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Filmmaker Survey: Is Diversity Important? And What’s the Best Way to Achieve It?

Filmmaker Survey: Is Diversity Important? And What's the Best Way to Achieve It?

Given the shocking lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Awards and in the film industry at large, we asked a selection of independent filmmakers to share their thoughts on diversity in the film industry.

READ MORE: Why We Need Diversity Incentives for Film and Television

Specifically, participants were asked to respond to the following questions: Is diversity important to the film industry? If so, what’s the best way to achieve it? We prompted filmmakers to include any specific examples they’ve had in their own careers and promised to feature their unedited responses, which we’ve done below:

Hannah Fidell (“A Teacher,” “6 Years”)

If all films were made by American straight white men from upper middle class families, films would quickly become pretty boring. Diversity is important in any artistic medium. The only way I know how to change this is to keep making films the best I can, no matter what the size of the budget.

Craig Zobel (“Z for Zachariah,” “Compliance”)

There’s no doubt that the film industry needs more diversity. We all know that. However, I’m a tall, blonde, white male and could sadly be considered the least diverse person possible. So, I’m concerned about sounding like I’m essentially white-mansplaining to everyone that we should all be more diverse. But I’m happy that we’re opening up the discussion, and I’m down to attempt a few thoughts.

I do think it’s important that we’re starting to recognize a lack of diversity, and great that Neil Patrick Harris can call it out during the Academy Awards. Acknowledging it isn’t the same as becoming active to change it, but it’s definitely better than not bothering to mention the issue. I used to feel that seeking out films from different voices was an easy way to support diversity. “Vote with your dollars,” so to speak. Now, I’m not sure that’s ever gonna be enough.

‘Cuz if you look at Kevin Hart, it’s clear he’s crushing it on BoxOfficeMojo. But that’s not stopping two different Sony execs from writing emails about him that are, at minimum, severely discouraging. 
Like many others, I worry it’s easy to “tssk” about how they need to make film/TV more diverse, and tweet #OscarsSoWhite and think we’ve done something. But many of us—especially many of those reading Indiewire—are in the film industry. So “they” is actually us. And if we wanna see a different industry, we are gonna need to do that hard work.

And what’s that mean? I think as writers, it should be easy for us to create scripts with more women, more non-hetero characters and more characters of varied race/ethnicity/nationality. And doing so while avoiding stereotypes. (Yet, I’d also add we should also avoid simply being “colorblind,” as discarding/ignoring differences is sorta another form of encouraging the dominant status quo, right?) Doing this would cost screenwriters nothing that I can think of, and it will help increase opportunities.
As producers and directors, we should obviously be more diverse in casting. This is easy. However it will, weirdly, lead to fights with people whom you won’t expect. Famous white men are the easiest to cast in movies in order to easily sell them in non-U.S. markets. And since selling these non-U.S. markets currently drives a large part of modern film finance, you may find people who believe in diversity still rationalizing non-diverse casting opinions. But we should continue to open up the discussion every time we can. It’ll help!
Filmmakers aren’t the only parts of the industry that can do hard work, though. What if development execs actively made sure at least half their slate contained projects with women, LGBT issues and non-Caucasian stories? What if agents made the same commitment with their client list?
Finally, our industry’s bigger organizations could find more active ways to respond to the diversity question. From previously working as an AD (assistant director) and as UPM (unit production manager), I have seen firsthand that the Screen Actors Guild’s Low Budget film Diversity In Casting Incentive works, in encouraging producers and financiers to cast more diverse talent. It really does save the production money, and also makes the films less white and male. But why is it only for low budget projects? Couldn’t they easily extend the incentive? Or does SAG think that the big tentpole studio films are diverse enough? 

READ MORE: Is the Future of Storytelling Just a Bunch of White Dudes?

