The Come Up is a collaborative editorial series between Femme It Forward and Splice, focused on highlighting non-male industry executives and innovators.
For our fourth entry, we had the opportunity to speak with Dana Gills, who is the Head of Development and Production at Wondaland Pictures. Gills builds and oversees an array of film, TV, and multimedia projects, focusing on crafting layered portrayals of underserved communities and amplifying a diverse range of voices. Read on to get a firsthand look into her journey, how music has informed her career, her advice to other female professionals, and more.
Tell us about your ‘come up’ – how did you get a start with your career?
I work more in film and TV (rather than music) but ‘coming up’ as a content producer, I’ve always been interested in the intersection of scripted TV / film and music. I started my entertainment career by co-creating a self-financed web series (Milk & Honey) with two friends that reflects our collective experiences as multifaceted Black women pursuing our dreams, because there were no reflections of that journey on screen at the time.
Simultaneously, I got a job as an associate producer on a documentary that explored the ways Black culture shaped the world via music. I worked on the documentary during the day and the web series at night. The web series was also a community-building tool for us and a platform that reflected our experiences and culture – the art, fashion, and music of our generation. We tapped creative friends in each of those areas to contribute, hoping that the show would be a vehicle to help launch us all.
As the web series started to take off, I went to grad school and got my MFA from UCLA’s producing program. After a few internships, I locked in my first full-time job at a film studio and eventually became a studio executive, which ultimately led me to my current position heading development and production for Wondaland Pictures.
How do you feel music informs your career in the film / TV industry?
I have always been passionate about telling stories that center around women and marginalized global communities’ experiences, and I love that stories can be told and shared in lots of different ways. That led me to the TV and film industry, where I’m able to tell these bold and nuanced narratives. The intersection with music was always of interest because music has inspired and fed me throughout my life, and I’ve always thought of it as a universal language.
As I started my career in the industry, I found myself bumping up against obstacles – one being the myth that stories told from the perspectives of Black people, people of color, and women of color don’t travel or make money internationally. I tried to reverse engineer projects to debunk this myth, leaning into the ways that Black and brown music artists are global leaders at the forefront of shaping and shifting culture. That meant anything from pursuing music-driven films and TV projects to partnering with renowned musicians who wanted to be in the film and TV business.
What was the first big career risk you took?
My first big career risk was betting on myself, leaving an industry I felt somewhat successful and comfortable in to start in a new industry that I knew very little about. I was making less than half of what I made in my first career, but I believed that money comes when you follow your passion, and thankfully it did.
What’s one music industry anecdote that you love to share?
Years ago, one of the very first multifaceted artists I championed was Janelle Monáe. Now it’s come full circle, as I’m playing a role in building Wondaland Pictures – Janelle Monáe’s film and TV production company.
Tell us about one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career. How did you overcome it?
I have two major challenges that work hand in hand: the lack of understanding among industry decision makers around how vast and varied the Black community / experience can be, and being the only woman of color / person of color in certain rooms. I’ve worked (and continue to work) to help others understand the value in hiring more women and people of color, across all phases of development, production, and release.
I decided early in my career that I would constantly expose the industry to dynamic new voices and talent of color by adding them to conversations and encouraging others who have the power to do the same. In addition to mentoring, joining, and creating mission-aligned programs and organizations, when I first became a part of the Wondaland team, we made it our priority to amplify radical and rebellious women of color and writers, directors, producers, and executives of color.
Is there a mentor who supported you in your career? If not, how did you navigate the industry?
I have had various mentors at different points in my career, but Patricia Laucella and Mike Paseornek were particularly instrumental in helping me navigate the industry, and constantly placed me in positions and environments where I could shine my own light.
Have you had to manage being the only female professional in a business meeting? How do you command the room?
Up until recently, I was usually the only Black woman in business meetings. It was tough being the only person with my perspective and having others project their notions of who Black women / people are on me. But, in those situations, I also had to realize that there was power in my position. Once I understood that I was in rooms for a reason, I found ways to use my unique perspective to revamp processes, and ultimately learned how to invite others with different experiences to join in on conversations, too.
I command the room by being prepared, actively listening to and acknowledging other perspectives, approaching projects with a spirit of collaboration, fully embracing those things that make me me, never shying away from difficult conversations or conflict, and always respectfully and authentically speaking my truth.
What would be your advice to female professionals looking to make it in a male-dominated industry?
Trust yourself, your voice, and your instincts. Pay attention to the things that move your soul and allow those things to guide you to your people, places, and experiences. Don’t overthink it, second guess yourself, or ask too many people for their opinions. Just go, do and stay true to you, and realize that regardless of your level, you have influence and power. Use your role and access to create opportunities for more women.
What do you think the future of music looks like?
I think the future of music as it relates to content is exciting and constantly evolving. I envision more musicians creating visual albums, films, and series that bring more cultural nuance to the visual medium. I also think that with the pandemic, there will be real innovation with virtual and interactive world-building / storytelling platforms, where artists can tell stories in multidimensional ways.
TV / film music supervision and composing are other areas that will continue to expand storytelling and exposure to different artists and sounds, especially as more diverse (in terms of experience / background) creatives and supervisors are coming up in that area.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be a part of creating change and usher in a generation of Black women and creatives of color, creating content that celebrates and showcases the diversity of our perspectives, experiences, and cultures. I also want to be at the forefront of telling stories and making art that can live across platforms.
If there were one job in the industry you’d love to have, other than your current job, what would it be?
Maybe a costume designer or a documentarian / photojournalist.
Keep an eye out for more exclusive The Come Up interviews in the coming weeks.
January 8, 2021