BABE #217: ALEX CIRILLO - Co-Founder/Producer: Big Vision Empty Wallet
Alex is the co-founder and producer for creative incubator, Big Vision Empty Wallet, and production company, Big Vision Creative, through which she ensures that talented creators have their voices heard, needs met, and projects funded. Through her inclusivity-focused efforts, she’s made it a company-wide mandate to specifically provide a platform for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community to tell their stories. Smack dab in the middle of the entertainment industry — which can be saturated with male-dominated roles, projects, positions and paychecks — Alex and her business partner, Dani are making waves, breaking down barriers and ultimately changing the game through hard work, powerful storytelling and a whole lot of resilience.
Hometown: Rockville Centre, NY
Current city: New York, NY
Alma mater: Loyola University Maryland
Degree: B.A., Communications; Specialization in Digital Media
Very first job: Lifeguard at a summer camp (where kids pooped in the pool at least once a week)
Hustle: Co-Founder/Producer: Big Vision Empty Wallet + Big Vision Creative
Babe you admire and why?
My mother, Andrea. She’s a brilliant Literary Agent and an exemplary mother. Because of her I grew up seeing that you can be a successful business woman, an incredible mom, and have a loving relationship and an active social life — so I never for one second thought that couldn’t be possible for women.
How do you spend your ‘free’ time?
I spend my free time with my fiancé, Anthony, and our families. We attend lots of sporting events, travel as often as possible, and have a lot of fun eating and cooking delicious meals together. A healthy work-life balance is incredibly important to me, so as easy as it is to work non-stop, I make sure to carve out time to relax and have fun — and I think the quality of my work is better as a result!
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
I’m a tea drinker, but really I’m a mezcal drinker.
Current power anthem?
”The Boss” by James Brown!
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Gnocchi in a creamy gorgonzola sauce. It’s also my hangover cure!
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Oprah is too obvious, so I am surprising myself with this answer — Kris Jenner. She’s a pretty brilliant entrepreneur. If she can turn a sex tape into billions of dollars for her family, I think there are some things I can learn from her.
Tell us about your hustle, providing an overview of your job and roles.
I am a Producer and the Co-Founder of Big Vision Empty Wallet and Big Vision Creative. BVEW is a film and media incubator that runs unique programs that help creators get their film and TV projects made AND seen. Specifically, we support women, people of color, and LGBTQ creators by providing access to resources and relationships to elevate their work and careers. Our incubator feeds into our production company, Big Vision Creative, which specializes in creative development. Both companies gravitate towards comedy and projects with strong social messages, and we value creators with unique POVs and experiences. In most cases I’m involved from beginning to end on feature films and TV series’ from creative development to distribution, though occasionally I come on toward the end to help a project cross the finish line. What really sets Big Vision apart is that my partner, Dani Faith Leonard, and I are both a part of the community we work with, so we are really tapped in to what people need and want.
What does your typical workday look like? Which various ‘hats’ do you wear throughout the day?
Some days I’m working at home in my recliner (bra-less) until my laptop burns my thighs, other days I’m up at the crack of dawn working on set for 16 hours straight (while rocking my sequin fanny pack,) then the next day I’m in back-to back-meetings helping creators develop TV series concepts, and then I fly off to a film festival to teach workshops and sip cocktails with other young entrepreneurs. I go from Executive to Social Media Marketer to Fiancé to Daughter to Business Partner to Chef to Cleaning Lady within the span of a few hours, so what’s most important to me is always maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I make sure that every single day I do things that enhance my business, my relationships, and my home life.
Which came first: Big Vision Creative or Big Vision Empty Wallet? What separate roles do the two companies take on and how do they work together?