Susanna Fogel (“Life Partners”)

The mere act of telling compelling, human stories in film where women and people of color and diverse sexual and gender orientations are three-dimensional, have agency and are not entirely defined by their Otherness is a huge step in changing the game. Perhaps because Hollywood is an industry still dominated by white men, the white male characters are usually the ones with the best senses of humor, the richest conflicts, the most complicated moral choices and the experiences we’re supposed to see as “universal.” Accepting that the hegemony is a given (for now!), I think some of the heavy lifting needs to happen from the inside out, at the same time minority filmmakers are struggling to have their perspectives heard against all odds. If the filmmakers in power can see true cultural exchange as an imperative and push themselves to tell more stories outside their limited autobiographical wheelhouse, it will be a huge step in the right direction.

If Ang Lee can make “The Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain” transcendent, men can make more films about women, women can make more films about men and so on and so forth across other cultural lines – which will help set a precedent for more diverse storytelling and a need for more diverse storytellers in general. This will require a much more open dialogue about the differences and similarities between seemingly disparate groups of people, but promoting that conversation and empowering each other to help is a great thing. Basically the “fancy people” and the “indie people” need to team up to reinvent what “commercial” means.

READ MORE: Attention, Screenwriters: Apply to This HBO Fellowship for Diverse and Women Writers

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (“Spring”)

When we were casting “Spring” (coming out March 20th from Drafthouse Films and Film Buff!), we sent out a breakdown for a female lead who would be racially difficult to pinpoint. Not one casting option sent to us by an agency fit this description. We’ll never know if this was by virtue of our our description getting overlooked, or if it’s because these agencies didn’t have a racially diverse roster. Either way, we found casting a non-American, non-Caucasian actor to be tough, and on top of that, there were generally fewer options for our female lead than our male lead. 

One of the film’s main talking points right now is that it has such a strong female lead character: she seems like a real person rather than what a lot of movies would slant to be its “exotic femme fatale.” The fact that it warrants special attention that there’s a strong female role in the film is a travesty in itself, but why is that?

Every story obviously has its own parameters for what logically makes sense in terms of casting, so how to increase diversity is a tricky question. Here’s another way to look at it: the business end of casting and securing a film’s budget often comes down to financial decisions of “value.” “Spring”‘s “value” was determined by how previous films with this premise and this cast had financially performed. There was never any discussion of our cultural, gender, or racial point of view, and this is probably the case with most films. 

Of course, determinations of “value” vary widely from company to company, and though we do need more diversity, it seems just from watching the marketplace that luckily, some companies do see the value of a diverse point of view. We all love stories of worlds that are mysterious to us and sometimes those worlds are countries we’ve never been to, or different worlds that are literally a few miles from where we live. 

With “Spring,” our mysterious world is the point of view of a woman with a wildly different cultural background than anything ever seen in cinema, and she’s exactly what makes our much less exotic male lead interesting — what they bring out in each other is the emotional core of the movie. 

What we’ve found is that there is no trade-off to achieve the diversity we need: movies with multiple racial, cultural and gender viewpoints often have marketplace value and good storytelling as a result how these different worlds compliment each other.

READ MORE: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms the Worst

Marta Cunningham (“Valentine Road”)

“I think a lot of people have lost respect for the individual, you know, the individual, the person who doesn’t conform.” — Erykah Badu

The human condition is the same in all of us, yet mostly one voice gets hired to tell everyone else’s stories. All our stories are filtered, marketed and distributed through just one lens. It’s a point of view that has an ethnic, gender and sexual identity: white, male, wealthy and heterosexual. But we don’t call it that — we are conditioned to think of it as the norm, and so it doesn’t see itself, and as a country we barely acknowledge it.

Everyone else gets to be defined by class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity. Kept on the margins, never interpreted as normal. Hence I’m a “black, female director.”

The work I am attracted to, what I want to achieve as a storyteller, will always be seen through my lens, the lens through which I see the world around me. Does that make it diverse? Perhaps, but if I can do my job well then anyone will be able to relate — no matter what they identify themselves as. I see that as my job and that is what I aspire to do every time I am given the opportunity to work.

Until we are genuinely searching for uniqueness of expression we will not be truly committed to “diversity.” But how do we get there?

I think the word diversity has become a negative buzz word in our industry, and in my observation, the person who has lived in the margins who then gets offered a position amongst the majority, still has to conform; to the white, male, as well as cis gender, norm.

