“The Changemakers” panel on diversity was a highlight of the 2nd annual Produced By: New York (PBNY) conference on Saturday, October 24 at the Time Warner Center in New York. The panel kicked off with a familiar exercise, when moderator Michael Skolnik, President of Global Grind, shared some staggering stats showing that film and TV overwhelmingly favors white males in almost every aspect of the industry.
Yet, as the discussion that followed demonstrated, a lot more than just “creating awareness” was on the agenda. Aptly sub-headed “Tactics for Equality and Diversity in Film & Television,” the panel kept its focus on practical methods and courses of action that could challenge the status quo, with everyone agreeing it’s time to translate knowledge into action.
“Stop talking about it, and be about it. Otherwise, we don’t have a right to bitch about it,” said “Project Greenlight” producer Effie T. Brown, echoing former WME agent Charles D. King, founder & CEO of MACRO, whose overarching advice was to “live by what you’re preaching.”
Discussing the public outrage over “Greenlight” executive producer Matt Damon’s mishandling of diversity on the show, Brown said that the controversy was a good thing. Because it got people talking about the issue.
“Black Twitter is real. It was beautiful that it showed up,” said Brown. “But you know who else showed up? Everybody else,” she continued, emphasizing the prominent participation of the public in calling out uninformed and ill-considered statements and behavior. “You can’t do something shady and think nobody’s going to hear about it.”
Below are eight highlights and key takeaways from the hour-long discussion:
1. Diversity in front of and behind the camera not only represents reality, but also makes creative and financial sense.
Referring to the diverse group of talent in “Project Greenlight,” Brown said, “You are actually able to see a qualified crew of people that looks like America. I say ‘qualified,’ because it wasn’t tokenism or anything like that. We had a very inclusive crew of African Americans, Latinos…so that people who weren’t a part of the film [can think] ‘oh, that’s a job that I could do.’ They can see themselves reflected, that they too have a voice, and a place in film.”
Mynette Louie, whose Gamechanger Films exclusively backs female-directed films, said that diversity benefits a project in multiple ways. Pointing to a project she’s currently developing, Louie said, “The lead character in it was a male, and we started looking at female actors. So just switching that character entirely to a woman opened up the casting possibilities.” But she explained, “I’m not just doing it out of the kindness of my heart” and that there are financial reasons to promote diversity.
“There’s incentives out there, specific ones like SAG has a diversity incentive where if you cast people of color, and women and older people, you actually get to pump up your budget a little bit and still pay the lower rates. There’s a financial incentive to do it,” said Louie.
2. Audiences have the ultimate power.
“We are all talking about this now because of money,” said Louie. Noting that Hollywood is finally recognizing the financial opportunities lost by “undervaluing the assets of females and audiences of color,” she brought up some recent box office examples. “They’re seeing successes like ‘Furious Seven’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and failures like ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E,’ and white-washed movies like ‘Stonewall,’ ‘Exodus,’ ‘Aloha’… All those movies tanked. The movies with women protagonists and people of color are doing really well.”
Audiences make a difference by supporting films the types of films they want to see more of. “Don’t underestimate the power of actually going to see movies in the theaters,” said LTW President & Founder Lindsey Taylor Wood, who also serves as a strategic advisor to the Harnisch Foundation. “Go see ‘Suffragette’ this weekend, or go see ‘India’s Daughter’ or go see any film that has the values we’re all speaking about,” she said.
3. The entertainment industry is ready to embrace diversity.
When he announced the recent launch of his new venture MACRO, a company focusing on creating content for African American, Latino and multicultural audiences, King said he was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly response from various groups. “I got calls from at least 30 agents from all the agencies I competed against for 15 years,” he recalled. “‘This is amazing. How can we be supportive? Do you need additional capital?’ It really wasn’t about, ‘Hey, can we figure out how to get some of your clients?,'” he said. “Same thing from the artist community. And I was met positively [by] investors in the tech sector, Wall Street and people in the political arena.”
4. Writers need to evolve past creating one-dimensional characters for the sake of political correctness.
“How to Get Away with Murder” creator and executive producer Pete Nowalk spoke to the liberating power of creating diverse characters without worrying about having to portray them as flawless people. “As a creative person, you just want to let your imagination go and not write in fear,” he said. “We created a role together [with Viola Davis] where the character is not perfect. I have the same thing with a gay character; they’re kind of bad people. It feels so freeing that we don’t have to put out portrayals of people who aren’t perfectly perfect. That’s not real or interesting. [Davis] is playing an anti-hero, and men have always gotten credit for that, and have been able to do that.”
5. Invest in building a diverse group of talent from the ground up.
“Think about the interns and assistants you’re hiring,” advised Nowalk. “That’s the way to mentor people. Just hire a diverse group of people who have no experience. It starts there, going way back.”
Brown agreed that “we need to hire one another…If you feel: ‘you know what, I don’t know if they have the chops,’ you know what you do? You mentor them until they get the chops and then employ. That’s a tactical thing.”
6. Arm yourself with the stats: films that embrace diversity and women make money.
Reminding the crowd about the recent and comprehensive MS Factor Toolkit created by Women’s Impact Network and Women and Hollywood, Louie said: “It will help you pitch your women-driven project to financiers. It shows all the numbers that support women driven films. Going to meet with a financier or a studio, they will have dollar signs in their eyes. If you’re armed with that, then you have a chance to get your film greenlit.”
7. We need guiding tools for financiers looking to invest in diverse projects.
“One of the things I’m really thinking through with a lot of our partners is, create something like a Bechdel Test for financiers,” said Wood. “I think that we really underestimate how much money philanthropists and social impact investors are pouring into the independent film space right now. We’re asking studios to essentially have these sorts of quotas, but we’re not asking independent financiers to hold themselves accountable in the same way.”
Pointing to Dr. Stacy Smith of USC Annenberg as one of her allies and partners in the equality space, Wood said Dr. Smith is looking at something like the Rooney Rule for film that has been very successful in the NFL (a rule that basically demands you have to interview at least on person of color for a head coach position before you can make a hiring decision.) “We can look at solutions that are working in other industries and we can use them for our own benefit,” said Wood.
8.You can be a part of the movement, regardless of your location.
Addressing the question of an audience member from Boston, King said not living in one of the bigger industry cities like Los Angeles or New York matters less these days. “I did an analysis at one point during my last time at WME and I realized that about 70% of the biggest clients that I was representing and working with did not live in Los Angeles. They lived in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Memphis,” said King. “There are those moments where you go to those key cities and take your key meetings. You can be part of the movement to bring more film and television to Boston and go get your projects set up, get them made and start employing people. You can build; get incentives where you start a program where you have people that are learning production. You can create a whole infrastructure around one person.”