Updated: Apr 19
Tema Staig is the Executive Director of Women In Media, an organization that she founded in 2010. In 2016, in response to the many excuses for why people weren’t hiring women behind the scenes in entertainment, she created the Women In Media (WiM) Crew List, a Google Doc that went viral. She founded Women In Media 501(c)3 in 2017, transitioning the grassroots community into a vibrant organization and establishing the searchable crew list database as the go-to place to find, vet, and hire women and gender nonconforming crew members working behind the scenes. The impact of this list has affected who tells the stories behind the scenes, and thus the storytelling itself. Audiences are seeing more women with agency on TV and in films as a shift in awareness towards inclusion is now considered a necessity. It’s Tema’s personal mission to make sure that parity be proactively put in place until it becomes a habit.
Under Tema’s direction, the organization has changed the career trajectory for women and gender nonconforming people. She has spearheaded initiatives and training programs resulting in women gaining access to union and higher-production value jobs that were previously unavailable to them.
Tema has been in the film industry since earning her master’s degree from the Tisch Department of Design for Stage and Screen in 1999. She is a Production Designer/Art Director with a background in scenic art and theater design. She is known for her work on the feature films Kissing Jessica Stein, Happy Hour, Battlefield America, and American Splendor, as well as commercials and music videos. She was a pilot IFP Project Involve: NY Fellow. Tema also produced three short films in 2019 through Women In Media’s CAMERAderie Initiative, including Blood and Glory and Cherry Lemonade, which screened at Tribeca. In 2021, she produced four CAMERAderie films which are currently on the festival circuit.
When did you initially get involved in the entertainment industry and what was this experience like?
I started my career in live events and nightclubs working as a VJ and a DJ, as well as lighting and art director, as a teen. Yes, I was a tad underage! Little by little, I migrated into television and film as a scenic artist and production designer. I have always loved the technical and artistic challenges of making movies, theater, and working on live events.
In my very early days as the Art and Lighting Director at the Roxy Nightclub in Boston, I had my own dedicated Genie cherry picker lift, and the freedom to design and execute all kinds of exciting events. I got to work with legendary artists such as Cab Calloway, Lily Tomlin, and Tony Bennett. It was very rewarding and I grew a lot as an artist and technician. But it wasn’t all roses, and I was very ambitious.
Before I was in the workforce, my parents told me that if I applied myself, I could do anything I wanted as a career. I found that I gravitated towards jobs that weren’t traditionally held by women. I was told outright what I could and could not do, not because I was unqualified or incapable, but because I didn’t fit into someone’s idea of what I should be doing. I didn’t like being told that I couldn’t do something because of my gender. It was anathemic to my upbringing, and hey... I’m tenacious.
For example, I was initially told by several club managers that I could not be a DJ because I was a “girl” and only “men” were DJ’s. It just didn’t compute. As my dad put it,” It wasn’t a job made for brute strength, so why not?” I eventually got the job, but I had to be twice as good to get half the respect. Long story short, I was working as a Video Jockey at a club that would not hire me to DJ despite being taught by one of the best DJ’s on the East Coast and practicing beat matching vinyl records everyday. I finally got noticed because the male DJ I was working with would go on long bathroom breaks when he lost the dance floor. He would ask me to cover for him because he knew that I had been practicing my mixes before the club opened. I would get the floor back, the crowd screaming and feeling great, and then he would come back and act like it was all him. Eventually, one of the managers got wise and gave me the “dead” night to try me out. It became the night to go to that club. Soon enough, I had earned three nights a week because I knew what music to play, when to play it, and how to manage a dance floor vibe. I was at the height of making the club crazy money when they threatened to take away my record allowance and cut my pay, which was already lower than their male DJ’s. It was financial insanity. I told them to pay me my rate in cash the next weekend or I wasn’t going to work for them anymore. They refused, so I quit. They closed a few months later. That was my first lesson that people would rather live in their closely held beliefs than make money and thrive. I learned that people don’t always think with their heads when they are stuck in what they think they know, even when life is telling them otherwise. It also fueled my activism, which has gotten me where I am today.
In 2010 you founded Women in Media. What led you to do so? What is Women in Media and what are its main goals?
I was teaching at a film school where the women students and faculty were constantly being mistreated, mansplained, and pushed around by the male students and some of the managers. It really crystallized when we gave “Women to Watch” Awards to five female students. A really large, brick wall of a male student didn’t know I was behind him when he said to one of the honorees, “So, they’re giving you an award for having a vagina?” Because he didn’t see me, he felt entitled to be on a power trip and speak rudely to this very gifted young woman, exposing his misogyny. That male student was hired as an instructor within the year, even though management knew about the comment and his overarching antagonism towards his fellow students. That’s when I knew it was time to fix the system from the inside. The students asked me to be their faculty advisor, so I came up with a networking system that helped them build lasting relationships and strength as a community at the school.
