As we engage in the annual film and television awards season we once again find ourselves in the midst of the annual discussion about the lack of diversity in our entertainment world. The dearth of women, people of color and LBGT persons in major roles in front of and behind the camera is astonishing given the diversity of our population.
Studies such as GLAAD’s "Where We Are on TV" and "Studio Responsibility Index", UCLA’s "The Hollywood Diversity Report" and Martha Lauzen’s "The Celluloid Ceiling Report" highlight the degree to which we live in a diverse world but portray a homogenous one. As a quick visual reference, one only needs to look at the makeup of any industry gathering to understand the problem. Wide shots of the nearly all white audiences attending award shows and industry conferences support what the quantitative analysis tells us.
This problem exists in an environment that routinely presents itself as liberal and open-minded. Yet the outcry for free speech that climbed all the way up to the White House over "The Interview" seems to be limited to the speech of only one group – white males. What to make of this? The only reasonable conclusion is that while individuals in this industry may not be personally bigoted there is an unquestionable institutional bias at work.
The whys of this situation have been debated for longer than I have been part of the industry with reasons ranging from the trite to the ridiculous being expounded in annual news articles that are excellent at proclaiming the problem but consistently fall silent on solutions. And always these statements come from well-meaning, educated, successful people. Over my 35 years in the industry I’ve heard everything from "black faces on a movie poster mean fewer foreign sales dollars" to "women would really prefer to have babies than direct a movie." While the data regarding bias has begun to routinely find its way into the open, the response remains the same: complete inaction. And so nothing changes.
Yet something has changed significantly in the world of television and film in the past eleven years. Since 2004 you and I have become investors in the industry that entertains us. That’s because a portion of our tax money goes directly to the makers of the content we watch. The creation of film and television tax credits at the state level means that the industry as a whole is collecting large subsidies from the majority of state governments. Knowingly or not, 280 million (the aggregate population of the 39 states with programs or pending legislation for programs) Americans contribute to these programs via their state tax coffers. While these programs differ as to percentages and qualifications, tax rebates and credits as a whole provide approximately 20% of film and television production financing.
In my home state alone this year, the companies that finance our television shows and movies will receive tax credits of up to $440 million courtesy of the people of New York. Certain major studios have all but eliminated their state tax burden by using these initiatives. Incentive programs exist or are part of pending legislation in 39 of the 50 states and have been an economic boon in states that embraced them. Georgia, Louisiana and New Mexico have emerged as significant production centers. New York itself has seen the resurgence of production like nothing I have ever experienced.
These tax programs send millions of dollars into local economies supporting caterers, hardware stores, car and truck rental companies, lumber yards and corner grocery stores. Just as important, these incentives contribute to the creation of good paying jobs, most of which provide solid health benefits and pensions. They are also fair to taxpayers in comparison to other tax programs because manufacturers (financiers of content) must actually spend their money first in very targeted ways before receiving their state aid.
Since entertainment is the United States’ number two export (arms/ military equipment is number one) it is important to understand that film and television production, in addition to dominating world entertainment is a significant part of our modern day "manufacturing sector." So, on the one hand we have the booming economic engine of an industry that is appropriately subsidized in part by taxpayers at the same time that it is plagued with an intractable institutional bias such that it does not represent the very people who support it with tax money and consumer sales. What to do?
History has shown that the force of government is often required to step in and correct issues of civil rights disparities and that is the case here. The system of incentives already exists and has satisfied its original purpose of creating jobs and economic growth. A few small tweaks to these existing programs would allow tax incentives to become part of the solution to the industry’s institutional bias.
What might this look like? The simple addition of a 5% Diversity Incentive could reward film and television shows that have women, people of color and LBGT individuals in major roles in front of and behind the camera. This is an easy investment for states to make in creating a more balanced on-screen world. The Diversity Incentive would be over and above the existing program. What’s in it for the states? First, a better representation of their voter’s in the mass media; second, a richer cultural understanding for all of their residents; and finally, an economic boost for a portion of their population that has been traditionally underserved.
Industry precedent already exists. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) has had a "Diversity in Casting" incentive for certain lower budgeted films for the past two decades. The program provides certain financial incentives to producers of qualifying productions. I’ve used that program myself and know a number of filmmakers who were able to do the same. The advantages available from it have made many diverse indie films a reality.
Precedent for legislation that aims to correct civil rights disparities is well documented for other institutions (education, housing, transportation, etc.) and there is even a precedent within existing film tax credit programs. The Illinois Film Tax Credit requires that diversity statistics be recorded and even threatens the credit may be denied without a "good faith effort" to create a diverse behind the scenes environment. Yet government intervention need not be punitive. Positive reinforcement with an emphasis on the top creative jobs in the field is what’s required to bring about meaningful and lasting change.
Solving institutional bias requires the effort of the entire industry and Diversity Incentives can serve as a broad based tool for a variety of organizations. Rallying around State Tax Incentives is one powerful example. Adopting SAG-AFTRA style contract provisions is another. This option is one that is available to all industry unions and guilds immediately. The unions (IATSE and Teamsters) and guilds (Directors Guild, Writers Guild and Producers Guild) need to get on board in an all out attack on the status quo. They can both create their own incentives within existing contracts but they can also be a force for legislative change.
In that arena the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the industry’s major lobbying arm and a powerful advocate for state tax incentives, can also dedicate itself to solving this problem. A strong push for Diversity Incentives in those 39 states with programs is needed. State legislators must be pressed to support a film and television industry that more closely resembles its viewers who also happen to be its voting constituents.
The particulars of each program will need to be worked out state-by-state or, in the best of worlds, on a Federal level, but the time is now to begin the conversation. Incentives already play a major creative role in determining what we see. Scripts are routinely re-written or adjusted to accommodate the best incentive states. Discussions are routinely had about where to shoot a particular project based on the latest incentive information. What if that discussion was expanded? If, for example, based on an incentive program, an African American or gay actor or actress would be sought out for a role that didn’t necessarily require a white male face? Or females and persons of color were on the list of potential directors for a project because there was an added financial incentive to employ them? With the right incentive programs in place discussions about a diversified cast and crew would absolutely take place on every single project in both studio and independent producers’ offices.
Why should this industry be paid to do what is fair and just? Simply put, because this industry has a profound impact on our culture, our economy and our psyche and has proven unable to solve the problem. The situation is intractable and needs the external force of government to correct it.
Everyone has a stake here.
Audiences need to see themselves as well as "the others" represented in stories. Every corner of the industry should embrace a more diverse world in order to increase the quality of its output and broaden its audience. Film pioneers like Alice Guy, director of the first narrative film, and African American writer-director-producer Oscar Micheaux, who was a veritable one man studio, helped create an industry that later shoved them aside when there was big money to be made. It’s time for everyone to regain a seat at the table.