Marti Noxon and Jessica Rhoades are behind Torchlighter Dinners, a series of gatherings for women in television to talk all things industry – from finding the right agent, creating a diverse writers room to fighting for pay parity. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic the duo, who became close friends after executive producing together Sharp Objects, took their intimate gatherings to Zoom for ATX, where they invited a group of top showrunners and up-and-coming writers, Tanya Saracho (Vida), Nichelle Tramble Spellman (Truth Be Told), Janine Nabers (Atlanta), Jenniffer Gomez (Vida), Sarah Acosta (Second Wave) and Erika L. Johnson (The Good Lord Bird), to share best practices and common experiences as women in Hollywood.
Noxon and Rhoades kicked off their “An Evening with Torchlighters” panel, which will be released by ATX tomorrow, April 29 at 5 PM (you can watch it here), revealing that the inspiration for their intimate gatherings, which would typically be in-person and feature a full three-course dinner, was a speech by Natalie Portman at a women empowerment event they attended a couple of years ago. In her speech, the Thor: Love and Thunder actress used a metaphor, noting that when you light someone else’s torch with your own, you don’t lose your fire, you just make more light and more heat, so if a woman lights other women’s torches, the light will multiply and the heat will intensify for all. Taken by those comments, Noxon and Rhoades decided to launch their women networking initiative, calling it Torchlighter Dinners. They held four in-person events before the pandemic hit.
“We weren’t talking about our wages, our deals our efforts to diversify our staff or hire more female directors…we would talk about that in line to get our coffee when we bumped into each other some place and we’d just scatter,” Noxon said. “Our intention is to expose people to each other and try to jump start these conversations which might be a little bit difficult but have to happen.
The hour-long conversation saw writers reflect on how they often were one of the few Black people or people of color in a room and how that lack of representation inspired them to seek out mentors, agents and managers who looked like them, and as a result learned their worth. Johnson, who served as executive producer on Queen Sugar, said that the mentality of feeling special for being the only Black woman in the room was “a set-up so you’re not pushing back or wondering, ‘Why am I the only one in the room?'”
As a result she helped launch the entertainment networking group Black Women Who Brunch to expand and connect the network of Black women in the industry.
During Noxon and Rhoades’ Torchlighters Dinner discussion, women spoke freely about their experiences coming up and succeeding in the television realm as well as the many obstacles they have faced. Saracho and Gomez reveled in the authenticity and effortlessness of the all Latina writers room on Vida. And Acosta talked about finding lawyers and reps who would help her know her worth.
Janine Nabers shared that a white co-worker previously dismissed her first contract extension as result of her race, while Tramble Spellman explained how her experience working for WME helped her “cut a lot of the bullsh*t” of finding the perfect agent and shared her first-hand experience with how male writers get paid more, citing husband and writer-producer Malcolm Spellman.
“We have equivalent careers and it was really interesting to see the excuses that everybody came up with as to why it was different,” Tramble Spellman said.
Breaking through and finding success in the television industry as women, hasn’t always been easy, the panelists agreed. However, expanding and uplifting the community of other intelligent and talented women in television can help make the work less difficult, said Rhoades.
“It feels so much better when we do it together and when we acknowledge each other – just the concept that giving a little bit of our light doesn’t take anything away and actually makes it warmer and brighter for everyone, I love it that we get to do it in this industry, but I also think it’s something we can do everywhere in the world,” she said. “A little bit of warmth can lift up all the women we come in contact with.”