The network I built was expanding, and there was a need to reach beyond the confines of the school. I connected with Samantha Shada, who had just launched a screening series called Seeking Our Stories. She was screening films of historical significance by women directors, because she couldn’t convince local Los Angeles theaters or societies that people wanted to watch the films, or learn the hidden history of women in the film industry.
Giants of the industry, such as Dorothy Arzner, who directed Paramount’s first talkie, was the first woman in the DGA, and the designer of the boom mic, were not being taught in film school. It was clear that we needed to create our own monthly film club. We teamed up, and I started to help Samantha build the audience with pre-screening networking and a 10 minute powerpoint about the director of the film we were screening. We collected contact sheets of the guests who would get emailed the sheet for further networking. Industry folks would come regularly, hire each other beyond the event, and talk about the films with deep passion. Eventually, theaters caught on that this was an untapped market and started screening films by women. Now it’s the norm, so we just go to the films-- which was the goal all along. But who knows? Maybe we’ll bring back Seeking Our Story. There was a magical energy to it, and it moved the movement very quickly with a joy that only happens when the entertainment community gets together over the love of storytelling.
What is the Women In Media Crew List, a document that quickly went viral, and why did it become so relevant?
From Seeking Our Story, I became known as the lady who knew all the crew, and indeed I had been challenging people to be more inclusive with their behind-the-scenes talent. A friend needed to hire people quickly and asked for my recommendations for crew all over the world to capture the first Women’s March. I didn’t have the time or interest needed for becoming an agent, so it occurred to me that if I had women fill out a Google Doc, I could send people in a position to hire there, and take myself out of the equation. It turns out that 26 department tabs with over 2,000 people, not to mention all the traffic to view, is too much for a Google spreadsheet to handle. So, we created a website with a proper database, went 501(c)3, and started offering more programs and initiatives to take away all the excuses of why people couldn’t hire women. We heard excuses such as, “I don’t know any, so they don’t exist!”, “There are women, but they aren’t qualified enough!”, “They don’t want to work on genre films!”, or “I hired a woman once, and it didn’t work out!!” To which I respond, “Well, we’ve all worked with men who didn’t work out, and it didn’t stop folks from hiring more men.” You name it, I’ve heard it — some really ridiculous stuff. The Women In Media goal is 40-60% women and gender nonconforming crew in every department, every crew, every show. We expect it to take seven years to happen and another 15 to make it a habit.
What are some of Women in Media’s most important activities?
We’ve done the CAMERAderie Initiative, a script-to-distribution program that produces three or four 10-page, high-production value narrative films. We did this in response to women mostly doing low-budget, independent projects, but hitting a wall when it came to working on bigger-budget, high-production value projects. There’s nothing wrong with low- and micro-budget indies, but we want more women getting sustainable jobs.
Our goal is economic equity. That’s really what it’s about, making a creative economy that works for everyone. It was important that we bring as many members up as possible, as opposed to a few at a time, which is how most programs operate. We touch about 300 people over the course of the training, the mentorship, and eventually the shooting, post production, and festival runs of these films. We have incredible community support, with training, building, shooting, and gear from Television City/MBS Group and we do our post color and sound at NBC Universal. WiM pays for much of the necessities that don’t show up on screen, such as insurance, permits, and portable bathrooms, all vitally needed, but out of reach for many filmmakers looking to move into higher-level work.
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We host the Altitude Awards, celebrating Women In Media members who exemplify the art and craft of workflow in camera, lighting, and post production/new tech. The Altitude awards are open to cinematographers, camera operators, gaffers, colorists, editors, and those in VFX/new tech. The judges are industry leaders in their respective fields, so it’s incredible to have work seen by them. There is an awards ceremony with prizes and a reception during Cinegear LA, to take place June 1 to June 4, 2023. We are accepting submissions until May 15th.
Women In Media is proud to expand our offerings with networking and continuing educational events. We recently held a Loader/Utility two-day training and certification at BECiNE camera house. There was hands-on training, panels, and an afterparty. An essential aspect of this training was the participation of the ICG Local 600 union, and the focus on demystifying the process to join the union. Along with Local 600 leaders, we had Contract Services on hand to give focused information on how to join the union. There was a “Settiquette” panel to give our members the basics of set etiquette as it pertains to union vs. non-union film and TV, reality vs. scripted TV, and independent vs. studio work. Thirty-three participants passed exams for this certification. Those members who became “WiM certified” can now easily be found and searched on the CrewList with our new “certification” badge.
