Top Creatives and Execs Inform and Inspire at the 5th Annual Women in Entertainment Summit

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From left: Patricia Heaton, Sarah Hyland, Julie McNamara, Alex Kurtzman

A heavy-hitting roster of industry power players spoke out on career and content-related diversity and inclusion issues in Hollywood.

For its fifth year of bringing largely female industry members and aspirants together with established content creators, executives and gatekeepers, the annual Women in Entertainment Summit shifted its focus more toward the "how to" aspects of launching, building and navigating a career in Hollywood.

Founders Renee Rossi and Gretchen McCourt once again loaded the event program at the Skirball Cutural Center with a roster of respected industry titans opining on a series of relevant topics. Actresses Patricia Heaton and Sarah Hyland both headlined intimate Q&A sessions, as did the pairing of Julie McNamara, executive vp original content for CBS All Access, and Alex Kurtzman, who sits at the helm of the streaming network’s expanding Star Trek television franchise as well as an upcoming miniseries about former FBI director James Comey.

The one-day program also included a panel with creatives and executives from the Starz network — including Outlander executive producer Maril Davis, Hightown creator and executive producer Rebecca Cutter, and senior vice presidents of original programming, Karen Bailey and Susan Lewis — as well as several themed panels, including focusing on cultural accuracy and representation, cross-platform content trends, women’s impact on the comedy genre, authenticity in storytelling, inclusivity of all abilities and the importance of established women mentoring, inspiring and clearing the path for female up-and-comers.

In discussing her lengthy, multiple Emmy-winning career as a television actress — including long stints on Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle and her successfully launched new CBS series Carol’s Second Act — Heaton, 61, revealed that ageism has yet to prove to be an issue for her.

"What’s lovely is that I feel in this point in my life, I’ve never had more opportunities, so that’s good news for all of you lovely young women out there: there’s just more to come," Heaton said. Having a wealth of life experiences, she added, "does a couple of things to you: first of all, you reprioritize and you relax about certain things as you get older…. You start focusing on what is important. One of the messages I hope the [new] show gets across is that older people, instead of sailing off into the sunset and not being relevant, we have a lot of wisdom and experience and knowledge that we can bring to the table that you simply cannot have unless you’ve lived a long life."

Kurtzman discussed how after his first instinct (and condition) was to place a woman of color — Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham — at the center of Star Trek: Discovery (and later, Michelle Yeoh in the forthcoming spinoff Star Trek: Section 31), during casting the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump raised the question whether perhaps the cultural timing was out of sync, but he and McNamara "doubled down. We said, 'This is exactly why we have to do this right now! So we did…. [And] for me personally, I have a hard time writing men, is the truth. I don’t know why. It’s always been the case. So I’m much more comfortable writing from that place."

On the "Conscious Cultural Accuracy and Representation" panel, One Day at a Time executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett was part of a lively discussion about authentically and very personally portraying specific cultures onscreen, noting that such specificity also carries a universal ring of truth. She also noted just how powerful an effect pop cultural portrayals can have in the real world over time.

"There’s an activist, Favianna Rodriguez…[who] talks about the LGBTQ issues in this country and how things shifted once Will & Grace was on TV and once Ellen [Degeneres] came out, and how you can see a straight line to all of the equality, all of the progress we’re finally making with the LGBTQ community," said Caldeone Kellett, who cited Rodriguez’s observation that it takes roughly a decade between a focus on an issue via television — from Mary Tyler Moore and women in the workplace to Murphy Brown making a choice about single parenthood — and quality change in the real-world culture. "All of these things infect what we do."

After her panel, Calderone Kellett told THR that by taking part in the summit she hoped to communicate to the rising talents in the audience "that their perspective is important – their specific perspective, wherever they're coming from, whatever they're doing. This is largely a female or female-identifying group of people, and there's still a lot of stories about women of various backgrounds that we need to hear. So whatever their specific story is, whatever their voice is, there's room for it."

She also related an anecdote about needing to instruct her agents and managers to more actively and specifically seek out voices other than straight white men when fielding material for her to review, so such submissions would be in her first stack of scripts to read rather than the last.

"Talking about it is the first step — if you talk about it, then it makes somebody aware," Caldeon Kellett said following her panel. "'Are we just hiring people that remind us of us?’ I understand the reason for wanting to do that, but it's important for us to look beyond our own things.... What we're trying to do by talking about it, is plant the seed of inclusivity and how important it is, so that when they are starting to do that, they're saying, 'Hey, let's look at people of color and women.'"

After relating her rather circuitous route — included an injury-thwarted bid to play professional soccer — to her producer roles on Outlander, For All Mankind and other shows created by Ronald D. Moore, Davis told THR she realized just how relevant her backstory could be to Hollywood aspirants. "I can't tell you how many times people ask me for advice, and I tell them, 'It doesn't matter what I tell you, because honestly everyone has a different path,'" she said. "There's no one right way to get somewhere, so don't think yours is crazy. Don't think it's not going to work, because there's no one path to success. We've all had these diverse backgrounds, and we've all gotten the same place."

Davis, who added that she feels the success of Outlander paved the way for the current programming mind-set at Starz, where shows are being built around richly rendered female protagonists, urged Hollywood aspirants to heed their strongest creative instincts, no matter how different they might be from perceived norms.

"There've been so many times, for most people, where you question yourself, you're not sure you should say something, and then you don't say something and someone else says your idea and you're like, 'Oh, I should've said something,'" she said. "Just trust your instinct. Don't try to do what somebody else has done. Just try to be you and be unique and you'll find your own path, and it's going to be your own unique view, and it won't be like somebody else's, but that's what's going to make you special."