With Oscars fast approaching on Sunday, the talk about diversity will keep building. But it’s crucial to keep the conversation going long after the Academy Awards — and to come up with do-able solutions.
Variety addressed the topic with multiple individuals, who offered concrete actions. All agreed that diversity/inclusion can be confronted on multiple levels.The big challenge: These are all long-term plans, but many people want immediate solutions. AFI’s David Chase, vice dean of academic affairs, sums it up by saying, “There is no magic bullet. It’s not going to change overnight. The best strategy is to understand diversity in a multidimensional way.”
1. Investors need to be educated.
Studios and agencies are often cited as the culprits, but another big hurdle is investors. They need constant reminders that niche films can be extremely profitable, says Oscar-nominated actress Virginia Madsen. Her production company tried for years to sell a film about a 16-year-old girl, and she was repeatedly told, “We love the story, but can’t you beef up the guy’s role?” Madsen says “the guy” was incidental, but many backers think a movie can succeed only if the lead character is male (and usually white). In a pitch session, would-be filmmakers need to bring plenty of data on successful specialty films and on the demographics of moviegoers (who are much more diverse than the young males so often targeted). And don’t overlook films films beyond the niche. The “Fast & Furious” films have a multiracial cast and are doing great globally. And “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” starred a woman and black man. So old myths about global box office need to be squelched.
2. Artists should be like Ava DuVernay.
Under-represented groups should not wait for the studios, says David Magdael, head of his own PR firm. “Ava DuVernay started making movies she felt were important for the people of her community. Then she started a distribution system. And now she has expanded beyond the African-American community; in ARRAY, she’s including other groups to reach other communities. She’s providing films and stories from different voices. Here’s a woman saying, ‘I see the change, and we need to make that change.’ Take her as an example. She’s focused and she shows what one person can do.”
3. Executives must make a commitment.
It may sound obvious, but inclusive hiring may take extra time and effort. One entertainment-human-resources veteran tells Variety that Hollywood companies should go outside the usual hiring procedures, such as attending diversity job fairs and contacting search firms that specialize in minority candidates. Two pitfalls: Don’t hire a minority person who’s not perfect for the job, because that won’t help anyone; and don’t give up too soon and just hire a friend of the boss. Inclusive hiring “requires a commitment at the highest level,” the HR expert adds, and a company needs to make inclusion part of its DNA.
4. Hollywood needs to create support systems.
Joe Hall, founder-president of the Ghetto Film School, points out that young people need sustained guidance. “Many groups that are under-represented in Hollywood — such as blacks, Latino-Hispanics and lower-income Caucasians — sometimes stay too long in entry-level positions because they don’t have a network helping them move to the next steps.” Among Ghetto Film School programs is the Roster, which creates a network of events and job discussions for diverse young professionals. Hall reminds that show business is an industry of freelancers, and a career is never linear: “We need an infrastructure for young creatives, a pipeline to support them – with internships, mentoring and guidance.” Hall — who started the first high school devoted to training filmmakers — also points out that the private sector and schools need to help. Arts funding is being curtailed, but early nurturing is crucial. “We have to train young people in a creative way. Even if they don’t go into entertainment, they will need those skills for the 21st century economy. It’s the way the workforce is shifting.”
5. Executives should realize diversity is not just head counts.
AFI’s Chase says it’s important to hire more women and minorities, but it’s also important that their stories are told. “The temptation is to tie diversity to quotas. That’s not the only approach we use at AFI. We look for a diverse range of storytellers, from people of diverse backgrounds.” This also makes good business sense: Audiences are saturated with entertainment and crave storytelling from new voices, including Latinos-Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, LGBT artists, Muslims, disabled people and others. Development executives need to think outside the box. Chase concludes, “Diversity is not just about representation and composition, but also about making sure these stories are told.”
In photo: David Magdael (left), Joe Hall