Abby Greensfelder is my new hero. She shares our mission at Cinema Femme of elevating emerging female-identifying creators and connecting them with seasoned womxn in the industry with the goal of leading them into sustainable careers. Abby and her company, Everywoman Studios, takes that mission into the non-fiction media landscape. She is my new hero because of how she is making a difference and how she is using her life experience for change.
I had the pleasure speaking with Abby Greensfelder about her journey to Everywoman Studios and the impact that Propelle is making for the non-fiction media industry. We also talked about ways that emerging womxn in the industry can take their careers to the next level. They are now accepting applications for the 2021 accelerator until March 19th. Apply online here: https://live.realscreen.com/2021/propelle/.
REBECCA MARTIN: What led you to founding Everywoman Studios?
ABBY GREENSFELDER: I worked in production as a young person, and then I spent the first chunk of my career at Discovery as a programmer. My job there was finding these great stories and series, commissioning them from great producers and putting them on the air and marketing them. I loved doing that. I’m someone who’s always loved science and exploration, and non-fiction stories in general. Being a woman curating what is seen as a male-skewing brand was always a very interesting and curious thing for me. I always thought science, exploration and the natural world were things women and men were equally interested in. That sat with me. The other thing that I observed was the way that we sold the audience for the network. For instance, we priced the Discovery audience higher than, say, the TLC audience. Some of that had to do with the notion of scarcity, like it was harder to colace a male audience on television more than, for example, a female audience.
But there was also a part of it that had to do with the attractiveness of the male audience. At that time, men were seen as higher earners, and there were certain upscale advertisers that wanted to reach that audience. As a younger up and comer rising through the company, I felt that surely there was a gap between where the female consumer actually was and how the market valued her. Being in my 30s at the time and looking at my female peers, we were getting married and having kids, or not getting married, or not having kids, whatever it be, but one thing we all shared was that we had careers. We were dual earners with our spouses and our partners, and making a lot of those financial decisions together, in an equal way. I also saw that women tended to be more consumers of content. This meant that there must be a missed opportunity in aligning those two things.
So when I was at Discovery, I went back to business school and had written up this plan for something called SheTV. The idea essentially was what if you had a channel that was fully dedicated to female focused content, and you tried to monetize it as such? I thought that would be a really compelling idea.
Cut to the next phase of my career: I wanted to start my own production company, which I did with a colleague. I had been overseeing Discovery, and he had been overseeing TLC. We worked together at Discovery for years, and had done a lot of series together. We started this company, Half Yard, and the first show we did was “Say Yes to the Dress,” which is now in its nineteenth season. We made a lot of docs and non-fiction series for every channel you can imagine. I experienced that side of the business, which was coming up with our own ideas, developing them, and selling them to the networks that were making them.
I looked out on the market I observed. I had never seen myself as a woman head of a production company, I just saw myself as the head of a production company. But looking around, I realized there were not many women out there that were heads of production companies. I started to see that it was important that I was a woman who was a head of a production company because I could influence a culture that was friendly towards not just women, but all people. Within the frame of being a woman, and I could also think about ideas differently compared to my male-counterparts. As Half Yard grew, and we were successful, we actually sold the business. That opened up the opportunity for me to think about what was next.
I hearken back to that original idea of SheTV, now fueled by this recognition that I’d been able to help grow, in an entrepreneurial way, a business that was successful. There weren’t many other women in a similar position. What started to coalesce in my brain was the idea to do two things. Firstly, we needed more women in the ecosystem of making content, and running the companies that make the content. We also needed more stories that put women in these spaces where we don’t see women. That includes science, exploration, the natural world, sports, finance, physicality, problem solving, entrepreneurship, and on and on and on.
Women see the value of authenticity, both in storytelling and in media. Women are savvy consumers. And women aren’t always portrayed in a fully authentic way in the stories that are told. The things I really wanted to do at this juncture for myself was help create a kind of ecosystem where more women could be creators and tell the kind of stories that they wanted to make. Our goal is to facilitate the telling of the kind of stories that can show the full range of experiences of what it can mean to be a woman in our culture, while expanding opportunities for women in our culture to be both subjects and makers of stories.
