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

Produced by NY
Courtesy of PGA

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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  1. Cicero Vicious says:

    Diversity should always play second chair to merit – period – end of discussion. If whites, blacks, and the remaining colors of the rainbow don’t like it, too bad – do better and you won’t need to worry about your place in line. It’s amazing that still in 2015 and beyond, we are still broaching issues with the black community about being treated as “equal” when in fact, their posturing resembles nothing close to equality.

    Damon was 1-billion % dead on in his assessments and comments and if Ms. Brown doesn’t like it, then time for her to move on down the road…

  2. Chaz says:

    Ha! Look at all the protestations here. most wanting to go back to a time when no one questioned anything, the status quo was white white white and quiet. Insert a bit of a color, as in assertive color that will be as demanding as anyone else and the alarm bells go off, with everyone trying to paint her as beyond the pale, for one simple reason. They are used to not being questioned and any of that, sets of the bio hazard defense shields, in the guise of objectivity. Suck it up gents, more upheaval to come. I see no one talks about her ability, for which she was hired, in keeping most of her movies on schedule, and ALL of her movies on budget. Let us ignore that shall we? Hilarity.

  3. Scoper says:

    I agree that Effie Bown IS the most annoying person on the planet though I can’t help but wonder if HBO’s idea for her being on the show is to increase ratings. I enjoy the show when Effie isn’t on scene, she wants everyone to join in on the racism band wagon, I’m over it, she has ruined the show for me. It makes me sick to think that HBO would tolerate (and pay) such a person, she’s wasting time and money expressing her opinion on the way an actor/actress could be portrayed. The last thing we need in the world is more spiteful, angry, resentful, rude, racist, loud and obnoxious control freaks.

  4. Gina says:

    Effie Brown is a reflection of the divisiveness that is unfortunately, prevalent in the country.

    She stopped the filming for a black actor, with no lines (maybe one, I don’t remember) who is portraying a driver, for another actor, since she refused to see what she perceives as a stereotype, play out in the story and the film.

    Wow. How much did that interruption cost?

    I hope she is not given the opportunity to move into the big leagues. She did not hire a diverse crew and she personalizes EVERYTHING, not to mention being overly argumentative. She doesn’t fight to make the production, the storytelling, etc. better. She fights her own personal campaign of inequality and being a woman does not have anything to do with it.

  5. Linda Kaye says:

    People who are talented, focused and driven rise to the top. Not everyone makes it,. Color has less to do it than superior ability. Witness: politics, NBA, NFL, pop music, any of the arts, for that matter. If someone had to rely on Effie Brown’s representation of a person of color to decide on using diversity as a criteria for employment…. well… I think she’d be disappointed in the result. Project Greenlight has shown what a complex, collaborative effort it is to make a movie… not just “point the cameras at the actors.” If anyone on the team is not 100% behind the director it breeds dissension… lesson learned. I agree w/ Matt Damon.. there’s no reason it can’t be a good experience.

  6. lepontneuf says:

    I’ve only watched four episodes. Maybe things have changed.

    Unfortunately, Effie misunderstood Farrelly’s intentions with taking Jason in to compare media, jumped to incorrect conclusions and thought he was stepping on her toes and bring to push the film thing, and bulldozed the conversation. Anyone can see that it was a misunderstanding on her part. Perhaps it was nuance and inflection lost through speakerphone coupled with her strong desire simply to do her job that created this miscommunication. Perhaps it is a predisposition to be on the defense as a woman and black and having to fight harder in the world, which is an undeniable reality. I’m certain most of the negative comments towards her are from white men – and I am writing this as a white man.

    As and aside: Yes, Jason was the “best” filmmaker of the bunch, but is that simply because the aesthetic that is considered “the best” is that which has been historically determined by white males? There is no such things as objectivity.

  7. Peter More says:

    Re: Effie- When she makes the “entitlement” statement it hit me in the gut like BAM!–This woman is a racist… Here’s a guy who is given a one in a trillion chance and its called “entitlement” when he wants it to be a close to his vision as possible? I would not give this saboteur another job on any set. She also had a one in a trillion chance to shine a positive light on what it means to be a black woman in basically a white man’s world and she FAILED. Soooo sad.

