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BREAKING & ENTERING: You Can't Win If You Don't Play

Aspiring writers face a rocky road. But is it rougher for women writers? Barri Evins explores what ALL writers must know to get in the game, take risks and play to win.

A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri's newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.

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What would you pay for two delicious, homemade cookies? 77 cents? Absolutely! A buck? Sure!

What if I said that it would cost some of you 77 cents but others would have to pay a dollar?

That’s what a group of Utah high school students did last March at their “Gender Equality Bake Sale.” Hoping to raise awareness about pay inequality between men and women, they charged boys $1 for two cookie while girls paid 77 cents. Pretty cool idea.

BREAKING & ENTERING: You Can't Win If You Don't Play by Barri Evins | Script Magazine

Along with sweet treats, the Young Democrats club handed out fact sheets. According to 2013 statistics, women in the workplace were paid 78 percent of what men were paid. The group generated a lot of positive feedback, as well as national headlines, but also stirred up some controversy.

The President of the group, 16-year-old Kari Schott, said there was a backlash. Several people called her “sexist.” Schott said, “People were really mad about it. They didn't think it was fair and I said, 'Yeah, it's not fair. That's why we're doing it.'"

While you might not see the point of discussing cookie prices in an article about breaking into the film business, rest assured, this isn’t a political rant – and there is a point to be made. Not only for women writers. Stick with me for a minute.

On the heels of that article, I read that women writers were entering screenwriting contests at significantly lower rates than men. I checked in with several of the top screenwriting contests and got very similar answers. Women writers made up approximately one-third of all entrants. Often, a slightly higher percentage of women “win, place or show” in the contests they enter.

Let’s be clear: There is no gender bias here. These prestigious contests require that the scripts be read “blind.” Readers and judges do not see a name on the cover page. They are looking solely at the writing, not the writer.

Contests are considered a viable path for aspiring writers to garner industry attention. In addition, they often provide writers with valuable feedback and help them gauge their progress. Are budding women writers missing the boat by not playing? Are women writers are less likely to re-enter and risk getting rejected again?

BREAKING & ENTERING: You Can't Win If You Don't Play by Barri Evins | Script Magazine

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Is There A Gender Bias In The Industry?


According to the 2014 WGA report, women make up a mere 16% of film industry employment. For film and television writing combined, it’s 26%. Sad, but not shocking. Shonda Rhimes might be nearly single-handedly responsible for the bump in TV statistics, (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder) but how many talented women like her are still struggling to break in?

How do we explain this vast discrepancy? Perhaps more men want to be writers than women?

Maybe... Looking back over my career, I’ve certainly encountered more working men writers than professional women writers.

I doubt there’s a gender difference in the desire to become a paid writer that comes anywhere near taking into account the extremely low employment rate of women writers. But I don’t want to say so based on a hunch.

I contacted several of the most highly regarded graduate MFA cinema and film and television writing programs in the U.S. Not every program kept gender statistics on students. When I did get cold, hard numbers, I learned that although there were more men enrolled, the ratio of men to women was closer to 50-50. I heard numbers such as 58.7% male versus 41.3% female. This is a far cry from the 70-30 for contest entrants, much less the 74-26 difference in employment statistics.

Obviously this is neither a comprehensive nor vaguely scientific means of determining how many men versus women aspire to become professional film and TV writers. Certainly not all professional writers get an MFA on the way to mastering their craft. But it is a clue to the numbers of women whose goal is to become a professional writer versus the percentage of women who succeed.

For those women who do want to grow up to be a writer and become working professionals, there’s that pay discrepancy again.

Cynthia Littleton, in her recent Variety article on women TV showrunners has some interesting statistics to share:

The earning power of female writers grew slightly more than that of male writers during the 2006-2012 period – 23.9% vs. 23.3% – although women still make less on average than their white male peers, according to the WGAW’s 2014 Hollywood Writers Report. Median income for female TV writers in 2012 was $112,081, or 92¢ for every dollar earned by male writers, who had a median income of $121,190 in 2012.

Women working in TV are surely better off than many of those working in film. Female screenwriters on average earned a paltry 77¢ for every dollar earned by men in 2012, according to the WGAW report, or $61,776 vs. $80,000 for white males.

In screenwriting, the numbers eerily match the cookie experiment.

The Catch 22

Basic psychology dictates that we are more likely to hire people most similar to ourselves. Mynette Louie, in her article, “A Female Producer Explains 4 Ways Women Get a Raw Deal in Hollywood,” dubs this “The Mini-Me Problem.” Louie explains, “A powerful paradigm in the ego-driven, self-obsessed film industry is key players' desire to seek collaborators who are similar to themselves – not just in terms of taste and perspective but also culture, background, and, yes, gender.”

So how do we get more women into the role of key players?

The obvious solution would be helping more women break in and then rise through the ranks. But isn't this Hollywood’s gender “Catch 22”?

