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Diversifying American Cinema: Industry Voices Tackle the Topic

Diversifying American Cinema: Industry Voices Tackle the Topic

Diversifying American Cinema: Industry Voices Tackle the Topic

by Eugene Hernandez

Cauleen Smith, in Tribeca All Access with “I Am Furious Black”, with her producer Chantal Van Riet and filmmaker Ellie Lee, in TAA with “The Road Home.” Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

The genesis of this article was a recent SXSW panel discussion on the “state of independent film” that included panelists Michael Barker from Sony Classics, former producer and rep John Pierson, Film Movement‘s Larry Meistrich, Micah Green from Cinetic Media, Newmarket‘s Bob Berney, Magnolia‘s Eamonn Bowles, and former UA and October head Bingham Ray. During the session, New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell raised a question about the lack of new African-American filmmakers emerging since the movement led by Spike Lee back in the ’80s. Sitting in the audience listening to the panel of white males tackling the topic I was reminded that ethnic diversity is a major challenge within the specialized and/or independent film industry.

In fact there is a lack diversity at all levels of the industry: filmmakers, producers, screenwriters, below-the-line, in acquisitions, production, distribution and exhibition, development, and indeed among journalists and at editorial publications. Is this absence within the industry the reason for the lack of diversity in American cinema? To try to answer this question, I recently posed a number of questions, by email, to 75 film community insiders, feeling that it would better inform me as I prepared to moderate a panel discussion on this topic at The Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday and thinking that it might also make a useful article. Of the 75 people that I emailed last week, about a dozen responded and the results were quite provocative and detailed. The quotes below only scratch the surface, each participant replied with lengthy, detailed responses.

The State of Ethnic Diversity Within the Specialized/Independent Film Industry

“There is no ethnic diversity within the business side of this industry to speak of — period. When you are dealing with the true numbers within companies, and film festivals as well, the percentage is so small as to not be worth noting,” stated Brian Newman, head of IMAGE Film & Video Center in Atlanta and head of the Atlanta Film Festival. “This is the single biggest reason that we have such bad numbers on the film side.”

“The state of the industry is a sorry one and the so-called indie film industry is no better than Hollywood,” wrote Jim McKay, a filmmaker and producer who has primarily focused his energies towards creating and supporting work by and/or about people of color. Continuing he explained, “We’re in a business that is ostensibly about storytelling and artistic expression (emphasis on ‘ostensibly’), and so you would expect a little more enlightenment in business practices than in, say, the oil industry.”

“In my line of work, which is running a program (Project:Involve) that cultivates the work and careers of diverse filmmakers, I know that filmmakers of color are actively making films; not just shorts, but features (five of our graduates have made features in the last year alone),” explained Pamela Tom from the IFP/Los Angeles. “Many young filmmakers of color have access to cameras, editing equipment, and talent. The means of exhibition is where things come to a grinding halt. High-profile film festivals are insanely competitive and you may as well just forget about theatrical distribution.”

“There seems to be a decent level of diversity in various levels — save the decision makers. When I say decent, I can only speak to what’s going on here in the east coast. I’ve often bonded with many other ethnic outsiders in the industry, so it seems to me as if we’re ‘present’,” explained filmmaker Lisa Collins, whose short film “Tree Shade” played at Sundance and on the festival circuit a few years ago.

“There are very few of us people of color working within the industry,” noted Sonia Malfa from the Association of Independent Video and Film. “And of those of us who do, there is a smaller percentage who actually care about increasing diversity and have the power to influence change.”

“It seems to me the ratio is consistent with societal ethnic ratios, i.e. most people are white, with smaller percentages of Black, Latino, Asian, and East Indian,” said filmmaker and actor Tom Gilroy.

Making Diversity a Greater Priority

“First, we need to acknowledge that it is indeed a problem and begin the dialogue,” explained Malfa, programming director from AIVF. “We need more community support from within communities of color and from outside to help create access and support. Support needs to come in the form of education, mentorship, financial support, peer community, and resources. But real support.” Malfa endorsed the work done by IFP/Los Angeles’ Project:Involve. Pamela Tom of IFP/Los Angeles offered a few suggestions, including cultivating producers of color, developing audiences, increasing diversity among people working in marketing and PR, and nurturing the careers of filmmakers of color.