This is because we think we can achieve change by box ticking “my one diversity hire for the year.” Until we see each other as individuals who are all the norm we need to see hiring practices embrace affirmative action. We see ourselves as liberal but our actions are not. Whole communities are invisible and ignored. First we need to be seen and heard, and we must have a representative seat at the table. That means, in the absence of any better tool, a mandate that is legally binding.

When we truly see our reality, and acknowledge the need for real change in an industry that currently only reflects the countries biases, then we can really start to have an honest and open discussion with the gate keepers. Until then the concept of diversity is futile.

READ MORE: Women in the Director’s Chair Panel at the Woodstock Film Festival

Lance Edmands (“Bluebird”)

Of course–diversity is incredibly important. The films themselves certainly benefit from a wide range of experiences and points of view. Diversity leads to better art and bigger audiences. But I think the attitudes that have lead to such a homogenous film culture are seeded early– through education. My experience at film school was that there was only one “right” way to do things. Making movies means conforming to incredibly rigid structures– of financing, of crew dynamics, of storytelling expectations. But all of those things need to be broken apart and re-assembled so that the inherent biases and prejudices within those systems can be eradicated. Hopefully, by opening up film education to broader concepts of conception and production, we can also open up the possibility of hearing new and underrepresented voices. If film schools can act less like for-profit entities, offer more scholarships, and foster a greater appreciation for radical art, maybe we’d be able to move the needle a bit. Not to say it doesn’t exist at all, but there can always be more. 

READ MORE: ‘Zunn: Showgirls of Pakistan’ Highlights Women on the Peripheries of Pakistan

Nikole Beckwith (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”)

I think diversity is very important for the film industry but there are still a lot of arenas in which it doesn’t seem important to them. The scripts exist, the writers, actors, directors are all out there. The gatekeepers just need to loosen their grip on the misconception that these things are risks. They are not. They are long overdue reflections of the world we live in. And the talent is there. The voices are there. All you have to do is let them in. Think outside of yourself. 

I think film has been bent towards commerce for so long we’ve forgotten it’s also art, and art is meant to represent and question the place and time in which we live. It’s meant to be inclusive and expanding. Not set on some business model. 

Keith Miller (“Five Star,” “Welcome to Pine Hill”)

In light of the amazing movies that have come out just within the last few years, the benefits of diversity in film seem obvious. “Selma,” “Mommy,” “Appropriate Behavior,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Love Is Strange,” just to mention a few, makes it clear that the cinematic landscape is richer when it is not homogeneous. The film world is a mirror of a larger system of injustice and exclusion, but for me the heart of the challenge to making it inclusive and diverse boils down to privilege and the so-called market.

If the majority of monetarily successful directors (and studio heads, and top dollar stars) are straight white men, it’s not an accident.  Privilege is a reality born from history and many who benefit from it will fight to maintain this imbalance.

We are told women, people of color, LGBTQs don’t get the big jobs (or story lines) because they don’t sell tickets. There are too many examples to prove this false. The bottom line is that “the industry” is afraid of risk, both creatively and economically. Why go out on a limb for a queer movie when you can make a watered down version of the last big hit (which is a modified version of the last big hit)?

We filmmakers need to push to make our crews and casts look like the world in which we wish to live. This may not come easy since the field is skewed. Working for diversity matters, as is not a one off effort, but an ongoing struggle. As we write and direct, cast and crew up, we should make an effort beyond a good try. And then try again. I can say with both my films I made that effort and by my own appraisal fared poorly, or at least not well enough. So I don’t exclude myself from this tally.

To address the problems of privilege and the market, people of conscience can speak up in the form of viewing habits, at the box office and on line. It is meaningful to choose movies made by and representative of diverse filmmakers and cast, supporting difference: these are ways that we can affect a small part of this kind of change. While I feel like this is the bare minimum, it isn’t nothing.

In the end, indie filmmakers are a microscopic portion of the film world. The total dollar amount brought in by all the filmmakers on this list combined can’t come close to a single weekend of a war-mongering blockbuster like “American Sniper.” For an industry that is too often profit first and people last, we should demand equity and diversity of anyone at the heart of that business.