So, what we’re doing at Everywoman Studios is that we’re both producers of ideas as well as catalysts for other women’s ideas. And because I’ve been on the network side, and I understand that business, and I’ve been on the producing side and understand that side of business, I look at myself as playing both roles. Like how can I help bring the ideas of diverse women storytellers to the market and help make their content, stories, and dreams be realized? And how also can I help fill the gaps of these content deserts for women that exist? So that’s really what we’re doing.
It’s also format agnostic. The format in which we share the stories is dependent on the stories themselves. It could be a podcast, a feature documentary, scripted things, but they are all grounded in real authentic stories about women.
MARTIN: That’s great. At Cinema Femme, we’re driven to connect emerging female-identifying and non-binary filmmakers to seasoned filmmakers so that they may have sustainable careers. It seems that Everywoman Studios has a similar mission. I would love to hear more about your programs.
GREENSFELDER: I think you put your finger on one of the biggest challenges, which is sustainability. We have this accelerator program [Propelle] that Everywoman Studios has started, which is purely focused on the unscripted industry. That industry is the place I live. It’s my core, and it is a place, as I mentioned, where there are not enough women that run these production companies, or are in a position to pitch, develop and make their own ideas.
This program sounds similar in fashion to yours, like we’re taking these ideas from creators, workshopping them with women that run their own production companies. And then we are giving them access to buyers, which I’m bringing to the table. We are helping through Everywoman Studios by partnering with them on these ideas to make them happen. We are giving them support along the way.
What’s been interesting, though, is we did a panel as part of Realscreen, which is one of our industry non-fiction filmmaking conferences. On that panel were some of the best female documentarians in the business: people like Dawn Porter, Kirsten Johnson, Garrett Bradley, and the team [Julie Cohen, Betsy West] that directed “RBG.” With all of these women, we got into a conversation about the economics of filmmaking. Pretty much all of them had said that when they started, they were not making enough money, so they had to have other jobs. To me, it was shocking, because here are women storytellers who are at the top of their game, and in this case, two of the women on this panel had just been shortlisted for the Oscars, and have won major awards, at Sundance, the IDA, the Producers Guild Awards, etc. None of them on that panel retained rights to their projects, or were able at least until very recently or in some cases not at all. None of them had a sustainable financial model.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about and wanting to do is bring some of my entrepreneurial and business knowhow to this space, because I think that one of the things that’s happening at the market as docs become more widely available through these streaming platforms is they are also becoming more commercial. Let’s be clear, someone is making money from them. So what would it look like for Everywoman Studios to step into the market, and create a way for some of these great storytellers and filmmakers, especially diverse women, to honestly profit more from their creative work and also scale their creative work?
For example, some of what we’re doing is taking great ideas and attaching great filmmakers to them. Maybe it’s a miniseries concept, or maybe there is a way to be an executive producer on something versus directing it so there is a scalability. These are ways to take what is a great project, and a great quality brand, and think about how you extend that beyond one project, so that business can be sustainable. That is something that I can help women in this business do.
I went to business school, and having worked on the finance side and the producing side, and knowing how to make money to be in the business, aside from also being a creative person, and working with creatives, it’s kind of like the ambidexterity thing. You have to be able to do both of these, and I think there is a sense as women that we’re grateful for the opportunities we’ve got. Isn’t it great that we can do this and tell these stories? Yes and we should be compensated and have sustainable careers. How can we create more economic upside, as men have, in this business? That goes for not just women but for all of those who don’t have a seat at the table. That’s really what I want to spend the next chapter of my career working on.
MARTIN: I think the education element is just missing. They don’t really teach you what to do after you’ve made a film. Asking for my emerging filmmakers, what is the first step they should take after they make their first short film?
GREENSFELDER: Having a short film is important. It’s your calling card, because your work is your brand. But then beyond having that thing, you need to be out making connections with other individuals, companies and agents. Film festivals can be a good way to do that. For better or worse, agents are coming into the doc film business in a big way. Whether or not you’re signed with an agent, just having these conversations is important, so people know you’re out there, and they know what your work is, so you’re top of mind.
The first phase is to make a great piece of content. The second phase is really about these kinds of catalyzer type relationships, which could be agents or programs like yours, or something like Propelle, our program. Who are these relationships that are helping you get into those things that have great studios, organizations and great partners attached to them? These are the production companies and distribution platforms you’d want to be in. So, whether you want to premiere at Sundance, ask yourself, whose films have shown there before, and what production companies were behind that? How do you get to them and bring them an idea?