“Formal, law-based discrimination is thankfully behind us. Now, comes the charge to integrate people of color fully through informal structures — and that’s a more camouflaged and moving target,” noted Kelly DeVine, who handles acquisitions at the Independent Film Channel. “So much of the ‘entertainment’ business is relational and subjective that networking opportunities play a key role in fostering diversity.”

Alfredo DeVilla, whose “Washington Heights” was a popular Tribeca Fest film in 2002, with Festival programmer David Kwok at Monday’s Tribeca All Access luncheon and orientation. DeVilla is at Tribeca All Access with his new project “1/9.” Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“I think that as organizations realize that they need to find ways to stand out in the field they will look to ethnically diverse perspectives to broaden their scope (much in the way women now make a major impact in the direction of independent film production, distribution, and visibility),” explained Rajendra Roy from the Hamptons International Film Festival. “This may be an organic process, rather than an activist effort, as mainstream product becomes more and more banal and companies strive to engage new audiences.”

“This is hard to answer, as I am white,” said Tom Gilroy. “I don’t know if this should be a bigger priority. ‘Priority’ is a big word. My priority is that people — regardless of sex or ethnicity — should make good movies that come from individual and unique stories. Nobody benefits if our ‘diversity priority’ gives us a ‘Booty Call’ by a Pakistani director or a ‘My Big Fat Serb Wedding’ or a ‘Pumpkin’ that takes place in Honduras.”

“Are we actively looking for African-American, Hispanic and others when we hire our interns for this summer? After all, the intern track is responsible for many if not most of the up-and-coming faces in indie film today,” explained Greg Williams, who over the years has been involved with Shooting Gallery, Cowboy Pictures, and also runs Lot 47. “Certainly competence and desire to be involved in film are not lacking in any ethnic minority. As an industry that welcomes, and thrives on, the active participation of women and is well represented by gays and lesbians, I can see no rational reason or motivation that would lead it to exclude ‘members’ on the basis of race.”

“What can be done to make it a bigger priority? Make it one,” stated Brian Newman from Atlanta. “Search out these films. Search out diverse candidates for jobs. Attend some diverse fests, or even just the parties and admit there is a problem. This needs to be done — from schools to executives to fest programmers.”

Finding a Diverse Audience

“The company that taps into ethnic diversity wins,” said Roy from the Hamptons. “Look at ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien‘, ‘Better Luck Tomorrow‘, and ‘Barbershop‘.” Lisa Collins added, “I don’t think it is difficult to reach an ethnically diverse audience — ethnic people support entertainment. Robert Rodriguez has tapped into something great with moving from indie to commercial with keeping within the flavor of ethnicity with ‘Spy Kids.’ Often though, with black cinema, it’s a different visual ball game in terms of how you will be able to commercialize your independent vision, moving in and out of mainstream due to the obvious.”

“Given that the tastemakers in many media positions are largely white and college-educated and that they rely on market assumptions and methodologies that have an historical track record, most of the films and marketing campaigns will reflect that thinking,” said DeVine from IFC. “If minority groups feel alienated by or do not relate to those marketing approaches or the content being marketed, those groups remain invisible to decision-makers in the media relying on those conventional assumptions.” Continuing, DeVine said, “Those brave and fearless pioneers working through independent means of production, distribution, and exhibition may be the only ones able to prove to the more established companies that there is money to be made catering to ethnic minorities.”

“It’s not difficult to reach ethnically diverse audiences but it does take more thinking. But more thinking does not necessarily mean more money,” noted producer Diana Williams (“Our Song“). “A smaller, ethnic film, may not be able to support that kind of marketing budget. Understandable. But some companies then may not take that next step, such as taking the time to find out if there is a Pakistani paper in that same market who may want to interview the star of that film. Then how does that core audience discover that the film is even in theaters if they don’t deem to read the mass publications?”

“Grassroots efforts have worked wonders in communities that have historically suffered from horrible and racist representations of themselves,” said Pamela Tom from IFP/LA. “There is a real distrust of films about themselves; a good, solid word of mouth among community leaders and respected organizations can go a long way.”

