10 Takeaways From Variety’s Power of Women Summit

·14-min read

From network presidents to CMOs to a WNBA star, Variety‘s Power of Women Summit Presented by Lifetime brought together more than two dozen women with remarkable achievements to talk shop, share war stories and take stock of gender dynamics in the entertainment industry.

Here are 10 key takeaways from the daylong summit that coincides with the Sept. 30 publication of Variety‘s annual Power of Women issue and dinner event highlighting prominent women in the industry and their philanthropic endeavors.

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1) Use Your Power

Keynote speaker Marlee Matlin waited until all the elements were right for her to commit to starring in “CODA,” the Apple TV Plus movie about a young woman facing a decision as she reaches adulthood about leaving her deaf parents behind to run their struggling fishing business. Matlin, an Oscar winner for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” drew a line when it came to the casting of the character of Frank, her husband, in “CODA” when it was still in development.

“In this particular film, there was discussion of Frank being played by hearing actor,” she said. “And I said that this is not something I would like to do. It was at that time a studio film, and it was discussed that it would be a hearing actor playing that character. And that was something that I said I would not be able to participate in ‘CODA.’ It would send the wrong message to deaf children who want to be actors and to people in the industry who want to be able to get away with having people playing disabled roles or deaf roles. I said, you know what? This is a one for me to say, no, because there are wonderful actors.”

2) Get It Done

Top TV and film producers shared tales of navigating the sudden pandemic shutdown in March 2020 and how they got TV shows and movies back on their feet. Victoria Alonso, president of physical and post production for Marvel Studios, said the drive to keep the lights-camera-action going was strong even at a time of real pain for many in the Marvel Universe.

“I lost a family member and we lost people in our productions. You get through the pain of loss. One of my most favorite lines from ‘WandaVision’ is, ‘What is grief, if not love persevering?,'” Alonso said. “You look at the grief that we’ve all gone through, and then you tip the hat to love — which is the love of filmmaking, the level of production, the level of your family and the level of wanting to get it done regardless. And I think that for me, that’s what I’ve learned, that it, you know, if I’m going to be stuck in a pandemic, I want to be stuck with a bunch of production folks because we know how to get it done.”

3) Be Everywhere the Audience Is

Rashida Jones has taken on the job of leading MSNBC as president through its quadrennial boom-and-bust cycle around presidential elections. But television news is also at a generational crossroads as it’s become clear that younger audiences get their news primarily from digital sources.

In her keynote address, Jones says these changes are driving her sense of urgency about “really leaning into where do we get new audiences?” She cited MSNBC and NBCUniversal’s recent expansion into streaming as an important area of growth. “We know there are people who are leaving linear cable television, and going to other places we want to be in those other places. And so that’s been a big priority and a big focus. We know that there are people who are interested in some of the topics we talk about, but they don’t necessarily watch cable news. And so we’re putting a lot more focus into long form. And so we’re putting a lot more resources there. And then finally in digital, we know also there are people who watch content in smaller chunks, or they’re looking for it on different platforms. And so finding ways for us to show up in all of those places where people already are.”

4) Make Your Own Opportunities

In a session focused on first-time directors and producers, Shiri Appleby, star, director and producer of the Lifetime drama series “Unreal,” gradually became more interested in directing after growing up on sets as a child actor. By the time she landed a starring role on “Unreal,” Appleby knew she was ready even if it took some persuading to get the greenlight. Today, she’s in-demand and has landed directing gigs that are separate from her acting work.

“I started acting when I was three years old and I didn’t see a woman directing until I was in my 30s,” Appleby said. She began her campaign to get her shot behind the camera. “I heard that especially in Hollywood — work gets work… I shadowed all of those people to get their support, to direct my first episode. Convincing the producers that I could act and direct was really challenging. They were very set against it. And I came to a meeting with a list of 50 actors who had directed themselves on television. And I was like — if they had done it, I can do it. So I got that.”

5) “I Didn’t Think I Should Get a Pass”

The woman who was at the center of the Clinton impeachment storm in 1998 is now getting the moment to tell her side of the story at a time when cultural attitudes have shifted dramatically on the issue of sexual harassment and workplace power dynamics. In her keynote address, Monica Lewinsky acknowledged her own missteps and said she sought to be objective, and even tough on herself, as a producer and advisor on FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”

At first, “I was thrilled to read (a script) that had nothing of this mortifying Monica at 22 — attempting to flirt, making all sorts of mistakes. The thong incident — we’ll just call it that. I think everybody knows that mortifying moment and it wasn’t in there and I was thrilled. But as I kind of took a step back, I thought about with the production that there were these signpost key moments for the audience. Particularly because I was a producer, I felt that people were going to be asking questions. Did I get a pass? And I didn’t think I should get a pass. And I didn’t think it was fair to the other producers and the show or the actors in the show to have something missing that people would recognize and notice was missing. So I insisted it be in there. As much as I hated that personally.”

6) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff While You’re Conquering the World

Many prominent women in the industry feel an extra burden to use their success to help lift up other women and those from underrepresented communities. In pandemic times, the need for women to lean on a village of their own making has become acute. Panelists in the session focused on the importance of women forging networks and having allies in the workplace agreed that the pandemic-imposed working conditions have changed some things for the better.

“The positive of it is it really opened my eyes to the way we can work,” said Maha Dakhil, co-head of CAA’s motion picture group. “For those of us who are mothers, at the same time, we were doing it anyway and we were doing it off camera, but now we’re doing it really on camera and it’s sort of acceptable that our children are going to interrupt our workflow and that we actually can still be present, conquer the world with them by our side.”

