‘The Walking Dead’ Vet Glen Mazzara Asks Tough Questions About Hollywood Diversity

Glen Mazzara
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Hollywood loves to talk about diversity and inclusion, but few people are offering long-range and realistic solutions. One notable problem-solver is Glen Mazzara, co-chair of WGA’s diversity advisory group and various mentor programs. Mazzara, “The Walking Dead” vet and creator of A&E’s “Damien,” tells Variety, “I’m glad there’s an informed debate, but it’s not enough to discuss. People have to take actions to sustain effective change.”

The first and crucial point, he says, is, “People must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations, to stop pointing fingers at other parts of the system and take responsibility for what’s under their own purview. They need to ask, ‘How am I complicit in a system that doesn’t honestly seek out and promote diversity?’ ”

Secondly, he adds: “People have to realize diversity isn’t just a box to be checked. That attitude leads to tokenism. There are so many people kept on the sidelines. They need to be brought in and become part of every project, not just one or two.”

Third, in the TV world, diversity is often addressed on a pilot and first-year show, he says. But when the risk is the greatest, diversity is pushed out to allow white males — who are experienced — to get a show up and running. “If the show succeeds, the ship has sailed and diversity is not addressed. Too many long-running shows are given a pass on the diversity issue. The culture is established and the problems do not get revisited, saying, ‘We’ll address it on the next new series.’ That’s severely problematic.”

Fourth, “People get into the system, but they get washed out of the system. They need to be able to fail, learn from their mistakes, and then come up through the ranks. That’s where people are not being given the opportunity. For example, if someone is in a writers room and they’re the one writer representing diversity and the environment is hostile, often that person is fired. That’s considered a strike against that person, as far as the studio and network goes. And people become complicit in the cover story that this person couldn’t crack it, couldn’t succeed. Very often we become complicit in a conspiracy. I’m co-chair of the diversity advisory group at the Writers Guild of America. We’re looking at programs to feed people into the system.”

But it’s not just giving them entry-level positions, it’s about giving them other opportunities. “This is cultural issue that needs to be addressed, that needs to be addressed with many conversations over many years. Continued action needs to be taken.”

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  1. Sharon D Johnson says:

    And let’s not forget that many writers classified as “diverse” hires who do speak up (saying some of the very same things that Mr. Mazzara has said here) suffer repercussions: they are labeled as “troublemakers” or “not the right fit” and don’t get (re)hired. As former Chair of the WGAW Committee of Black Writers, 1999-2003, I’ve written about this (e.g., my LA Times Counterpunch op-ed, “Sitcom Writers & the Color of Funny,” June 26, 2000), communicated directly with many studio & network heads about the problem, and had direct conversations with my agency about how & where they were (and were not) getting me meetings; no surprise I was dropped like a hot potato and have not secured Guild-covered work since. This has been financially disastrous, and I’m guessing it’s happened to many more writers than just me. Bottom line: there are not more “diverse” writers working because those in positions to hire (often fellow WGAW members in positions of power) don’t want to make “diverse” hires. Temporary tokenism is their “get out of jail free” card. We’ve played this game long enough. Agents, writers at exec producer level, and our own labor union are a few players that have a hand in this pattern of practice, and can change that pattern of practice if they want to. As the Nike campaign advised, “just do it.”

  2. gray zip says:

    The diversity programs at most studios spring from good intentions but in their current form are a trap. Such programs install a first-year writer into the writers rooms of the studio’s shows at no cost to the show. It is better than no opportunity at all but problems abound. One is that it checks the diversity box for a show without changing its hiring patterns. A bigger one is that the program is only for one year. If the show wants to retain the diversity program writer they would have to hire her for real. The incentive to do so is slight. If they do nothing a new diversity writer will take the first one’s place in year two, so their diversity box is still checked. Another problem is that first year writers tend to be useless. If at the end of a season you are getting anything out of one you have a real diamond in the rough on your hands. Usually such writers are re-upped on the faith that they will get into the swing of things at some point in year two. If anything a diversity writer, who by definition may not have had access to the same privileges and educational opportunities as white male writers or feel at home in such a white culture, may take even longer to get fully up to speed. But a diversity writer’s fate is decided at the end of one season by people who had virtually no hand in “hiring” them.

    I think the issue of acculturation is as important — or more — than mere opportunity. One year is too short a time for a writer who has existed completely apart from anything like the showbiz culture to adapt to all of its particulars, overcome their disadvantages, and meaningfully contribute to a show. It can happen but to bank on it is unfair and indeed runs counter to the very enterprise being undertaken. We can call the situation a “pipeline problem” and move on, or we can assess what is actually necessary to effect real and lasting change, and do that. And let’s face it, the latter is not exactly in our blood. We build sets that will only stand a week to shoot films that will only play a month. Expedience is ordinarily the coin of our realm.

    But none of this is beyond us

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