Industry insights: Women behind the scenes

CWC_2016-01-21_georgia-phase_insta-graphic_template By Annette Wagner

I love the visual pleasure and the escapism of a good film, TV or Netflix program. In my mind, people who produce film or TV work long, insane hours, at random locations, but it’s OK because they have amazing catering trucks! All those logistics behind the scenes are a mystery to me: putting productions together so I can watch at the cinema or from the luxury of my cosy couch.

Recently after speaking with Stephanie Lim, an emerging Melbourne screen producer, I gained some insights into the Australian film and TV industry. I learned that getting the concept to screen was a challenge, and one that I hadn’t even considered, well before the long filming hours, random locations and catering on wheels (budget pending).

Stephanie fell in love with film when she was eight. She remembers how transporting and transformative film seemed at that young age. The defining influence for her to pursue a life behind the scenes was when her family was living in Birdsville (QLD) and she and her brother use to help set up the makeshift cinema in front of the hospital where the whole town came together to watch a film, usually Storm Boy. There, in the middle of nowhere, they were collectively having this experience that spoke to them individually.

She pursued her passion by doing a short photography course then a media course in South Australia. Originally wanting to be a cinematographer, she began lighting and camera assisting mostly, and some other roles to get an idea of her own place in the industry.  She did work experience with gaffers and then got a job in the lighting department in a South Australian television station. When life dynamics changed, Stephanie moved into production management, then producing.

Knowing the right people is critical in most industries and Stephanie agrees- it's really important in the film industry. Probably more important than ever. "When I started in 1996 it was like a secret society as it was pre-internet, pre-email, and pre-mobile phones so there weren’t as many resources around to connect you with others. Now, social media plays a big part in creating and sustaining professional networks and communicating with peers, as well as a way of identifying potential audience bases. Essentially your networks become both your best employment opportunity and your best chance to engage with your audience.”

Getting started and being able to keep going in film Stephanie explains "…is difficult because you need the funds to hire the people you need for the project to be realised, but you need some of those people before you can go through the financing process."

On low-budget/no-budget productions essential production crew will generally consist of the producer, director, cinematographer, production designer, first assistant director, sound, and lighting. Preferably you’d also have continuity, art direction, costume design, location manager, unit manager, hair and make-up, second assistant director, and any other crew members necessary to meet the needs of the production, within budgetary parameters.

It was clearly a case of either fully committing to a career in film, or a destiny of binge-watching episodes from the comfort of her couch, and I agree with Stephanie- there is so much content being created, it's often quite difficult to keep up with. For Stephanie, committing was the only option, as she realised the only time she really loved her job and industry was when she was working in film.

Many female award acceptance speeches highlight the inequality in film, and in the bigger picture (excuse the pun) getting funding is a fraction of the challenge. As a female in the Australian film industry Stephanie thinks one of the main issues is getting across that women make up 50% of the audience,  therefore they should be represented on and off-screen. Behind the scenes, women should have access to the same opportunities that men do, and with the same pay scale, but they don’t.

In Australia, the gender imbalance is acknowledged by government funding initiatives and professional development opportunities being created exclusively for women. It recently became public that not one single female camera operator or sound recordist has been identified working in the reality and unscripted genres within Australian TV.

Stephanie explains she was lucky to have been taught film lighting by a really decent male gaffer when she first started in the late 90’s, however noted television was then a very misogynist, sexist, intimidating and discriminating workplace for women. Today, she can see that it is harder to get mentorships and move into key creative positions, commenting that women tend to work harder, longer hours, and with less acknowledgement. The Gender Matters initiative indicated that the gender imbalance is predominantly in film where women account for 32 percent of producers, 23 per cent of writers and only 16 per cent of directors.

Aside from those depressing facts for females in film, Stephanie is currently producing a comedy mockumentary-style TV series with screenwriter Sophie Bean and Co-producer Maria Alibrando. The team are waiting for news to see if their project will be shortlisted for an initiative that will help them develop it into an eight-part series, and pitch to the ABC. Fingers crossed!

Staying optimistic and motivated, Stephanie loves researching for whatever projects and opportunities that are around. Inspired by people and what’s going on in the world, the best advice she says she has ever been given was to ‘take one day at a time, and, you can only do what you can do’.

For anyone passionate and brave enough to pursue their screen dream, or give the industry gender imbalance a good nudge, Stephanie suggests one of the best resources is Open Channel. “…One of the best screen organisations supporting early and mid-level career practitioners. They have really filled the gap in supporting emerging filmmakers and are an invaluable resource. Their conferences are inspiring and well-researched, and they are accessible to everyone.”

Having a little insight into getting work funded and produced, and an overview of the industry here in Australia is both inspiring and depressing to be honest. But for those amazing women currently working in the industry to bring stories alive, I will pay greater attention to the females listed in the credits, and will, now more than ever, appreciate the passion in every picture.

My next question is, what am I going to watch next?!

For more on the gender divide in the Australian film and TV industry, see here, here and here.


Annette Wagner is a designer, marketer, creative consultant, artist and writer. She is also on the board of the Creative Women’s Circle. Obsessively passionate about the arts and the creative process, she is determined to not talk art-speak and instead focus on supporting and sharing concepts and insights most creative types crave to know.