Trailblazing Women: Elena Rossini, Filmmaker and Producer

01/12/2017 06:22 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2018

This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.

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'Don't underestimate the power you already have. You can do so much yourself. Through this experience, I have built a lot of strength of character and feel I can do anything now.

Elena Rossini is an Italian filmmaker, editor and social entrepreneur. Her mission: to create media that empowers women and girls. Her critically acclaimed documentary The Illusionists discusses the globalization of beauty and the marketing of unattainable body ideals around the world. Rossini is also the creator of the multimedia platform No Country for Young Women, which showcases over 120 interviews with inspiring women representing five continents, seven decades and over two dozen professions. Rossini often speaks at international conferences and is a 2014 alumna of the Young Leaders Program by the Council for the United States and Italy.

Learn more about Elena at:
https://www.linkedin.com/in/elenarossini
http://elenarossini.com
Follow her on twitter: @_elena

Learn more about The Illusionists: http://theillusionists.org
watch The Illusionists film here: https://illusionists.vhx.tv/

Special discount code for HuffPost readers (20% off purchase): HP2017

Who is your role model as a leader?

Career-wise, my role model is French filmmaker, photographer and artist Agnès Varda. She is incredibly talented, very prolific, and still working at 88 years old. I love the style as well as the content of her work; I admire the fact she often addresses important social causes and she supports women's issues. What I also find extraordinary is the fact that Agnès Varda has been a pioneer of the nouvelle vague of filmmaking and has risen to prominence in a male dominated field. She is fierce, powerful and independent, running her own production and distribution company. I have had the honour of meeting her a few times, at book signings and screenings, and I'm in awe of her passion and dedication to the art of filmmaking. I often say to friends and colleagues: I'll never want to retire, I want to keep making films and art throughout my life, just like Agnès Varda!

What is your greatest achievement to date?

Making my documentary 'The Illusionists'. It's very rare to have somebody do everything on a film; it's a herculean task! I was the fundraiser, writer, producer, director, cinematographer, camera operator, editor, did the motion graphics, marketing and website. Basically I did everything on the film except for the music, voiceover and sound - that's why it took me 8 years to complete. I had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get the film made. It all started with 1 person and I eventually found volunteers, a super talented musician, a brilliant actor to do the voice-over, and here I am 8 years later, now taking The Illusionists on tour across North America and Europe. It's the greatest feeling to get emails from viewers, telling me that they feel better about their bodies after watching 'The Illusionists.' Even people in advertising, who have seen the film, often tell me that I managed to change their perspective in just under 90 minutes.

The journey wasn't easy, though. I didn't get any positive feedback for over 6 years, while making the film. Everyone close to me thought I was taking on too much myself, that there were too many odds against me. Yet I was able to harness the power of the internet at exactly the right time: I did a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the film, found volunteers through posts on social media, and I am now using the website VHX as a distribution platform, bypassing traditional gatekeepers and selling the film straight to my audience. I wouldn't have been able to do all of this, even just a few years ago. I'm very grateful for all the tools at my disposal that allow me to be a one woman filmmaking studio.

Why did I do it all myself? I didn't plan it like that, it just turned out that way. Every step of the way, I was approached by powerful people who said they wanted to help and it never worked out. A famous French filmmaker wanted to be the executive producer on the film and we worked together for 1 year trying to get the networks to finance it. However, the networks wanted to dilute the film, do it differently. They wanted me to get rid of all the interviews with experts and demanded that I appear in the film, in front of the camera, trying out various beauty treatments. It couldn't be further from what I originally set out to do. My intention from the start has been to create something smart and insightful, and I always wanted people to identify with the message, not me - so I said no. The production company said if I didn't follow what the network wanted, we wouldn't work together. So I stuck to my vision and did a crowdfunding campaign instead. Then, when I finished the film, I approached prominent producers about the distribution: we had interesting discussions, but the conversations never went anywhere; all the promises fizzled out.

Friends who are tech entrepreneurs told me the same things happened to them. My biggest lesson was to never put all my eggs in one basket. I did just that when I waited 6-8 months for the answer of one of my favorite documentary producers. We had had what I thought was a very positive meeting, but I had a very hard time following up - I could only reach this person's assistant afterwards. The final answer never came (in Hollywood, people would rather "ghost" you than tell you "no"). I learned the hard way you have to spread your risk/opportunities across several people. I wasted a lot of time waiting for follow-ups by some of my favorite producers and distributors. Then I realised 'don't underestimate the power you already have. You can do so much yourself!" Now I'm happy I decided to be in charge of distribution too: it's good to feel in total control of your own fate. What I love about VHX - the distribution platform I'm using - is that they share with you a wealth of information about your viewers: the site they're coming from, their country of origin, and so much more. No other online distributor does that. You can effectively A/B test your marketing strategies to increase sales and rentals. It's a great learning experience - I feel like I'm getting some kind of honorary MBA in marketing. Finishing a film is only 50% of the work; the other 50% is getting people to watch - and pay for - your work.

Through this whole experience, I have built a lot of strength of character and feel I can do anything now.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman leader?

Being taken seriously as a film director! Every time I introduce myself as a filmmaker, I get asked if I am a film student. I think it 's because there are not enough visible role models of female directors. I have friends who are male directors and younger than me, but they never have that problem! When they think about what a film director looks like, people tend to have a visual in their head of a man with a bit of beard, dressed casually, standing behind a camera. On the other hand, there is no right way to look if you are a female film director. This may seem like a trivial issue, but it really isn't. Because if you have trouble being taken seriously as a film director, you will have trouble getting funding and distribution. My Eureka moment came when I was at the 3% Conference in New York in November 2016. During her presentation, Cindy Gallop encouraged women to set out to make a lot of money from day one. Why? As women, often we are not taken seriously in business settings, but if we can prove we can be financially successful, that makes people take you seriously.

