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Effie Brown: ‘Project Greenlight’ Flap Has Driven Industry Conversation About Diversity

The drama that has played out on HBO’s “Project Greenlight” this season has been part of the groundswell of discussion within the entertainment industry about diversity.

That’s what panelists at the Produced By NY conference agreed Saturday in a session focused on tactics for boosting diversity across film and TV. The panelists included producer Effie Brown, who had a much-publicized confrontation with “Greenlight” exec producer Matt Damon over the issue of diversity in the show that revolves around giving an up-and-coming director the challenge of delivering a movie.

Damon sparked outrage when he said diversity in filmmaking was about casting of actors rather than behind the scenes.

Brown told the crowd at Time Warner Center that she flagged his comment as a flashpoint for HBO and “Greenlight” producers before the series aired. She said she was surprised that it remained in the final cut of the first episode.

“They didn’t think they were starting this conversation,” Brown said. “It set the tone. I always say god watches out for fools and babies. If that hadn’t happened the other stuff that happened in the show wouldn’t have had that context.”

The public reaction to Damon’s comments, and other trials Brown faced while she sought to ensure that the crew behind the “Greenlight” movie was diverse, was swift and loud.

“Black Twitter is real,” Brown said, noting how social media fueled a discussion that extended well beyond the premiere of the episode. “What was beautiful was that black Twitter showed up and you know who else showed up? Everybody else,” she said. She described the impact of the two-way conversation that fans have around TV and film as “a new millennium call and response. You can’t do something shady and think nobody’s going to hear about it,” she said.

Of the crew that was ultimately assembled for the movie “The Leisure Class,” which premieres Nov. 2, following the Nov. 1 season finale of “Greenlight,” Brown said: “It was a qualified group that looks like America. It wasn’t tokenism. We all got along and it’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to see that” on the show, she said.

The session began with moderator Michael Skolnik, editor of the website Global Grind, reading off a list of sobering statistics documenting the predominance of white males in directing and showrunning roles in film and TV, despite the many examples of progress in recent years.

Brown and her fellow panelists spoke about the importance of taking action to ensure that more women and people of color find opportunities at all levels of the biz. Charles King was a top agent at WME for 15 years until he decided to launch Macro, a content company targeted multicultural audiences.

During his agency days, King said, “I was always the guy in the room saying ‘Why can’t the role be this way?'” King also spoke of the importance of making sure talent does not get pigeonholed. He cited director Tim Story as an example, moving from an African-American-centric comedy “Barbershop” to a superhero actioner “Fantastic Four.”

King did the same on behalf of clients such as Terrence Howard, Michael Ealy and Paula Patton. “It was almost like the Underground Railroad for a while,” he quipped.

King said the response to the launch of Macro has been overwhelming, with interest from the entertainment industry as well as major tech firms, Wall Street entities and even in the political realm. That told him that the mainstream business world is recognizing the need for greater diversity.

“I got calls from at least 30 agents from all the agencies I competed against for 15 years,” King said. “All of them said ‘This is amazing, what can we do to support this? Can we be helpful? Do you need additional capital?’ It wasn’t about, ‘Hey can we figure out how to get some of your (WME) clients.”

Pete Nowalk, creator/exec producer of ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” spoke of his experience collaborating closely with Viola Davis on the development of the character she plays on the ABC drama from the Shonda Rhimes shop. Nowalk wrote the script in a colorblind way.

When Davis signed on to the project, he found it free to be able to write a rounded character who happened to be African-American. “It’s so nice to not have to write perfect boring people” out of a sense of political correctness, he said.

Nowalk noted that “HTGAWM” has the ability to delve into the subject of race in ways that likely would have been verboten just a few years ago. In the most recent episode that aired this week, a major character is revealed to have “extremely racist” views. “We got to write about that and judge (the character) for that,” Nowalk said.

Brown gave a shout-out to Nowalk and the show for last season’s momentous episode in which Davis’ Annalise Keating takes off her wig to show her natural hair. Nowalk said he initially did not understand what the moment would mean to so many African-American viewers, but Davis did, and he took her guidance. “The open-heartedness of collaboration means listening and learning something,” Nowalk said. “And it helps your show.”

Brown underscored what a validating moment it was for African-American women. “You gave us something a little special,” she said. “You were letting us go real and go deep.”

Producer Mynette Louie, whose Gamechanger Films focuses on developing female-helmed films, said the “undervaluing” of female and minority moviegoers is going to be increasingly bad business for Hollywood. “Millennials are 40% people of color,” she said. “Our films and TV shows are exported all over the world. The world is not a white place. It’s a very colorful place.”

Lindsey Taylor Wood is an activist and advocate for women’s issues and has of late been working to connect philanthropists and investors with the creative community to fund projects with relevance to women. In discussing concrete steps that need to be taken to expand the playing field, Wood said the power of alternative distribution is just beginning to emerge, but there needs to be a more coordinated approach to establishing new distribution norms.

“Yes, you can get your film made, but where is it going to go?” she said.

Brown closed out the session by urging the crowd to move beyond lip service when it comes to diversity.

“We need to stop talking about it and be about it. Whatever you’re doing, make sure it’s something that is inclusive — otherwise we don’t have any right to bitch about it,” she said.

(Pictured: Effie Brown, Charles King, Mynette Louie, Pete Nowalk, Lindsey Taylor Wood)

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