Sienna Beckman is the co-founder of Emergence Films, a film and TV development and production company based in London and Los Angeles that is committed to supporting female-identifying filmmakers and underrepresented storytellers around the world. Working in LA for 10 years, Sienna produced content for NBCUniversal, Scott Free Productions, Verizon go90, Esquire TV, Refinery29, Prettybird Entertainment, Astronauts Wanted, and Disney Maker Studios, among others.
Her short film BIRTHDAY BOY was executive produced by Jean-Marc Vallee (Director of Big Little Lies & WILD) and is now streaming on HBO. Sienna was Head of Production for YouTube influencer Anna Akana (2.5M+ subscribers) where she produced over 30 scripted and sketch videos, totaling 12M+ views, and a 12-episode comedy series “Search Bar” with Fullscreen Media.
Now based in London, Sienna is an active member of Women in Film & TV UK and TimesUp UK, and she hosts a speed-networking event series to promote hiring more female crew members, creatives, and technicians.
It’s clear you’re very active within the world of production, how do you manage to keep yourself motivated ?
I find my energy and inspiration in my creative collaborators and the projects that we’re working on together, so regular meetings and check ins with my teams are really what keep me going. If I’m completely honest, my motivation definitely comes in waves. There are days when I feel like I’m on top of the world and my fingers are flying across the keyboard, smashing through my to-do list. And there are other days when I find it really difficult to open my laptop and even look at my inbox. When I find myself having one of those low energy days, I try not to beat myself up over it, and instead focus on other ways to stay creative and productive, like watching a film that I’ve been meaning to or opening a new book. Luckily, consuming creative content like that is just as important as the output of creative content, so some days it’s great to just absorb the beauty of other people’s creativity.
Building on the previous question, has it been difficult adapting to working predominantly from home ?
I would say yes and no. I’m pretty used to working from home, previously as a freelancer and then when we started Emergence, so that wasn’t so foreign to me. But a big chunk of my work is taking meetings with people and catching up over coffees and lunches. Now that still can happen (sort of) over video chat or phone call, but it definitely isn’t the same. As I said, I get a lot of my energy and motivation from the people I surround myself with, so it’s tricky when they’re all at the other end of the a zoom call. I’m also a member of a female-driven co-working space here in London called the Allbright, which had two gorgeous spaces where I could take my laptop and be in a really productive mindset, surrounded by other female entrepreneurs. Those spaces are unfortunately closed right now, so I’ve done my best to bring that motivation to my home office. I’ve bought myself a white board to keep track of all of our on-going projects, I have inspirational photos and posters in the room where I work, and I purposefully arranged my desk so I look out the window, so I can get as much sunlight as I can and have a lovely view of the trees outside.
How did you manage to become so involved within the independent film scene in the UK ?
By being very proactive! When I first moved to London, I joined Women in Film and TV and started attending their networking events, which were an amazing way to meet so many of the people I’m collaborating with today. I also have done a lot of research about the companies who are making films, television series and other content that I’m a big fan of, and I reach out to them to take general meetings or to pitch some of our development projects for potential partnership. I also have attended film festivals, markets, and other events, where I try to do as much networking as possible. I watch a lot of content and follow people’s careers closely, who I would potentially like to work with. And then word gets around! With Emergence Films being a company very specifically committed to championing and amplifying female-identifying filmmakers and underrepresented voices, filmmakers find our website and get in touch. I read a lot of scripts and am generally very happy to take meetings with new filmmakers, because that’s where we can sometimes strike gold!
Is there anything about the British film industry that you find particularly interesting ?
I love that it feels big and small at the same time. Before I moved the to UK in 2017, I had read that London was the third biggest film city in the world and was still growing. The government is hugely supportive in bringing productions to the UK and financially supporting its creative sector, which is an incredible support that isn’t always available in the US. Especially after moving from Los Angeles, which is a sprawling behemoth of a city, coming into the British industry felt like I was immediately welcomed. Even after only a few months of going to networking events, I started recognising people and running into familiar faces, which would have been so rare in LA. Even the bigger agencies and production companies feel a bit more approachable than in the US, so overall to me, it feels just a bit friendlier.
Of your upcoming projects is there one you are particularly excited for the world to see ?
I’m excited about all of the projects we’re working on, but specifically right now, I’m really looking forward to our documentary Kelda of the Atlantic. It is a feature doc directed by Alice Rosso, that tells the story of Kelda Wood, the first Para-athlete to row across the Atlantic Ocean completely solo. Her life is incredibly inspiring and she has so much kindness, encouragement and wisdom to offer to everyone she comes into contact with. Especially in this time of Covid and lockdown, when life can seem very bleak, Kelda’s story is a sparkle of light that we can’t wait to share with the world.
Do you find there to be much of a difference between working in the industry in the UK and the US ?
My answer would again be yes and no. There are definitely small differences in specifics – like lingo and terminology – but as far as I’ve experienced thus far, films and TV shows get made pretty much the same way. The UK has more funding and training opportunities for up-and-coming filmmakers, and more of the support systems are publicly funded as opposed to privately funded in the US. I think both countries still have a long way to go in making changes in the industry around inclusion and diversity. Also because of the government support, I see a lot more niche, low budget films being made in the UK for the sake of giving a creative opportunity to a new filmmaker – art for the sake of making art – as opposed to always having an eye on the commerciality of a project, which is all too common in both the US and UK.
Which of your projects are you most proud of to date ?
Ooh that’s a tough one. I’ve loved so many of the projects I’ve worked on for different reasons – learning and growing opportunities, making new friends, experiencing things I’ve never done before… I think I’ll have to pick two. The first one is one of the very first videos I produced with Anna Akana called How to Not Get Raped. Anna is an incredibly talented actress and comedian, and she is brilliant at infusing social commentary into her sketch comedy videos. This particular one went viral and hits a hard message about rape culture and victim blaming.
The second one I’m very proud of is my summer of 2020 lockdown project, which was creating an animated short film from a children’s book written by Katy Kinard called A Thousand, Thousand Things: A Story of the Vastness of Being a Woman. I had never produced an animated film before and it is something I had always wanted to do, so I took advantage of the postponement of a lot of our bigger projects to get this passion project going. We worked with an animator called Jessica Grey who brought Katy’s words to life in such a gorgeous and poetic way. It was truly an amazing experience to see this beautiful film come to life from our imaginations, and it has such an empowering and encouraging message of women and girls being able to be whoever they want to be, with no limits.
How have you found virtual film festival circuits which appear to be the norm for the short term future ?
I have mixed feelings about virtual festivals and markets, but I do think there are strong pros and cons. The positive side of having virtual events is that it makes them much more accessible. Traveling and attending film festivals and markets can be *very* expensive, and hence cost prohibitive to many people. Making the events virtual allows more people around the world the opportunity to attend, without having to invest in the costly flights, accommodations, meals/drinks, etc. And the accreditations are less expensive as well. The cons of having virtual festivals and markets, is that it takes the spontaneity out of the experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bumped into someone I didn’t know was going to be there, or just randomly got to chatting with someone who I ended up working with later down the road. There’s a certain energy and excitement around the networking and parties that, unfortunately, just isn’t possible over zoom. Similarly with film screenings, there is a majesty about watching a film in a packed cinema full of excited viewers, that just can’t be recreated in my living room. I am very much looking forward to when we can get back to attending festivals in person!