Because ultimately, whether it’s Everywoman Studios or anywhere else, we’re all in the business of trading in ideas and stories. So, if you have a great story, whether it’s a little piece of tape that you shot, or it could be a little sizzle of something, it’s about being able to take that idea that’s a concrete thing, and bringing it to agents and studios whose work you admire. It’s a great way to get from stage 1 to stage 2.
MARTIN: Talk to me about Propelle. What would an emerging artist need to do to get into this program?
GREENSFELDER: It’s about bringing in an idea to apply to the program. They must bring a concept for a show, documentary, miniseries, whatever it is, and with that they bring a proposal, sizzle, video or some concrete idea. Our team recruits a different set of mentors every year who support the recipients of this program.
The mentors span from Sharon Levy, who runs EndemolShine North America operations. They do big format shows for broadcasting networks. If somebody comes with a big format idea, she really has expertise in how to shape, make, develop and sell those ideas.
We have another partner, Kim Woodard, who runs the production company called Lucky 8, which makes really high-quality, access-driven docuseries for History Channel. They also make a show called “60 Days In” for A&E. If somebody has an idea like that, we pair them with her. Then we partner with a company called culture.house, which does premium docs and docuseries mainly for the streamers. They have a particular bent of culture-driven projects, the company is led by a diverse woman [Raeshem Nijhon], and they have a real passion around Black and brown stories, and diverse filmmakers. Then we have another woman mentor [Aisha Wynn], who runs TV for Macro. They do big shiny projects for streamers and networks. Those mentors are going to partner with the ideas that we feel are the most commercially viable with the creators behind them. They workshop those, and then we get them in front of buyers.
Everywoman Studios is going to invest in how the creators’ ideas get made. Last year, we partnered on four ideas, one of which we’re about to pitch in the next week or so. Another idea has interest from a network, and we’ve been helping fund another feature doc with an up-and-coming filmmaker.
It’s the idea of leveraging and using the female power of community to help make other women’s projects go forward. I think it’s a perfect kind of thing for somebody who has a great idea, like a perfect programming idea that fulfills a purpose, but doesn’t have the ability to get directly to a buyer or a fancy studio. Those are the diamonds in the rough, you know?
MARTIN: Compared to other mentorship programs, I like that you are taking things all the way.
GREENSFELDER: That is what I feel was needed, because at the end of the day, I’m a very practical person. We could just sit around and talk, but what are we doing about it? I think there is a lot of great stuff out there with mentorship programs, but we ultimately need to sell some of these projects from these creators. Let’s get them a piece of the project. That’s the way we set it up. They don’t just get a line item in the budget, they get a piece of the production fee. They are baked in economically to benefit from the project, beyond just being producer, director or whatever it be.
In some ways, we scaled it very tactically by blocking and tackling, but what it showed me is the power of simply making a couple connections and then things happen. When you just focus on that, what came from it was more organic, such as the relationships that were formed between the mentors, the mentees and the buyers where we brought their ideas. What was gained was some new creative relationships.
One of the things we’re looking at is where there are needs in other parts of the business, and how we can apply the learnings of the Propelle program to these needs. There’s nothing like this in the unscripted business, and that’s really why I started it. You dream these things up and you don’t know if in fact there is a need, but I felt that there was. In the first year of the program, we had over a 100 applications, which totaled a 100 fully baked ideas. We had three mentors, so we were able to bring forward three projects. We’re adding mentors this year because we saw as we workshopped the three projects, there were three other projects that got developed just based on getting that exposure. So there is a need.
It’s almost like crowdfunded development. When I was at a network, you realize you pretty much see ideas from the same sets of buyers, like the same set of producers, right? That was at the very early stages of this business. Now there is even more of a funnel. The same people are making all of the shows. It’s very hard to get in there, unless you’re a known entity or you’re a showrunner, or you have a direct relationship with a buyer.
But, I think there is a value to these networks, because they ultimately need new ideas, as well as different stories in different forms. If you have the same set of buyers, you’re going to hear the same thing or iterations of it over and over again. Their issue is that they need to innovate. Although it was not the original intent, I do think this program incidentally offers value to distributors because they are able to bring in new voices into the ecosystem, and they are going to hear some ideas that they wouldn’t have heard otherwise.