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Why We Need Diversity Incentives for Film and Television

Why We Need Diversity Incentives for Film and Television

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.

Richard Guay is a New York based independent producer and screenwriter.

READ MORE: No More Excuses: Hollywood Needs to Hire More Female Directors

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I completely agree with David Jefferson. I work on film crews in Illinois. The tax credit has been helpful to our state. However the "diversity" clause that is attached to the tax incentive has hurt myself and others immeasurably. As a white woman in the industry for years, I had an amazing freelance career. When the tax credit hit us in 2008, I lost tons of work because of the color of my skin. I grew up in a single parent home. I struggled financially my whole life, worked and went to college to better myself. My career that I worked so hard for was practically taken away from me….because of the color of my skin. This affected my entire world, financially, as well as friendships and business relationships. As a woman, I should be considered a "minority"…yet I do not count toward the illinois tax credit, so I lost work. It is so wrong to offer monetary incentives based on peoples skin color. This only creates reverse discrimination and resentment. Resentment from well qualified people that are losing work, sometimes to people that are not qualified…but get the job for one reason. Jobs should go to people based on their abilities no matter the color of their skin. I have friends of all colors. Often the minorities feel bad that they know this is happening. They want to be recognized for their work and know they are getting hired because of their skills, not their skin color. This diversity clause in the illinois tax credit hurts everyone.


Thank you for stepping up with this analysis and action plan — it is the first time I’ve seen a concrete way proposed that actually could make a difference. May it come to pass.
And, may more avenues generally be opened up for all artists in the USA to make a living from our work — for the pie to be multiplied, with plenty for all who persevere.

Jennie Livingston

Yes, exactly. There’s no cabal of industry folks who sit around saying that only white men tell stories of interest to white men, but there are practices, prejudices, assumptions, and systems in place that keep the development and production money funneling mainly only to the people who look like directors — ie white men between 30 and 40.

This impoverishes viewers who want to see stories about women, people of color, about poverty, about any number of communities, ideas, and issues that get left off the table. Not because white men are bad filmmakers, or blind, but because they can’t and shouldn’t be expected to tell all stories, or understand viewpoints that aren’t their own.

Women directing only 5-6% of films in general release is about the people with the money not about there being only a couple of qualified women directors in the world: it’s about the money people not trusting us with the money.

Just like women not doing surgery, or running for Congress, or, or sitting in boardrooms, and,not all that long ago, voting, was also about feeling we couldn’t be trusted to do those things.

Law schools, medical schools, political organizations, corporations, unions, and even families began to examine their own practices of discrimination, to make sure that women have the opportunities that previously were given only to men. The women in medicine, law, business, government, and the arts have proved that those openings were what were needed.

This proposal sounds like a great way to go. Not the ultimate solution, or the only plan worth pursuing, but a good way to stimulate the kind of growth and evolution that film needs. Not just because it’s right, and it’s the way a powerful medium needs to evolve in a powerful democracy, but for economic reasons. Whole swathes of people don’t go to the movies, because they’re tired of being invisible, stereotyped, or just plain left out. A diversified marketplace is a healthier one.

Indy Pro

More corporate welfare to bribe the fat cats into creating more diverse projects? Brilliance! How about not buying their movies? Shaming them seems to work well. The leaked Sony emails proved that. Oscar awareness of the issue adds momentum. Why didn’t your article support the momentum of shame, rather than suggest adding to their coffers?

David Jefferson

We have "affirmative action" aka racial discrimination at all levels of education, big business, and most odiously of all, government agencies. We do not need to extend it farther. And we do not need our tax dollars stolen to favor one race over another, even under the author’s "subtle" plan of incentives and disincentives. There is nothing that prevents minority people from making movies, save their own actions. Indeed, minority persons who are not afflicted with indolence, have been successful at the highest level of the industry. Spike Lee, for example, though a marginal director, has been very successful. Indeed, minority persons already are favored with the built-in and often irrational favoritism toward minorities. Consider Spike Lee for example: would a white director whose theme advocated arson and murder as "doing the right thing" be villified? But in Spike Lee’s movie "Do the right thing" he advocated arson and violence.