Again, those with money and power to lose will not relinquish control gently. The current wave of responses to #BlackLivesMatter protests show just how ardently the status quo will be defended, most ridiculously in the form of #BlueLivesMatter and NYPD with shirts that say “I CAN Breathe.” This resistance to change is as true in policing as it is in production and the film world, independent or otherwise, will only become just and diverse if we filmmakers change it.  

Negin Farsad (“The Muslims Are Coming!”)

Diversity is important and frankly, its just exhausting not seeing a true representation of America. Take “Boyhood,” for example, set in Texas where the population is nearly a majority Latino, and yet the only Latino character has just a few short moments of screen time where he is “saved” by a white woman. That’s tokenism that doesn’t help us. Even brilliant directors like Linklater have a huge blind spot when it comes to actual diversity in films.

And maybe that’s just how some of these directors – however brilliant – see the world. So, instead of showering money on the same directors expecting them to give us some measure of diversity, there should be actual opportunities for people of color to make films. If they (we) are in charge of  making films, minorities probably wouldn’t be side characters but central leading ones. I guess it comes down to access to funding. Sadly. Doesn’t it always?

Leah Meyerhoff (Founder, Film Fatales; “I Believe in Unicorns”)

Diversity is vital to the film industry and yet sorely lacking.  The media shapes who we are as a culture and how we view others.  Films teach us to empathize with perspectives different than our own, and the more that stories on screen reflect the diversity of the world around us the better.

When I was growing up, I rarely saw female characters on screen that I could relate to, and so for my debut feature “I Believe in Unicorns,” I cast an actual teenage girl as the protagonist and told the story almost entirely from her perspective. Some of the strongest audience responses have been from young women grateful to see a reflection of their realities and how they view the world.

Recent studies have shown that diversity on screen is often a direct result of diversity behind the camera. Thus one solution is to hire more female directors and writers of color. And yet, Hollywood is a particularly risk averse business. Aspirations towards  diversity and equality are often lost in financing. Financiers tend to invest in filmmakers with “proven” track records, and statistically, those filmmakers tend to be straight white men. Thus it becomes a self perpetuating system – it is less about overt sexism than a series of homogenizing patterns that are hard to break. Although the independent world is better than Hollywood, the statistics for either haven’t changed much over the years. Film is not like other industries where there is a clear cut solution towards democratization. Although the movement towards quotas in Europe is promising, the American system of private financing is more complicated and all films come together differently. There is no single focal point for change.

READ MORE: Diverse Movies and TV Shows Earn More Money and Attract More Viewers

A good place to start is with awareness. The next step is actionable change. The lack of diversity in the film industry is an institutionalized problem and thus the solution requires both a top down and bottom up approach. Studio heads, financiers and independent producers should hire more women and people of color. Writers should create worlds that represent the diversity of our culture and tell stories from new perspectives. Audiences should support films with diverse casts and those of us who have not seen ourselves represented enough on screen should become filmmakers and tell those stories ourselves.

With this grassroots approach in mind, I founded Film Fatales, a collective of female feature directors who meet regularly to support each other, collaborate on projects, and help get our films made. By providing peer-to-peer mentorship and sharing resources with each other, we hope to promote the creation of more films both by and about women in a concrete and tangible way. By learning from other women who came before us, and helping each other make our films now, we will inspire a future generation of female filmmakers yet to come. 

There are a lot of great organizations out there trying to make a difference, and yet there still is a lot of progress to be made. Half of our society is women. Half of the audiences are women. Half of the creative content needs to be made by women. The more that women and people of color can see reflections of themselves on screen, and the more that straight white men can learn to empathize with other subject positions through watching a variety of stories unfold, the healthier our society will be as a whole.

Read more of our filmmaker surveys:

Filmmakers Respond to the Threat of Censorship

Is Film School Necessary: Top Indie Filmmakers Respond

Filmmaker Survey: Is Theatrical Distribution Essential?

If you have an idea for a topic we should feature in an upcoming survey, post your suggestion in the comments section below.

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