We are thrilled about our latest venture, the WiM Lounge, which can be found on our website. The lounge is our social media platform which functions like a cross between Facebook Groups and Slack where members can network, find jobs, look for work, host events, explore festivals, and direct message other members. This is a troll-free zone and a path to expand our members’ networks like never before. It closes the loop for the WiM ecosystem and brings our worldwide membership together.
In your opinion, what challenges did women face when you started the organization? Are they all still there or have some been eradicated? Are there some new challenges that did not exist before?
We have made terrific gains toward parity in the entertainment industry. More women have sustainable jobs behind the scenes than five years ago. Even better, there are so many organizations and initiatives that have risen to the occasion to confront and fix the issue. All of this is quite heartening.
Really, we should be hiring the best person for the job, and the math shakes out that women, being 52% of the population, would produce a lot of talent. All that has been missing in the past was the opportunity. Studios missed out on a lot of talent because of a stubborn system that kept women out. It’s really a shame for the industry and the viewing public, because we could have been thriving even more financially and artistically had people such as Julie Dash been given the same keys to the kingdom as their male counterparts. This goes double for award shows that ignore the contributions of women. Seriously, the world won’t fall off its axis if more than one woman is nominated for Best Director or Best Cinematography.
We are, however, seeing marked gains over the last 5 to 10 years in the crew, noting that parity is trickling up to key artistic positions. This is very positive for the industry as an economic force and is critical for the wellbeing of our workers. Having a more inclusive, professional set increases the positive, creative energy that is essential to the artistic process. We are hearing that sets are becoming less toxic and way more respectful of their crew. It’s much harder to get away with unprofessional, sexist behavior on set. It’s just not welcomed.
That being said, there are still people who want women to be their mommies, their support systems, their household servants by default. It’s high time that we, as a society, support women and men to decide for themselves if they want to be breadwinners or not. I want to see more men talking about their work/life balance and how they handle fatherhood, bills, and keeping the house tidy for their very busy working wives. We don’t need to box people into roles. Many men are suited to be the primary caregiver, while many women are suited to be breadwinners. I want a society that affords people more choice to follow their bliss.
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What would you consider one of your main career highlights?
I was just honored with the LA County Woman of the Year Award, along with Mayor Karen Bass. A recognition of that magnitude is hard to top! When I got the phone call, I was utterly shocked, grateful, and humbled to know that others see me and my work and recognize my efforts to create real change and economic equity for all women.
What advice would you offer a woman who is interested in pursuing a career in entertainment?
Stick with it. It’s important to recognize that Issues you face in one sector probably aren’t going to be any different elsewhere, because the U.S. is systemically sexist and racist. So, we must deal with it firmly and with a clear head.
This advice is for everyone– be a kind and generous collaborator. You are going to need friends in this business, and talent alone doesn’t cut it. People work with people they like because the days are too long to work with lousy people.
What are the requirements for being a part of Women in Media and what are the main benefits?
There are four levels of memberships: Pro, Student, Executive, and Friends of WiM.
Women and gender nonconforming folks need at least a few credits in a behind-the-scenes role for Pro membership. Your application becomes your CrewList profile once you submit yearly dues ($90). Benefits include access to the WiMLounge, our online social connector, event and vendor discounts, members-only events, access to on-demand content, and a special newsletter filled with members-only benefits. We also host members-only seminars and networking, such as Writer Groups. You must be a member to apply for The Altitude Awards and CAMERAderie. The best part, though, is being a member of a fantastic community that loves the art and craft of storytelling.
We accept students with valid proof of college registration. They enjoy all the benefits of Pro membership, but get a 50% discount. I was a poor (I mean a really, really poor) student myself, and I’m fully aware that I would have benefited from joining an organization such as WiM to jumpstart my career. In fact, that experience of my past has guided many of my decisions in how we structure and build the Women In Media ecosystem.
Executive Members can be of any gender, but are at a higher level of membership– they are typically key creatives in a position to hire and recommend. We invite them to exclusive events, and they get first dibs when we are invited to high-ticket outside events.
Friends of WiM are supporters who aren’t necessarily in the industry, but want to support and join us at our most exciting community events. Since they don’t tend to be industry, they don’t get a CrewList profile, but they do get priority seating at special events such as our wildly popular Holiday Toast, access to on-demand content, and VIP gift bags.
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