This is what haunts me about the contest statistics. How many women are giving up before getting a foot in the door?

Only those who play win.

I’m not interested in lecturing, taking a hard-line stance on gender inequality, or castigating or vilifying anyone. Other than my fascination with statistics and obsession with real world anecdotes, I’m not pro or con here. I believe what’s good for one is good for all. I’d just like to see a level playing field.

I can’t change the industry, but I can do my small part. I’ve come up with a “Gender Equality Consult Sale.” Learn the details at the end of this article. I hope it will encourage and inspire women writers. In turn, I hope those writers will support and mentor other women – the best way to break into the industry. Just maybe, like a pebble in a pond, there will be a ripple effect.

Backwards And In High Heels

Do women have it tougher when working in the industry?

For me, what always springs to mind is the memorable quote from the Frank and Ernest comic strip by Bob Thaves. His incisive comment about the highly acclaimed dancer, Fred Astaire, often partnered with the talented dancer, Ginger Rogers, has become emblematic of women in the workplace:

Women writers do it backwards and in high heels.

I think this still applies to women in the working world. Often, they have more on their plates, more plates to keep spinning, and the need and/or belief that they must perform as well, or better, than their male counterparts.

Successful women have to work harder still. As popularized by the commercial jingle, there’s the notion that tough/strong/dynamic/driven women should “Bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.”

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Breaking into the industry is a supremely challenging task. Even people born into the business ultimately have to prove themselves. There’s no single path, no specific ladder to climb. Every route is different – with one exception. Ask anyone on the inside and they are likely to tell you that at some point, when trying to get their foot in the door, someone offered them a hand up.

Mentorship – a hand up offered again and again – is incalculably valuable. But you can’t stand around with a billboard reading, “Would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my mentor?”

You have to search out mentorship anywhere you can find it. And then you have to take what you can get – be it a crumb or a life-changing opportunity.

While there are many successful women bringing other women up along with them, too often it’s hard to find a woman mentor. Why? Because they’re doing it backwards and in high heels! Many women with thriving careers have trained themselves to just say “no” to the extraneous, so they can focus on the essential in their work and their private lives.

If you get blown off, ask again when the timing may be better. Ask when it might be a good time to ask. Ask someone else. Better still, offer what you can give rather than only looking for what you can get. That’s one of the best possible ways to gain the benefits of mentorship.

When I was coming up as an executive, I got sick and tired of hearing about “The Old Boys’ Club” generating projects that garnered front page headlines in the trades. I resented their “no girls allowed” bastion of golden opportunities. The powerful and the up-and-coming men in the industry went on posh camping trips, built relationships, and made deals around the poker table.

Where were our catered campfire chats?

I started getting together a group of women from all areas of the industry for a monthly dinner. Amazing, smart, ambitious women. All working their way up. While we weren’t enthusiastic about calling ourselves “The Old Gals’ Club,” the principle was the same. We built solid personal and working relationships that have lasted for decades. We are always eager to do business together and are quick to support each other. (Privately, we do refer to each other as “gals.” That doesn't mean you can if you're not a gal.)

These women were so dynamic, that I harnessed their energy and passion to form a nonprofit children's literacy charity. As our business and personal lives have grown more demanding over the years, “Better With Books” continues to bring us together to get face-to-face. We work toward achieving a goal that is meaningful to each of us. While our professional lives are often “one step forward, two steps back,” our nonprofit work gives us instant gratification – the beaming smile on a child’s face when we put a brand new book, chosen especially for them, into their hands. No poker pots to rake in, but an opportunity to make a positive impact on our community that will hopefully have a ripple effect.

If it doesn’t exist build it.

History forgets the timid. 

Man Up!

There has been some commentary lately that women in the workplace need to watch their language. Make it “more masculine,” i.e., less submissive, less apologetic, less high-pitched. I don’t buy this “walk like a man, talk like a man” mentality. Women have an extraordinary capacity to be effective in the workplace.

But should we consider thinking like a man?

Are we ladies too damn polite for our own good?

Do we take rejection “like a girl”?

A woman screenwriter, who has been a script consultation client of mine, recently made the initial cut in a prominent screenwriting competition. She shared the news with me, adding, “I'm not just thrilled, I'm relieved. If [this screenplay] wasn't good enough for them, I would have had to reconsider screenwriting.”

Argh! I wrote back, “This is art, and it's extremely subjective. It's just one damn contest. Possibly the opinion of two people who may have been tired; not warmed to the topic, who knows? If you didn’t move forward, you could rewrite it, submit next year, and the same script could make the cut. It happens all the time.”

I also sent her the terrific article, “Submit Like A Man: How Women Writers Can Become More Successful,” by Kelli Russell Agodon, based on her experiences as Co-Editor-in-Chief at a small literary journal. She offers some fascinating insights on rejection:

If an editor of our press rejected work from a male writer, but wrote something like, “This came close. We’d like to see more of your work, please send us more poems” on the rejection note? – we would usually receive another submission from the male writer within the same month and sometimes even within a few days after he received his rejection.