Because my intention is to empower women and girls through my films, I have done a lot of screenings of 'The Illusionists" for free. A LOT. Cindy truly changed my mindset. Now I want to be financially successful so that 1) I will be taken seriously and 2) if I'm struggling financially, I won't be able to help other female filmmakers or any of the causes close to my heart. If I can't help myself, how can I help others? As women we are often shamed for thinking this way about money. Women are 'supposed to be ok' with doing things for free. A lot of women filmmakers and artists I know get asked to work for free all the time; well, inspired by Cindy Gallop, I am going to stop doing this. My dream is to mentor and support young female filmmakers: I would love to build a structure to help them. Film is an incredibly powerful medium. If we want to change our culture, to help women and girls thrive in this world, they deserve to have their stories seen and heard. Right now female film directors are less than 10% of all directors working in the industry. They're 7% of all cinematographers. And yet we make up 50% of the world's population. I want to work as hard as I can to help other women rise. And to do that, I will need resources. When I did a screening of "The Illusionists" at Google, they gave me a lot of freebies, including a poster that says "Bill like a boy!" I have it framed in my office! Ultimately, you pay for things you find valuable. And if you give away something for free, time and time again, people place less value on it.

How do you grow people in your organization?

Whenever I take on a film assignment or when I collaborate with others, I try to have my values reflected in the content of the project - and also behind the camera. That's why I always try to get a diverse camera crew, with as many women as I can. We are a minority in this industry and I try to tip the scale the other way, so that women working with me will have one more experience to add to their resume.

In my profession, scaling can be a challenge. In particular, location is the biggest struggle, because I always see things and operate on an international scale, as a global citizen, but the way business and the film industry are set up today doesn't reflect the interconnected reality of our world. You have to pick one country to operate from and when you are receiving offers of collaboration from people around the world, it's difficult to find the right administrative set up. Same goes for film grants. I'm hoping as the years go by, tech will successfully provide a fix to this problem: a global market for global workers.

If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?

I want to collaborate more with like-minded people who share my values and my vision. The creation of The Illusionists was for the most part a solitary endeavor - not by choice, but by circumstance. In the recent past, my favorite projects have been collaborations with companies and people who are empowering women and girls. For instance, I got to make a short film about Stargazer Lottie, the first doll in space, who is inspiring young girls to get into STEM.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I've been described as a 'gentle warrior' by several people. When I have a goal, I am very persistent and I'm not afraid to go up against powerful interests or corporations. Most of my work is about "speaking truth to power" - but in a calm, respectful way. I have found that it's easier to be listened - and supported - this way.

What differences do you notice between men and women's leadership styles?
I'm at an interesting career juncture. I am indeed a filmmaker, but I am monetizing my work through speaking engagements: screenings of my film, followed by discussions with the audience. As an introvert, I thought it would be a challenge to take on this new role. On the contrary, I love being in front of audiences and sharing my work (and values) with them. I've been doing this for almost two years and I've noticed a definite difference in between male and female leadership styles.

Male film directors / speakers can be naturally self-assured and - dare I say - a little boastful. They are almost expected to be this way and get rewarded for this behavior. On the other hand, if you are a woman doing the same thing, you can expect backlash. I feel self-conscious sometimes when I talk about my work because I don't want my confidence to be mistaken for arrogance. And yet, I sometimes wonder if I am re-iterating certain stereotypes. When I look at the career trajectory of leading film directors, I see that male filmmakers are often quite prolific, making a big budget movie every year. For women, it's very different: a look at the filmmography of leading female film directors shows a 4-5 year gap from one film to the next. Even for people like Kathryn Bigelow or Sofia Coppola, who have won Oscars for their work. When it comes to funding films, there seems to be a stigma against female directors - the question: 'Can she do the job? Will she pull it off?' If we are too confident, we are seen as arrogant, but if we are too quiet, we come off as untrustworthy.

Having said that, there are two female directors who are having incredible, well-deserved success at the moment: Ava DuVernay and Amma Asante. They're brilliant role models for young directors and give me hope for the future.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

As the years go by, I realize how precious time is. It all goes by so fast. I would tell my younger self to live life to the fullest, making each day unique and special. I would also tell her to do one thing every day that feels uncomfortable, in order to build up courage and strength.

"When you take a macro vision of life, you realize that you are often paralyzed by fears that never materialize. Be daring, be bold, speak up and ask for what you want."
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When you're older, you'll regret the chances you didn't take. The poem "George Gray" by Edgar Lee Masters is a powerful reminder of that (http://www.bartleby.com/84/64.html).

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?

1) Support and mentor young female film directors.
2) Take 'The Illusionists' on a global tour, expanding screenings to more countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.
3) Do more creative projects that "speak truth to power" and shatter stereotypes.

I feel it's important to point out that, even if my work is focused on empowering women and girls, I am not excluding men. On the contrary. Almost one quarter of my documentary "The Illusionists" is devoted to men, as the new target of the beauty industry.

I find it crucial to have men see my work because if you are striving to empower one half of the world's population, you need the other half on board, as allies. We should all be working together to accelerate and bring forward change.

3 key words to describe yourself?

● Persistent
● Idealistic
● Quiet warrior

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Watch Anne Ravanona's TEDx talk on Investing in Women Entrepreneurs.

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