Women in Film Spotlight: Helenna Santos

 

Or Die Trying executive producers Sarah Hawkins and Myah Hollis caught up with Helenna Santos, the creator and founder of Ms. in the Biz, to talk about their her work as a filmmaker and her vision for the women in film community. 

 Photography by Marc Royce.

Photography by Marc Royce.

ODT: Where are you originally from?

Helenna Santos: I was born in Napa Valley, California, then moved to Singapore, the Philippines, and spent most of my childhood just outside of Vancouver, BC Canada. 

 

ODT: What first inspired you to pursue a career as a filmmaker?

HS: I’ve been a performer my whole life. I first went to college for jazz singing and quickly realized that because I’m a very creative and curious person, strictly focusing on music theory and jazz performance wouldn’t be enough to fulfill me creatively.  I transferred to a university and ended up getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting. 

After that I moved down to LA with my husband and started producing shorts and web series, directed a web pilot, and began collaborating with other people writing scripts. I absolutely loved doing all of those jobs, and I realized how much I enjoyed all aspects of filmmaking.  

Aside from the crazy amount of satisfaction my type-A personality gets from producing, it also became apparent back in 2007 or so when I started to create my own work, that in order to get to act as much as I wanted to, I’d have to produce.  

I know that seems really cliché now since every actor is told to get off their butt and create the roles they want to play, but it’s still 100% true, especially as a female minority in her 30s. The opportunities to tell stories where women are diverse, complex human beings of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and experiences, and not just stereotyped cardboard cut outs in a male driven world, are still extremely limited. It is so important that our voices are heard to shape the stories that make it onto our screens.  It’s getting a lot better, but our society still has a long way to go. 

ODT: Ms. in the Biz has been a great go-to resource for fellow women in the industry, from events, a book, and a blogging forum. What initially inspired you to create this community and how has it evolved?

HS: Thank you so much!  I’m really proud of Ms. In The Biz and the awesome community that has developed around it. 

Back in 2012 I was doing a lot of blogging, some on my own site and also on a site called “Talk Nerdy To Me Lover”. At the time I knew so many talented “multi-hyphenate” women in the entertainment industry who were just like me, writing, directing, producing, acting… I wanted a place where we could share all of the information we had in a blunt way, so that people who were starting out in the industry could get an inside look at what it’s really like deep inside the hustle.  

I also wanted it to be a strong community of awesome ladies who could support and champion one another.  What started with 80 writers when we launched in May of 2013 quickly ballooned to almost 300, and a worldwide readership.  

The best part is that having male allies is absolutely one of the key ways that women can make progress in our industry, and while guys don’t write for the site, we do have incredible men who champion the community, and fun fact: the site is actually read by 54% men!  

To me, our large male readership is a testament to the incredible content that can be found in the 1800+ articles on the site.  I would say the same goes for the Ms. In The Biz book “Thriving in Hollywood” as well. It’s just jam-packed with great information, whether you are new to the business and just trying to figure out how the heck the industry works, or you have been at it for awhile and are looking for a boost. 

As far as the events side of things go, I’m a serial connector.  I LOVE a good party and making authentic connections with other creatives.  I’m all about collaborative community and having kick ass events was always my way of building the community in a real-world way so that we aren’t all just talking in “140 characters” or via a blog post. Because, while connecting with other people on social media is one of the best tools to help propel your career forward, meeting people in-person, shaking their hand, and talking about ANYTHING other than the industry is equally as important. 

 

ODT: What's your big vision goal with Ms. in the Biz?

HS: Coming up to our four year anniversary there are so many directions the website and community can go in.  Right now, we are on hiatus from posting new articles to give the 300 writers a break from churning out new content every day. The 1800+ articles are available on the site to read through and they are an incredible resource, and the book is also available on Amazon and in Samuel French! 

Currently, we are staying focused on community building and championing women getting hired in all aspects of the industry with the #HireaMs Movement

 

ODT: How can filmmakers get involved? 

HS: The #HireaMs Movement is all about getting more women hired on sets.  If you go to msinthebiz.com/hireams there are a number of amazing resources and databases listed to help you hire women for all jobs in the film world!  

We started the #HireaMs database a couple of years ago and it grew to over 1000 listings, and now we are combining our database with the Women in Media Crew List so that there is ONE central place to look to find qualified ladies to hire. 

So, long story short, the best ways to get involved are to:

  1. send people to msinthebiz.com/hireams to hire women

  2. tweet us at @msinthebiz with the hashtag #HireaMs and tell us about an awesome woman you worked with so we can retweet and raise their profile in the community

  3. sign up for the Ms. In The Biz newsletter via the website to stay up to date on what’s happening with the site and community and pro tip: we often give out promo codes to festivals and workshops and events that are aligned with our goals and community values! 

 

 Photography by Cathy Baron.

Photography by Cathy Baron.

ODT: What have been some of the unique challenges you've overcome while establishing yourself as a woman in the film community? 

HS: I’m not sure that any of my personal challenges in the entertainment business have been particularly unique.  I think that we all go through similar things in this crazy industry which is why Ms. In The Biz took off the way it did.  Our struggles are all so relatable.

The truth is that right now ageism, sexism, racism…it’s all still very real, but it’s also an exciting time where things are shifting. Progress is happening. Slowly. But it IS happening. 

 

ODT: Any advice you would give young women pursuing a similar career path?

HS: LIVE your life. Have interests that have nothing to do with the entertainment industry. Nurture your relationships. Create authentic connections. Spend time with your family. Travel. Watch every sunrise and sunset you can. Stop and smell the freaking roses. 

I found that after a decade of going, going, going, and being so focused on moving my career forward, I was starting to feel artistically dry and wondering what the whole point was.  I chose to truly explore a balanced life….to actually take days off (gasp, I know).  I took a hot second to read a book, get together with friends to just hang out, not to have a production meeting.  And I realized, as much as I’m fueled by the creative process, unless I “fill the tank” with all of the things that make life, life, there wouldn’t be a whole person there to give to a project the way I would want to give of myself.  Gotta put that oxygen mask on your soul first you know?  

So, in pursing this career path, while you may feel like your career and the business are EVERYTHING and that you have to make it all happen “yesterday”, there is a whole world out there. The ironic thing is that if you explore that world, drink it all in, it will only make you a stronger person when faced with the insanity of show business, and also a deeper artist. 

 Santos at the 2014 Geekie Awards. 

Santos at the 2014 Geekie Awards. 

ODT: Any other exciting new projects you're working on?

HS: Yes!  I am really stoked about two feature films that I produced and star in which were shot last year, and both movies should be released by the end of this year.  

One is an adventure/thriller called “At Your Own Risk” that was shot mostly just with a four-person team deep in the New Mexico desert, the other is a sci-fi/horror movie shot in Portland that my husband Barry W. Levy wrote based on a story that he and I developed, and he also directed it.  Both pass the Bechdel Test, both have complex and diverse female characters, and I’m not going to lie…they are freaking awesome and incredibly innovative! 

You can learn more about these films and the other features we have in development on my production company website MightyPharaohFilms.com