When we sent this same note to a woman writer, she might resubmit her work in 3–6 months, but more likely, we would not hear from her until over six months to a year later. Sometimes, she will not resubmit at all.

I don’t fully understand why this is, but as a woman writer who grew up in the age of not imposing on people or the fear of being a bother or “too pushy,” here’s my guess to why this happens –

When we send a rejection to a man and ask a man to resubmit, he thinks, “They like my work and they want more; I better get it to them soon before they don’t want it anymore.” And the submission is sent…

When we ask a woman to resubmit she thinks, “When would be the best time to resubmit? I don’t want to seem pushy, but I do want to get them my work. Maybe I should wait a few months so I don’t seem desperate or so I don’t irritate them by submitting so fast. Do they really want to see more work, or were they just being nice? I’m sure they want to see more work, but I should probably wait a few months, I wouldn’t want to be an imposition and it would be better manners and more respectful to wait a bit. Or should I? Yes, I’ll play it cool and wait a few months. I wouldn’t want to impose.”

Yes, both Agodon and I are treading on territory rife with generalizations, but based on real world experience. My client said that the article resonated with her. She had the very same thoughts running through her mind that Agodon believes other women face when rejected.

I work with a lot of women writers and find that their questions often reflect concerns of being perceived as “pushy.”

“The agent/manager/producer said they liked my work. Should I write and let them know I just did well in a contest, or will I be bothering them?” Answer: Tell them now.

“The agent/manager/producer asked to see my work, but I still haven’t heard back from them. Would it be too pushy or seem annoying if I wrote to let them know I did well in this contest?” Answer: Drop them an email now.

I encourage you to take a moment to read Agodon’s article. There’s a lesson here that applies to men, as well as to women trying to break in. Women writers aren’t the only ones struggling with the uncertainties of industry etiquette. In the dark and lonely void of rejection, or worse, “radio silence,” when it comes to submissions, are writers over-thinking when they should be bold?

Only those who risk win.

Boy Power

Heck, I can’t even get through writing this article without coming across more articles than I can begin to cite about the challenges women writers face!

The latest to grab my attention was “Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name,” by Catherine Nichols. She describes what happened when she queried book agents as “George” versus sending the same query letterwith the same opening pages of her manuscript.

After sending six queries, “within 24 hours George had five responses – three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests.” Nichols wanted to “know more of how the Georges of the world live.” So “George” sent queries to male and female agents.

Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

Beyond the vast difference between George and Catherine’s rate of requests, is the difference in the nature of the rejections they received:

Most of the agents only heard from one or the other of us, but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent. Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was “clever,” it’s “well-constructed” and “exciting.” No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty. A few of the people sent deeply generous and thoughtful critiques, which made me both grateful and queasy for my dishonesty.

I’m getting confirmation of this from women writers who tell me that they are using their initials to avoid having their work labeled or judged as “a girl writer.”

As I wrote in “Dealing With Rejection,” in the film business, rejection is inevitable. It’s a repeated kick in the gut. But if rejection is inevitable, then your best option is to develop the skills for dealing with it. If you don’t, you will not be able to keep moving forward.

Why have I cited so freaking many statistics and shoved such lengthy quotes based on real world experiences into this article?

Because I know this could be considered controversial or biased, but wrote it anyway. And I don’t want you to think for a moment that I’m a “whiny girl,” or that any of us women are complaining, but rather are giving it our best.

Everything else is commentary.

The Gender Equality Consult Sale

Inspired by the high school students, I’ve decided to offer a “Gender Equality Script Consult Sale.” I want to do my part to support and encourage women writers. Women can get a consult for 78 cents on the dollar. An hour and a half consultation that would cost $350 is on sale for women for $273.

When I floated this idea to a few writer friends, the women thought that men might be angry. Or that I might be alienating a large percentage of my clientele as a script consultant.

Seriously? I am not raising prices for men. It’s the same service at the same cost.

The men writers in my little opinion poll thought it was a great idea. Now this was a small and very informal sample, but what do the different reactions say about what women think about what men are thinking and what men really think?

Read more about the Script Doctor Consult here, or write me for more details here.

The Very Minimal Small Print:

  • You must be a woman writer or a women’s writing team. Male-female writing teams are eligible, but I would hope that the discount would be apportioned appropriately. $175 for the man; $98 for the woman. That would be the gentlemanly thing to do.
  • Purchase a consult by September 30, 2015 and you have until December 31, 2015 to submit your script and schedule a phone or Skype conversation. After all, I want you to have the time to complete and polish your work so you can submit your best effort.
  • One per customer.

That’s it.

If you think this a good idea, please spread the word.

If you think I’m a sexist pig and the sale is unfair, go ahead and comment.

I’ll take it like a man.

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