Elena Rossini may not be a household name yet in Hollywood but she may be someday and honestly how many female film directors can you count on one hand? I can do Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion and Jodie Foster (and actresses turned directors should count for less unfortunately) and I am a bit of a film buff. Italian-born Rossini has been in the industry for about nine years and has seen quite a bit. Her most recent project is a film titled The Illusionists, which is a full-length documentary concerning the commercialization of the body and the marketing of unattainable beauty.
Though she had made progress in getting sponsorship for her documentary it was a long and difficult process because of the nature of the industry. She compared the film industry to a mafia family. It is a “incredibly powerful, for the most part inaccessible (unless you have family ties), it’s a patriarchal system that keeps its status by enforcing omertà – a code of silence – about its inner workings. The few female directors who make it to the top are often born into influential show biz families or have a formidable protector driving them forward.” In other words, it is very difficult to break into the business and make an impact, especially if your last name isn’t Howard or Speilberg.
She shared some of her survival tips for aspiring female film directors in a guest blog for Women & Hollywood. As many career tips tend to do, her strategies can be applied to other industries.
1) Develop a Thick Skin: Rossini points out that female film directors under the age of 40 are a very rare breed in Hollywood so she has to work extra hard to be taken seriously in the industry as a younger woman. “Clients are often surprised when they meet me for the first time after speaking on the phone or corresponding via email. ‘Oh but you look so young!’ is the typical reaction. When I meet new people during social gatherings, and I introduce myself as a filmmaker, I’m always asked, ‘Are you a film student?’ ‘No, this is my job.’ What invariably follows is unmistakable skepticism. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t occur on a daily basis. In social situations, with film crews, while meeting people at film festivals… The underlying message: we do not believe you are competent.”
Lesson: “You will have to learn to carry on working despite the mistrust and incredulity of people around you. It can turn out to be a great motivator: I will show them what I’m capable of.”
2) Your most essential qualities are confidence and perseverance: She started researching and writing her documentary, The Illusionists, three years ago. Rossini had many meetings with producers and TV stations that didn’t get her anywhere. At one point it seemed like a company was about to sign on but then changed their mind at the last minute. “I believed in the project so much that I kept going. Without a shred of good news for some 1100 days. Then the project caught the attention of an Italian journalist. An article about me appeared in the prestigious daily “Il Sole 24 Ore” – and, like a domino effect – wonderful opportunities have followed from there.”
Lesson: “Have faith in your project and your abilities and rejoice in the knowledge that perseverance will pay off. You have to be your number one fan. A 40-something producer once told me: if you want to make it in the business as a director, you have to have an ego the size of Texas.”
4) The ability to network is the most important skill to have above all else: When her documentary seemed to have hit a dead end she turned to women’s associations for help. Through these groups she has met with networks that have offered to sponsor her film as well as many influential women in the business. “The expression “sisterhood is powerful?” Oh so true,” she said.
Lesson: Connections can often beat out talent and charisma.
5) Be a trailblazer: “If everything you try in traditional channels leads to disappointment, venture outside the beaten path. Become a trailblazer,” she said.
Lesson: Though working on this documentary and getting the funding for it has been a ton of work for Rossini, she said it has been the most exciting time of her life. The scariest experiences can often be the most rewarding.