  8. Jaden Amber says:

    Effie – I won’t be painted as the angry black woman … Jason is acting out of entitlement … this is a 1% story and I won’t have black actors in servant roles. We only see a glimpse of the process, but it’s obvious Effie doesn’t have chemistry with Jason, who she sees as being unappreciative and unrealistic. But the black/white, female/male thing is pretty palpable too. If the winner had been the next Kasi Lemmons, I wonder if we’d be having this kind of backstage drama.

  9. This is awesome! The only way many closed minded folks & perhaps even racists will changevis by sreing people of color in all aspects of hollywood.

  10. Its a pretty sad state of affairs when a producer voices her opinion on an actual problem within the industry and instead gets vitriol. There’s no “black” card. Its a real experience industry professionals like her face everyday in the face. What’s shameful is that the people from Project Greenlight decided to play up the drama between the Effie and Matt, instead of spotlighting the diversity problem of Hollywood together. What a riot.

    Kris Pradipta

    • Lucifer says:

      Except she heavily suggested they hire a black director, which is not diversity. You want more women and non-whites in Hollywood? Set up workshops and classes that introduce the various fields of work within the industry to all children. Don’t force people to be hired based on their race or what’s between their legs.

  11. AOi says:

    No Effie is just a throwback. So beyond sick and tired of this BS

  12. neil says:

    I’m sooooooo tired of hearing the black/white issue as something that happens in the ghetto, and not in the board room. Well, theirs has come, enter Effie stage right. She is absolutely the most annoying person on the planet, wanting to be in complete charge of everything, and when challenged, spouts the black card. Oh My God, this women has got to be the hardest person in Hollywood to work with. When project green light was presented, I’m sure she went home that night and thought, “it should be project Effie” And yes, know i see why it takes so much to make a film in Hollywood, ou have to pay the cast and crew triple to work with Effie.

  13. Billy says:

    Effie has no self awareness on Project Greenlight. I’m hoping that the show is edited to cast her management level of toxicity as the ‘villain’ or foil to Jason. Effie is completely self absorbed and believes that the show is all about her. Farrelly was actually doing her a favor by trying to talk Jason into shooting digital but Effie was having none of it since she only focused on his ‘lane’. Also her AD Van created crew issues on day 1.

  14. Mag says:

    Glad to have the conversation, but Effie Brown comes off as a passive aggressive batsh*t crazy person. She’s a glorified line producer gone mad with power.

  15. The Flash producers probably never heard of Jonah Nolan/Greg Plageman and the Person of Interest Failure after sidelining Taraji P. Henson says:

    Sooner or later, it had to happen. BLACK TWITTER is saying, ” BOYCOTT THE FLASH, EPISODES 2 THROUGH 10, SEASON TWO.”

    Wouldn’t hurt to skip Supergirl …..just sayin’.

  16. Diversity on The Flash is a Big Joke says:

    The Flash is certainly being ANTI-DIVERSE by sidelining Candice Patton in favor of “Barry’s own Felicity Perfect Blonde” who LOOKS better with him, in the eyes of those in charge. A lot of people are done with this joke of a show and anything else touched by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Geoff Johns and Gabrielle Stanton and any other racist show runners who take Black people for granted and think they are gullible enough to continue fall for the bait and switch. The Flash needs to be Flushed and I hope Berlanti’s Simplegirl is an epic failure.

  17. Not U2 says:

    Oh,. yeah. ‘Diversity’ .. it means about as much as the word ‘racism’ anymore. What amazes me is that the only ‘tactic’ they can use, and this woman likely used, is pure racial discrimination. You are what you preach against but apparently too racist or stupid to understand that.

    • J says:

      Geoff Johns from the Flash is a Muslim Arab, the kind that you guys LOOOVVVEEE so much to identify with (even though Muslim countries treat black people and black Muslims the worst). continue supporting so-called “oppressed” religious fanatics in the name of some made up “colonialism” claims (Muslims in Africa sold blacks for slavery, just saying).

    • Justin says:

      You just made no sense. But thanks for playing.

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