It took eight years of scripting, striving and scrimping, but in 2013, Justin Simien got to shoot his breakthrough feature debut, “Dear White People,” a comedy centered on race relations at a fictional Ivy League college. The first-ever Indiewire Project of the Year winner eventually landed a 2014 Sundance premiere and found theatrical distribution through Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
In 2015, Simien found himself once again trying to sell “Dear White People” to studios. But this time, it was a very different experience, with “major, major companies” fighting for the project.
“It was the same concept that took me years and years to find financing for,” Simien told Indiewire. “The only difference is that I was on the TV side.”
Last week, Netflix announced that it would be bringing “Dear White People” to the world as a TV series, with Simien overseeing the writing in addition to directing the first episode.
Creatively, it’s a move that makes a lot of sense, given the film’s ensemble nature and plethora of potential stories. It also reflects the growing trend of minority filmmakers turning to television, including Ava Duvernay, John Ridley, Dee Rees, Rick Famuyiwa, Shaka King — and, now, Simien, who says that Netflix got it in a way that the film world didn’t.
“You don’t have to spend time convincing [Netflix] that an audience is gonna show up for my characters,” Simien said. “They already know that. But for whatever reason, you still have to spend time convincing movie studios and the marketing departments that a black face is enough to get an audience to show up.”
Indiewire spoke with several figures within the worlds of television and independent film to find out more about this migration — and identify its root causes.
Why TV Isn’t Scared of Diversity
It starts with supply and demand. “While the film world gets smaller, TV is having to break out of its mold to find new voices,” said Effie Brown, who produced the “Dear White People” feature.
Brown, who famously challenged Matt Damon on diversity during last fall’s “Project Greenlight,” has recently made the transition to TV herself, joining Lee Daniels Entertainment (“Empire”) as an executive VP after spending 20 years producing independent films.
Brown says the career switch has been life-changing. Not only did she say she’s making a living wage for the first time in her career, but also she has entered a TV landscape where the fight over quality content between networks, cable channels and subscription services like Netflix has forced TV executives to step out of the comfort zone to find new voices.
“There is such a run on great content,” said Brown. “People are looking for the thing that will break through the fray. There’s more of an opportunity for filmmakers, and more importantly independent and diverse filmmakers, to make their way into TV.”
Brown said the most eye-opening element in moving from film to TV is seeing that the opportunities for diverse, indie-minded content extends to even the biggest networks. Daniels has an overall deal at Fox. And at ABC, where Shonda Rhimes anchors their programming with her Shondaland empire (four series and counting), the network has added shows like “black-ish,” the Anthony Anderson-starring comedy about an upper-middle-class black family.
“They took a real chance on us, if you look at what actually was on and working,” said “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. “It’s a business, so I have to believe that if there is indeed a real change happening, I think that there has to be a capitalistic sort of premise behind it. It has to be truthful on the business end or they wouldn’t do it.”
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According to Cindy Holland, VP of content acquisition and original series at Netflix, diversity makes excellent business sense. Well before Netflix began producing dozens of original series and standalone specials, the notoriously data-driven company made careful study of their subscribers’ viewing habits across the globe.
“Everything from mainstream movies and television to independent films to foreign films and documentaries, we could see that our members have really diverse and eclectic tastes,” Holland said. “Our audiences around the world are also really diverse, so when we moved into original programming we committed to providing a similarly diverse slate of programming that reflected the audience we have.”
While TV Opens, the Film World Closes
Barris originally wanted to direct movies. He turned to writing because trying to make an independent film seemed impossibly expensive, especially in the pre-digital era.
“The amount of work that goes into trying to be a director… It can be insurmountable if you let it. Especially when you’re first getting started,” he said. (Barris finally got his first official director’s credit this week, having gotten behind the camera for an episode of “black-ish.”)
Of course, independent filmmaking is notoriously difficult for everyone, but Simien said that barrier to entry is particularly taxing for diverse filmmakers.
“[White indie films] don’t necessarily have to have a star in order to get those films financed and made,” he said. “And especially at a certain budget level, studios actually seem to be open and quite interested in making stars out of relative newcomers who are white. But with the exception of maybe John Boyega, that’s not really happening for actors of color.
“The independent finance world is pretty, pretty bad, I have to say,” said Simien. “That’s where ‘films don’t travel’ bullshit [comes from] — it really has its roots in the minds of financier, the obsession with the ‘bankable’ diverse star.”
“Which is sad,” he added with a laugh, “Because that’s where the people who are on the outside of the industry have to make their films. We can’t make our first films in a studio. It doesn’t really happen anymore.”
Writer/director Shaka King agrees. After premiering “Newlyweeds” at Sundance in 2013, he confronted the same obstacles faced by all indie filmmakers: The disappearance of the middle class. With Hollywood abandoning anything that isn’t a tentpole or Oscar bait, it’s become increasing difficult for emerging directors to move beyond the ultra low-budget indie.
King turned to TV, where he was able to relatively quickly set up a pilot at HBO through Russell Simmons’ company. He’s still determined to be a feature director, but says the struggle of filmmakers who want to tell stories featuring a diverse cast can be insurmountable. He said that even if he wanted to make a more mainstream comedy like “The Hangover,” it would be impossible to find backing.