Richelle Parham, president of global ecommerce and business for Universal Music Group, said she feels the loss of face-to-face interaction is forcing employees to connect in new ways. “It’s really tough when you used to walk by someone’s office or someone’s cube, and you would hear you a new idea or a new thought, and then you could jump in or ask questions or bring that to the table, or when you had questions and you could just pop into someone’s office — that organic nature has also gone away. And so we’ve all had to figure out like, what are the other ways that we communicate?”

Ukonwa Ojo, chief marketing officer for Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Studios, observed that Zoom-style meetings have yielded unexpected benefits. “What I noticed was equal voices in the room, because when we’re back in a physical space, you see people go to the head of the table or the middle, like they start assigning roles to different people, and you kind of know where the leader sits. It didn’t completely go away in the pandemic, but it’s significantly reduced. And so we started hearing the voices of people more junior in the organization. And so for creative organization, I think that actually made us more innovative because they were able to bring ideas to the forefront.”

7) Why ‘Framing Britney Spears’ Brought This News Veteran to Tears

In her keynote address, news veteran and talk show host Tamron Hall said she has been very moved by the very public legal drama surrounding Britney Spears. Hall said she relates the mistreatment of the pop star to the mistreatment of women and women of color for ages.

“We were all watching that Britney Spears documentary, I cried at the end of it, and I couldn’t believe that those were some of the jokes (about her) on TV. That that’s how she was covered. I remember joining MSNBC and everyone was watching (Spears) after she shaved her head and reporting on those images. And I left watching that documentary embarrassed in shock, but reminded of how women have been marginalized and made into caricatures and names. And Britney’s just one name you can go through… There’s this connective tissue, if you will, of wrongs that I cannot right, but I am sitting here in this chair.”

8) The Good Fight

Media is a crucial tool for those who seek to bring attention to a cause, an issue or an injustice. A mix of journalists, activists and executives gathered for a panel on the most effective ways to generate change. Journalist Soledad O’Brien recalled the difficult period of killing a CNN documentary series on Latinos in America because she wasn’t confident in the work. “While it’s so absurd that it does make me laugh, it’s also terrifying because that happens a lot in TV news. And some people have an amazing arrogance about like, no — I can tell this story. And you’re like, literally, you don’t have it. You literally have no idea what you’re talking about. And so I killed that project and got brought back to life as something else that ended up doing really well for CNN.”

Actor Yvette Nicole Brown, who has become vocal on social justice issues in recent years, spoke of her realization that celebrity provides a platform that also comes with some responsibility. “I believe with all my heart that you have a platform to use it and it is not supposed to be used to talk about lip gloss and flat tummy tea,” she said. “There are people following you for you to lead them somewhere that matters.”

“The View” co-host Sunny Hostin has sought to turn her success into the power to make change and provide livelihoods for people to do meaningful work. “I now have a production company backed by Disney. And I have hired many people. I have many projects in production with diverse producers and a diverse head of development. I’m employing people for the first time in my life,” she said. “And it feels good to be part of the power structure that is opening up doors for people, because I really think that in order to succeed, at least in this business, probably any business, you would have to have someone that is in the room where the decisions are being made. And that someone has to have not only power but political power, but that person has to have the political power and be willing to bet on you. And there were so few times, and those people are willing to spend it on people that look like us. And that is the truth of the matter. But now that I’m in those rooms, I spend my power, however limited, on people that look like us on women, on people of color, on people in the LGBTQ+ community.”

9) The Game of Life

WNBA star Candace Parker offered her insights into the demands of leadership and competition, on and off the court, in her keynote address. She excelled at basketball at a young age, which helped make her a natural leader. Parker credits the discipline and social training she received by playing team sports as key to her success over 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks and, as of this year, the Chicago Sky. She has also moved into the booth as an NBA commentator for TNT.

Sports, Parker said, “teaches you so many different lessons. It teaches you to deal with so many different types of people in their personalities and the ups and downs and the wins and the losses. And I think it’s with that versatility that I play with that I hope to carry that off the court. And that means being able to do a lot of different things and be able to communicate and to reach and to have relationships with a number of different people from varying backgrounds. And so I think that I realized that relationships really does make the world go round. You play better when you like your teammates and when you communicate well and when there’s positive energy and it’s the same thing off the court.”

10) What Doesn’t Kill You May Just Be Your Big Break

The Power of Women summit closed out with a lively discussion among writers, directors, producers and showrunners about what it takes to capture lightning in a bottle and stand out in an extremely crowded content landscape. Panelists Kay Cannon and Leslye Headland were candid about how it hard it can be to get that first big break.

“I come from the improv world and when I was coming up there were all these women who were pretty amazing at that time that broke through in the improv world — which very much was a man’s sport. So that whole gang of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Stephanie Weir, Rachel Dratch — you just looked at them and you were like, oh, they were just really breaking through. Tina was the first female head writer at ‘SNL,'” Cannon said. “Tina, whether she likes it or not, really became my mentor. She’s the one who gave me the shot. My first job was writing on ’30 Rock’ and she almost like hand-selected me. I was a failed actress who had shared my writing with her.”

Headland honed her craft as a writer-director working for peanuts at a theater company in L.A., but not before she endured “horrible abuse” as an assistant in entertainment. She wound up at IAMA Theatre Co. where she wrote a series of seven plays that set her on a path to write and direct.

“They were able to workshop and give feedback on my work in a way that I could really hear and understand. And then I could also see implemented when we put the productions up. So very quickly, they taught me how to take criticism. And in theater, your criticism that comes pretty quickly,” Headland said. “I spent about three years working with them before I got my first staff writing job. And then when I got that gig, I was like, ‘Oh, this is like a theater company, except everyone’s getting paid.'”

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