Big Vision Empty Wallet came first, back in 2010. After about 5 years of building Big Vision, my partner Dani and I realized that we were doing so much work on the company that we were not giving ourselves the time and space to actually produce content. So, we launched our production company, Big Vision Creative, in conjunction with our Kickstart Diversity Program in 2015 with the idea that we would support projects helmed by diverse creators, and select a few of those projects each year to produce hands-on through BVC. I'm still surprised that there aren't more companies that operate this way! It makes so much sense to incubate projects first. It allows us to build strong working relationships with the Fellows and get involved early on in the process so we get to have a hand in creative development. By working with so many different people through Big Vision Empty Wallet, we are mitigating Big Vision Creative’s financial risk.
What inspired your business model to be hyper-focused on inclusivity within the production industry? What challenges and triumphs has this mission presented?
We began to focus on inclusivity back in 2015 when my partner and I kept being invited to speak on panels about Women in Film, and all anyone did was complain. No one was offering a solution, so we thought about what we had to offer — the relationships and resources we had compiled over the years — and launched the Kickstart Diversity Program that specifically supported projects by women, people of color and LGBTQ creators. We no longer use the Kickstart Diversity name because we don’t want to separate that program from the core values of our company; everything that Big Vision does is inclusive. It took a minute for the rest of the industry to catch up, but now networks, studios and festivals reach out to us because they know we have curated a group of uber-talented creators with unique voices and POVs.
How have your past educational and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today? How have they not prepared you?
I studied film in both high school and college, and those experiences helped me develop the lexicon and technical knowledge to do my job. I missed out on two things by not going to film school: an understanding of all the jobs within the industry, and a network of people to collaborate with straight out of school. But if I already had people to work with (and grow up with) in this industry, I don’t know that I would have been motivated to start Big Vision, so it all worked out in the end! I do still wish I listened to my father and took business classes in college, though.
What tools, books, apps or ideas help you in your day-to-day work?
I live for my iPhone notes app. Without that and my iCal, I would be walking blindly into every single day.
What would you say is your biggest career milestone to date and why?
Having films premiere at Sundance (2016) and SXSW (2017) back-to-back was my biggest career milestone. I can think of so many other moments that were more personally or emotionally satisfying, but once you have a film premiere at Sundance and are able to follow it up immediately with another successful film, it puts you on a completely different level, and opens doors that were previously closed. As for future milestones, I hope to begin selling TV shows to major networks and platforms, and I would like to produce my first studio film very soon!
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience?
I am very lucky to have grown up with a mother who is a total boss. I grew up believing that women can be successful in business and be incredible mothers simultaneously, so I entered the workforce assuming I had the same opportunities as men.
What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work? How’d you overcome it?
One of the biggest obstacles of supporting projects by women and people of color is that the gatekeepers (financiers, executives, distributors) often assume that these are small stories that can’t be commercial — but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I refuse to believe that stories by women or about women are only of interest to other women! Thankfully, films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Crazy Rich Asians are beginning to change that misconception. I’m going to continue backing inclusive projects and doing everything I can to make them commercially successful to help ensure more projects like these get the green light.
What would you say is your biggest strength? What would you say is the skill you most need to improve?
I’m very good at keeping my cool and getting along with people. You need a thick skin in this business, and you have to deal with a lot of extreme personality types, so you can’t take things personally and you need to know how to talk to people. understand that everybody needs something different to feel empowered to do their best work, and I’ve become good at identifying what that is and delivering it so everyone around me can be at their best and feels respected so we can do great work together. I am finally getting good at saying “no,” but in the first few years of our business, I wanted to help everyone — even if their projects weren’t the right fit for our brand or our goals. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but thankfully Dani can sniff out the bullshit and is a much better judge of character than I am. It feels good to be empowered to say no, finally!
Are you involved with any other community organizations or side projects?
I am an active member of Times Up, New York Women in Film and Television, Women Independent Producers and Women in Moving Pictures.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
I am completely inspired by Issa Rae and Lena Waithe. They are brilliant women who have managed to get major networks to give them the creative freedom to create authentic shows, which is no easy task. They are creating opportunities and blazing the trail for other women, especially women of color, who have unique voices that should have the chance to share their stories with the world.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
If you are smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room! Surround yourself with people who challenge you, elevate you, and encourage you to grow.
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