find that fascinating as it speaks to how distinct the kind of mentorship women require entering the industry and the educative aspect of that. Yeah, it's women having each other’s back, but also informing other women about what they need to do to not be taken advantage of and informing them about the kind of disparities that already exist. So, there is also an element of advocacy embedded in the mentorship role between women in the industry, which extends to groups like Women in Film or the Writers Room 50/50. How important is advocacy when it comes to educating young women entering the industry? 


E.V: Yeah, advocacy is a critical factor, each one of these organizations I have mentioned, including my own, which is the Writers Room 50/50, has some sort of advocacy built-in. This has the effect where emerging women can be educated and mentored in the process so they themselves can be in the position to educate others specifically on the realities of being a woman in the industry. Once they actually become part of these organizations or break into assistant jobs on set, they will begin to see some of these things we’ve been discussing here because it is prevalent. 


Historically, it has been a male-dominated industry, so when new projects emerge, men often come to mind to fill those positions because they have been working more consistently and therefore have more credits, which makes them seem like they have more experience or are better qualified. Where women might not have all those credits or experience because they haven't had the opportunities, so, it takes looking at a woman and seeing that, while she may not have the credits of her male counterparts, the talent is there. This requires a shift in the conversation to how can we support her, and with that comes a need to educate men, specifically the men who are hiring so that when they see the potential, they can ask themselves, how can we support this woman and put her in a position to shine because she has the goods


D.G: One of the questions I had leading up to this interview was how strong the connection was between mentorship and advocacy as they seem like two different things, but clearly, the connection is strong, and it is essential not just among women but anyone working within the industry no matter your gender, no matter how you identify. How would you guide any prospective mentee? What are some core pieces of advice that you would want to impart on a young professional entering into this very dynamic, very nuanced, yet troubled space of the film industry and creative industry in general? 


E.V: Again, know your worth. Know the value of your intellectual property if you are a creator, own that, have confidence in your work, and have value regardless of where you’re at in the industry. Be a good person. I know that that sounds like that should be a given, but it is a business of relationships, and you want to forge real human connections, and it can't be forced. This is about chemistry, so make sure that you are a good friend and be of service to the people you connect with. When you meet people, it is not about what they can do for you; it is about what you can do for them because when you are in service to others, the universe is in service to you, and it all comes back. Being there for people, if they have events and invite you, you know what, go! And that will allow you to establish a foundation of strong relationships. 


D.G: So, where can we get more of Evette? And how are you meeting some of these challenges imposed on women in the industry? 


E.V: You can definitely find me on the clubhouse app, as myself @Vargasgirl23 and I founded a club called new Hollywood, and we talk about this and so much more, and that is on Wednesdays 12 pm PST. I am also on Twitter, @Vargas girl. And I have to mention that I am the founder of the Writers Room 50/50 foundation, and it really grew out of my activism as a woman and as a Latina in the industry. I want to mention it because there, we provide education, mentorship, and fellowships for everyone, but there is a real focus on underrepresented storytellers and women; we have a couple of free webinars for women. We offer 12 labs plus free webinars, but the talent is immense, and it is about getting that hustle on. And in terms of results, twelve different storytellers have been pitched to either a development executive or producer, and all twelve have moved forward, so the results are off the charts in terms of what has been happening with the writer's room 50/50. So, if you are a woman trying to get into the industry, go check it out, as we provide firsthand information right now about the industry for storytellers and especially for underrepresented storytellers. And what I learned from starting this foundation a few years ago is that there is so much untapped talent out there, so many women and people of color taking action learning how to pitch, how to sell, and waiting to tell their stories.


Follow Evette and TWR5050 at...

Clubhouse | @vargasgirl23 IG | @vargasgirl23 Twitter | @vargasgirl


Site | WritersRoom5050.com IG | @TheWritersRoom5050