The fact is that minorities are already favored and coddled at all levels of the industry, and it is both immoral and outrageous to suggest that other person’s tax money be manipulated into yet another handout to minorities.

Carlos Sanchez

As a student of film procudtion at a public university in NYC preparing to graduate I admit my perspective is limited. While I agree with the article within its own context there is a subtle condition of reverse marginalization when it comes to race specifically. White working class men and women would argue that given the economy it’s shortsighted to agree with affirmitive action initiatives that may discount their aptitude or work experiences in service of an economic incentive. Rather the focus of diversity initiatives should consider how opportunity is made available to earn one’s way into the industry. As a hispanic male, my concerns have less to do with my race and more to do with an observation that access to gainful employment within the industry is concerned with what family you were born into, what school you could pay for and what class status you can mingle with. I’m surrounded by enough diversity at my public institution for it never to be an issue but what we share in passion and acceptance is the difficulty entry into the industry, at any level, underscored with the haunting certainty that our education exists within a bubble and only luck, money or surname determine professional success. Masters program costs are prohibitive and undergraduate production costs can make a low income lifestyle increasingly pressured and sometimes harmful. No one with a sense of purpose would turn away from a dream instantly when school loans are available. It’s quite the surprise when work after graduation, whether white or black, lacks typical entry level pathways to sustainability and certain high-income communities are being carried in. Too many graduates at my instution are forced to undergo several more years of no-pay work, and no health insurance, living with their parents if thats an option hoping to meet a union member or established professional to mentor them. After years of investment, education and encurring large debt, lower-middle class applicants deserve better than exploitation or outright dismissal in wait for a benefactor who would otherwise care less. You can put your name on a work list with a given union but that’s not training, it’s not standardized and your education from a public institution certainly isn’t an advantage. That has to change. I can’t fault families and selected communities providing favorable opportunities for these hidden preferences. It’s just a shame that it perpetuatates factionism (I want to hire my people and help them feed their families when the time comes and I am just as tempted to do this regardless of their skill level which I’ll endeavor to find ways to compensate for until they get some exoerience). If film and tv is going to express itself as more culturally diverse it should aim for equal integration across private and public universities with a transparent, standardized, open access application process that cannot be interrupted or skipped due to favor hires. If the unions integrate with public institutions and set an independent standard that reflects their needs rather than political ones but also lead to fair opportunity at sustainable employment, the obvious diversity at these public institutions will rise to the occasion. I believe that once hardwork becomes, not just in the ideal but, the practical equalizer, then diversity tax incentives won’t be potentially watering down the labor force for policy purposes. The real challenge is standardizing education and apprentice pathways with challenging but sensible standards (including grants to help with economic hardship) that accept all income classes and allow for real competition to occur and fair entry to occur. If at the point diversity intitatives kick in against equal level applicants for any union, a waiting list can be employed similar to civil service processes like the NYPD.


There are a lot of women in the film industry, just not so much in directing, cinematography, and writing. Look at the rich history of film editing as one example, which is one of the most important steps in the creative process. There are also several prominent female producers. It’s not as bad as people think, also considering that the statistics of those who want to pursue film careers favor men. Misrepresentation and underrepresentation is one thing, but equal opportunity is not the same as equal turnout.


while I agree with the author’s sentiments, I think the solution misses the mark. Most would agree that the industry is overwhelmingly white and male. But in these discussions that have been sprouting of late, the term "industry" is used to describe essentially only directors, writers and cast. The reality is that the vast majority of the industry is made up craftspeople like editors, camera operators and sound designers, in addition to countless electricians, carpenters, technicians etc. many of these folks are looking to become directors, etc, and many are content to work for good (union) wages for their labor. This is the industry, in practical purposes. And this portion of the industry is also overwhelmingly white. And this is the portion of the industry in which diversity will make the biggest difference – allowing film sets and edit shops to better reflect the reality in which they live, but also by hiring the next DP’s, VFX directors, film directors etc.

An incentive to see more people of color on the front credits of a movie is nice, but it only superficially gets at the core of the issue. For real change, you want to focus on the trenches.

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