Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 29, 2020

Screenwriter and Hopkins alum presents at Women's Leadership Symposium

By GRETA MARAS | October 8, 2020

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COURTESY OF GRETA MARAS

The Women's Leadership Symposium hosted its second conference.

The Women’s Leadership Symposium (WLS) hosted its “Women in Media” conference featuring Emma Needell, a Hopkins alum and screenwriter, as the keynote speaker on Saturday, Oct. 3. 

Moving forward, WLS hopes to that this event will become an annual symposium. The organization hosted its first event in October 2018, featuring Lisa Ryu, the then-associate director of the Federal Reserve. 

Needell is the screenwriter of The Water Man, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The film is a science fiction drama starring David Oyelowo and Rosario Dawson.

During the event, Needell spoke at length about her personal relationship with filmmaking — describing her discovery of this passion as a turning point in her life that fueled her to reclaim her identity.

“Passion looks and feels different to everyone, but it comes down to what gets you up in the morning,” she said. 

Needell recommended that those struggling to find a passion should try something new, just as she did with filmmaking during her sophomore year of high school. She considers passion, in combination with guI dance, to be the formula for success in her endeavors. 

“A sense of direction was critical to my career. I had to figure out which stories I wanted to tell, which ones I didn’t want to tell and which stories I was good at telling,” she said.

In an interview with The News-Letter Junior Lily Zhu noted her appreciation for Needell’s message about perseverance.

“One thing that Emma said that stood out was about trusting the process. She mentioned that the first 5% and last 5% of a project are always the best and most exciting points, but it’s up to you to make the other 90% memorable,” she said.

Needell also elaborated on how her love of filmmaking was challenged when she first arrived in Los Angeles after graduating from Hopkins.

“Burnout is very real, and passion alone is not enough to succeed,” she said. “People can try to take advantage of your passion to achieve their own goals, so you need to learn how to establish boundaries and say no.”

Some of Needell’s experiences in Los Angeles have exposed her to the necessity for diversity in collaboration, as well as the struggles that women face in the entertainment industry. Since the beginning of 2019, Needell has made a point to only consider projects where women occupy critical roles, such as director, lead actress or screenwriter.

Needell offered an example of a time where she refused to take on a project unless she could find a co-creator who was a woman of color, which her studio was reluctant to accept. 

After the studio agreed to this request, she and her co-creator were offered a contract that Would have vastly underpaid both of them for their work. After demanding that they either be paid fairly or that they would opt out of the project, the studio conceded and met the salary demands of Needell and her co-creator. 

This experience allowed Needell to see the power of her voice, even when she did not believe she had any. 

“Choice is power, and I didn’t realize this until I made that big choice,” she said. “Women are rarely told when they have power or when their choices matter, so we just have to start making them.”

As a screenwriter in Los Angeles, Needell’s experience and understanding of judgment, criticism and comparison is crucial for her to remain hopeful and excited.

“There will always be someone better than you. If you constantly compare yourself, it will rob you of what you’ve earned so far,” she said. “Any time you put yourself out there in a meaningful way, you might be rejected or belittled. You need to learn to trust that you will get out of it.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Junior Enya Wang expressed that Needell’s view of criticism resonated with her.  

“As a screenplay writer, she faces critique from her peers and also anonymous reviewers everyday. But the way she sees it is that these negative comments will always be present whenever you take the opportunity to put yourself out there. You have to maintain hope to push through,” she wrote. 

Zhu enjoyed the format of Needell’s speech and felt that it helped her covey her messages.

“Emma definitely structured her presentation as a storyteller. She really took us on her journey with her to show us how she ended up being where she is now,” Zhu said.

Lucie Fink, an online video producer and lifestyle host — who is also a Hopkins alum — was scheduled to speak alongside Needell. However, she was unable to attend reportedly due to medical reasons.

Sophomore and Director of Marketing of WLS Evelyn Shiang was satisfied with the event, even with this logistical setback. 

“[The event] went well, despite the other speaker not showing up,” she said. “She was talking about her career and finding passion and direction — something everyone needs to hear.”

Senior and WLS chair Michele Lan agreed with Shiang, adding that women’s leadership is a crucial topic of discussion.

“Women’s leadership is extremely important, especially in this pivotal time in our country and around the world,” she said. “Having a space like this at Hopkins is a statement of itself, and I think it’s important that the culture of Hopkins can recognize that.”

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