“Reaching any audience is difficult. I don’t know why a filmmaker would focus on reaching an ethnically diverse audience over any other kind; what matters is that people are watching the film and (hopefully) talking about it,” explained Gilroy. “But I don’t think their is any greater value in showing ‘Casa de los Babys‘ to a diverse audience at the Angelika, than an Armenian one in Watertown, Mass. or a white one in Russel, Kansas (although their movie theatre closed down — let’s say ‘Butte, Montana’ instead) the real issue for an independent film is simply getting an audience, any audience.” Continuing, Gilory added, “Take Latinos; is it more ‘moral’ to try to fill a theatre with them to see ‘Y Tu Mama’ than to see ‘Far From Heaven‘? Is ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico‘ a Latino movie? Is ‘Maid in Manhattan‘?”

Diversifying the Workplace: Production and Distribution

I asked the industry insiders whether the are a lack of people of color pursuing jobs at various levels of production and distribution, and if so, why that is and what might done to change the situation.

“There probably aren’t a lack of people of color pursuing jobs, but there are certainly an excess of people of whiteness in hiring positions — and they are hiring their own,” noted filmmaker and producer Jim McKay. Continuing he added, “Spike Lee single-handedly did more for the integration of the industry (and to bring non-whites in) than anyone in the modern history of film. And the real shame is that no one has carried the torch — if everyone committed to doing a quarter of what Spike did in terms of hiring, things would change radically. But people are lazy. And selfish. And cowardly.”

TAA staffer Pauline Piechota with Tribeca All Access managers Beth Janson and Sean Shodahl at Monday’s TAA orientation. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“Again, I have a problem with this kind of question,” countered Tom Gilroy, “What the person’s background is shouldn’t matter; their taste is what counts. If five years from now Hollywood, or Indiewood, or the offices of Killer Films for that matter are completely run by ‘ethnic’ employees, but they’re making twice as many ‘13 Going On 30‘s, have we really progressed?”

“Most people of color who enter film do so because of the love of film and the desire to tell their stories. As a result, most enter film school, where the emphasis is on the creative side,” explained Tom. “There are few — to no — formal training grounds for people who might consider a career in distribution or as a development executive, or in acquisitions.” She added that her program offers career workshops and outreach to a number of schools that focus on the business side of the industry.

“I think that the few of us who are in leadership roles have a responsibility to be visible and encouraging of the young-uns to be ballsy and self-assured,” noted Raj Roy. “It should be less of an ‘inspite-of’ thing and more of a ‘damn-right’ attitude.”

“Until I interned at a film fest, I had no idea that careers in film other than director, actor, or critic existed,” offered Atlanta’s Brian Newman. “A higher percentage of people who intern come from upper middle class (or above) families and skew white. Therefore, that’s who we get in the industry. Many young diverse candidates will never apply, because they don’t even know these jobs exist.” Concluding he added, “Last, and I really mean this — unless more white folks end up at diverse industry parties and network, nothing will change. The film social circle is where business often starts, and where first jobs are often heard about.”

Final Thoughts

“We don’t have a lot of interesting, diverse American films,” explained Madelyn Wils, head of the Tribeca Film Institute, during an orientation for the Tribeca All Access program on Monday. She indicated that more than 330 projects applied to participate this year. “Our goal with the Tribeca Film Institute and Tribeca All Access is to contribute to creating a diverse and successful group of filmmakers.” She added that the Institute is committed to continuing the Tribeca All Access initiative year-round.

“I think that we, as audience viewers, white and of color, are no longer as flexible with our vision of diverse representations of ethnic images,” concluded filmmaker Lisa Collins, “We’ve fallen into a rut: there are kung-fu-ing Asians, the snappy, one-liner black folks, and the dancing Latinos…and then there’s only the ability to lampoon, rather than represent or ‘just be’ — I long for the day when works used to investigate stereotypes, rather than uphold them as much as they do now. I consider myself someone who can freely laugh at myself and the ethnic world I come from — it’s good fodder — but who’s really profiting from these images when they hit the commercial screens? Who’s writing the dialogue? And who’s really financially empowered and industry-backed enough to tell these tales?”

[indieWIRE Editor-in-Chief Eugene Hernandez will moderate the Tribeca Film Festival panel “Diversifying American Cinema”, on Wednesday, May 5 at 5 p.m. at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.]

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