“It’s just hard to get a feature film financed with black people in lead roles when the industry doesn’t create black stars,” King said. “If you go to the airport and take a look at the covers of magazines like Detail, GQ, Elle, Redbook — you’re going to see a lot of white actors and actresses who aren’t household names, but they’re on those magazine covers because they’re making them into household names. That’s certainly not done for black, Asian, or Latino actors. Your only options for bankable black leads in a feature film are Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Anthony Mackie, and for female leads the list is even smaller.”
Brown said as an indie film producer, one of the most infuriating elements was seeing how the budget would fluctuate depending on the race of the cast — on the theory that a diverse cast had a more narrow audience.
“I really feel like this is the lie they tell us, and they are banking on us believing it,” said Brown.
Real Talk About ‘The Lie’
And what about that argument, that diverse casts don’t have the same audience potential as white ones? In speaking to creators for this article, the most common response to that question was, “Bullshit.”
Simien found that international audiences were even more engaged with “Dear White People” than they were in the States.
“I remember when we screened the film in Paris, I didn’t really understand what most of the audience was asking, but once the questions were translated, I realized, oh my gosh, not only are these the same questions I got in Atlanta, New York, and Chicago, but in some ways, that audience really accepted it better,” he said. “They understood what I was saying with the film in a more pure sense, because they didn’t really have the firsthand knowledge of the American identity politics at the time. They were really just seeing it as a story about people who were outsiders trying to exist in a binary world.”
Netflix’s Holland puts it plainly: “It’s simple — we know that [the myth] is not true. The implication there is that audiences only want to watch stories about people like themselves, and we just know that it’s not true, from the information that we have.”
And for Netflix, “the information” translates to nearly a decade of analyzing subscribers’ streaming habits and marketing its programming to the global audience that they believe will watch the “Dear White People” series.
“For any given series, what we’re doing is being specific about whoever the core evangelizing audience for a show might be, and making sure that we’re speaking to those audiences. And that is much less regional than you might think,” Holland said.
“What we’re doing is aggregating the people who might love ‘Dear White People’ all around the world, wherever they may live. And that can be quite surprising. We see, for example, with ‘Orange is the New Black’ — it’s a story with heartwarming characters and humor and drama. It really finds audiences everywhere we go.”
It’s an approach that might be data driven, but Simien is inspired by the human element as well. “I just felt like the audience for the film, the people who really loved the film, they’re on Netflix. Netflix is part of the culture,” he said. “And, I have to say, the executives there were just so great to work with and so passionate about the material. And doing it justice, and not necessarily keeping it to match some sort of algorithm or rating or audience they had in mind. They really just wanted it to be as good as possible.”
Casting is the Difference
Television’s not afraid of pursuing a global audience with diverse programming — and it’s also not afraid of those diverse stars being less than famous. As one example, King highlighted the young actor who portrays Hakeem [Bryshere Y. Gray] on “Empire.”
“Where’d he come from?” he asked. “TV’s clearly doing what the film industry is not doing. TV’s the place where you can develop talent.”
Holland agrees. “I remember having a specific conversation with Jenji Kohan [creator of “Orange is the New Black”] about ‘don’t worry about getting a name — get the best actors for the roles.’ And that lead to some really interesting casting.”
Meanwhile, Simien is extremely proud of the “DWP” film’s cast, who have gone onto projects ranging from Marvel movies to CBS dramas to Spike Lee joints. “They all are kind of really blossoming,” he said.
The “DWP” series is still in the writing phase, so the question of who might be cast once production begins hasn’t begun. But, Simien said, “Netflix hasn’t brought up anything of the sort, like, ‘Can you stick blank in this and make it…?’ Mind you, that might be a different conversation if we were at a network, but TV seems to really be about the characters. Characters who pop. Finding the best actors for those roles is enough.”
Why This Moment Matters
Listening to Brown talk about her two decades in the trenches of indie film, her frustration is apparent. But when discussion turns to her new career, her outlook completely changes. Not only she has found a “nurturing and inclusive community” in television, she is working with diverse and independent creatives, who she has the resources to help turn their visions into shows that will get seen by millions.
“I’m optimistic about diversity, because I’m optimistic about TV,” Brown said. She has also fallen in love with the medium of television itself.
“I love TV because it’s something you invite into your home. It’s private and the things you are curious about you are able to watch and you wouldn’t necessarily pay $15 to see,” she said. Discussing her love of “Alaskan Bush People” and “Naked and Afraid,” Brown jokes that she enjoys fancying herself a survivalist from the comfort of her couch, but her larger point is that it medium itself invites exploration. “It’s a beautiful entry point and I can live vicariously. Those are diverse experiences and stories.”
For Barris, because “blackish” is on ABC, a network in millions of households, it’s important that that “black-ish” have multiple entry points. Labeling “black-ish” as a black or minority show is narrowing, he feels, emphasizing that the show is actually a family comedy.
“We try to have as many entry points for as many people as would like to turn on and see what’s happening with the Johnsons,” explained Barris. “I don’t think [diversity means] you should have to run away from being gay or a woman or black — you should deal with subjects in a way that everyone can relate to. I don’t think people should feel like they have to water down their brands in order to make it relatable.”
For his part, Simien doesn’t count on the diversity becoming a permanent fixture in Hollywood, which is why he’s determined to make “Dear White People” succeed at Netflix.
“This isn’t an opportunity I’m gonna take lightly,” said Simien. “We have to win here. Because this moment, where black people are en vogue, it’s cyclical. It doesn’t always come around again, and it doesn’t always last long. So that was the opening of the door. I know I have to come through and tell stories.”