Five women sat on the stage of the intimately lit Kimball Theatre Saturday, Feb. 2, as the audience waited in anticipation of their insights and inspiring histories. These women together formed the “W&M Women in TV” panel, a group of alumnae from the College of William and Mary who are now professionals in the television industry.
This event was hosted by the Cohen Career Center in partnership with the William & Mary Global Film Festival — a four-day series of discussions and film screenings across campus from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3.
Associate Director and Liaison to Arts and Education at the Cohen Career Center Anna Umbreit noted in the opening remarks that this panel stands as a further recognition of the College’s 100 Years of Women campaign.
“I hope you each are inspired by hearing each panelists’ perspectives and advice,” Umbreit said.
Umbreit introduced the moderator, Megan Gilbride ’00, with a long list of accolades. Gilibride is a two-time Emmy Award winner, has received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for producing narrative and documentary films, produced the Emmy Award-winning documentary “TOWER” and was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Academy Award. Gilibride accepted the floor and the applause with casual self-deprecation, addressing the audience with the hopes of inspiring students who may wish to work in television in the future.
The speakers sat in a line across the stage, each holding their own microphone and listening respectfully as they discussed their niche in the television industry one by one.
Kim Wilcox ’88 is a costume designer most recently known for her work on the second season of “Stranger Things” and the first season of “Mr. Robot.”
Chitra Sampath ’06 is a TV drama writer and producer on shows such as “Southland,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “Good Behavior.”
Kristin Boos ’08 is a creative director with TNT, also credited as a promotional campaign director, and is responsible for the content production needed to advertise a show, from promos and trailers to influencer events and podcasts.
Jill Twiss ’98 is a comedy staff writer on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” She is also the recent author of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” a satirical children’s book critiquing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s anti-LGBTQ stances by detailing the gay romance of Pence’s real-life pet rabbit. Signed copies were available for purchase at the entrance to Kimball Theatre after the panel.
Boos said she enjoyed a wide variety of activities as an undergraduate and decided to go into television because she enjoyed watching it so much.
“[I was] all over the place with my interests, as we should be as a William and Mary student, overcommitted and doing a thousand things that make you happy,” Boos said. “I watch television all the time. … Sometimes it’s as simple as that. What do you spend a lot of your time doing, and wouldn’t it be fun to do that for a living?”
Twiss’s sarcastic sense of humor struck throughout the panel.
“I was a music major, obviously at William and Mary, specifically clarinet, which really panned out for me,” Twiss said.
With resume entries that spanned from “congressional intern” to “touring thespian,” and then from “stand-up comedian” to “comedic writer,” Twiss communicated how indirect paths to success can be.
Sampath double majored in operations and information systems with literary and cultural studies with a film track. She accepted a consulting job based in Los Angeles, California with Accenture post-graduation. Within six months, she quit, moved into an apartment with eight roommates and started seeking unpaid internships in the entertainment industry through Craigslist.
“In hindsight, I was always writing, it just didn’t occur to me that someone like me could actually do the job that I have now,” Twiss said. “There was a gap between the empowerment that I needed and the clarity of vision that I needed to get there.”
Even Wilcox, who had a clear interest in design and theater throughout her undergraduate and postgraduate education, acknowledged the shifty nature of career paths. She recalled her realization during graduate school that she wanted to pursue costume design as opposed to set design, and the “knock-down, drag-out fight with [her] Master’s director” to let her change programs.
The panelists repeatedly discussed the importance of informational interviews in the industry. An informational interview consists of an informal request for 15 minutes of an entertainment professional’s time to ask questions and to learn about their job, more often than not over coffee.
Gilibride described them as a vital part of working in the television industry.
“[They’re a] secret golden ticket to get access to really smart people in the industry in a no-stakes situation,” Boos said. “You’d be surprised at how many people take you up on that, because we all got where we are because many people along the way gave us those 15 minutes for coffee.”
The panelists advised the audience to be brave, to come prepared with informed and insightful questions, and to do research on the company and the position’s current projects.
“It shows inquisitiveness, it shows motivation, it shows enthusiasm for the craft you’re going into,” Boos said.
Boos and Sampath also emphasized the importance of the follow-up email and the “thank you” — it is at this juncture that they say a student may inform the interviewer of their willingness to provide a resume or fill a future position.
“If you do an informational interview, don’t expect to get a job,” Wilcox said. “Sometimes it takes two years. You’re just putting a seed. You’re spreading as many seeds as you can, you’re learning as much as you can about as many different things as you can, and then just wait for it to germinate. Because pushing them will make you kicked out of the queue.”
The panelists were eager to convey the cooperative and supportive nature of the entertainment industry, despite its reputation for competitiveness.
“There’s this notion that it’s a cutthroat industry, and in a lot of ways it is, but because it’s an industry of people and it’s an industry of creative people and relationships, there’s a lot about support,” Gilibride said. “I still ask people to do those [informational] meetings with me.”
Sampath offered other final pieces of advice for budding creatives.
“Do not just send your script along afterwards,” Sampath said. “It’s a total no-no, but you can say, ‘Would you mind reading my material?’ in your reply, and when they tell you it’s OK to send a script, send it.”
Twiss gave those in the audience a tip as well.
“Make sure your stuff is out there for people to see,” Twiss said. “There’s a ton of content out there but a lot of it’s not great. The good stuff really will be seen.”
Wilcox also provided some advice to students who were considering moving to larger cities after graduation.
“If you decide to move to New York or L.A., live with as many people as possible because you’re not [going to] make a lot of money, and you need that money to network,” Wilcox said. “So spend as little as you possibly can on rent, live with as many people as you can stand — people that you like — and go out as much as possible. Because in the bar and over the beer … that’s how you get in the door. It’s a lot better to spend less on where you live and more on how you socialize.”
Gilibride’s last question brought the conversation to the unique William and Mary undergraduate experience — how the panelists believe the College prepared them for the industry and their careers.
Sampath was grateful for her non-linear path to screenwriting.
“I got to live real life and learn, have all of these other classes and all of these other experiences for several years longer,” Sampath said. “Now I have more things to write about.”
Wilcox ended by saying that the biggest key overall is work ethic.
“[Most important is] work ethic and tenacity,” Wilcox said. “It matters if you have a work ethic, you pay attention, you put in the work, you stick around. … You survive.”