When Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 14, protests about Hollywood’s lack of diversity centered on actors and, occasionally, writers and directors. But Dorothy Thompson, founder of the nonprofit Streetlights, knows that true diversity should involve every level of filmmaking — including behind-the-camera work. And her Hollywood-based organization proves that progress is possible.
The group trains 45-50 young adults every year as production assistants and helps them find jobs and move up the ladder. Its motto: creating ethnic diversity in the entertainment industry since 1992. In addition to the PAs, there are about 65 others in the career advancement phase (getting into unions, etc.).
Thompson started the organization following L.A.’s Rodney King uprisings that year. She realized a big part of the unrest came from frustration. “It all rests on jobs; it all rests on hiring,” she tells Variety.
Streetlights holds three sets of classes each year, with 15 trainees in each group. Individuals each receive 240 hours of training, with half that time spent working on paid productions.
“We take four weeks to teach absolutely anything and everything a P.A. would ever need to know,” says Thompson, “so our P.A.’s don’t feel like strangers when they arrive on their first job.” The training covers all aspects of crew jobs, from use of walkie-talkies to handling purchase orders and return slips.
After finishing the program, the trainees are available to work in whatever department needs assistance: camera, art, grip or props, etc.
One of the program’s success stories is Randy Huggins, now supervising producer on the Starz original series “Power.” “Streetlights,” he says, “gives an opportunity to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance. They instill an ethic of ‘Do the job; don’t disrespect the work.’ ”
|“We take four weeks to teach absolutely anything and everything a P.A. would ever need to know.”|
Huggins started as a P.A. and eventually became writers’ assistant on FX’s “The Shield,” where his boss was Glen Mazzara (now exec producer on A&E’s “Damien”).
Mazzara notes that a diverse staff brings distinct creative advantages. “Randy shared his experiences,” Mazzara says. “He let us know when he felt something was manufactured or didn’t ring true.”
In 2001, Streetlights, in conjunction with Procter & Gamble, began a second program — Commercial Diversity Initiative — to introduce young people into the world of TV commercial production. CDI helps P.A.’s become eligible to join a union for commercial work, which can lead to eligibility for any production gig.
Streetlights also offers guidance to those who want to go into a different area of the industry, like Huggins. Some alums have become execs and/or producers. Just last month, writer-producer-director Matt Cherry, a Streetlights grad, signed with ICM.
The nonprofit started by reaching out to companies, but now employers initiate contact. “A lot of people call us to say, ‘Do you have somebody good to work in the art department?’ or, ‘We just need a runner,’ ” says Thompson. The program’s biggest supporters include NBCUniversal and HBO.
But Hollywood is still Hollywood. Though the grads have a good track record of getting jobs, they still find out what most showbiz hopefuls have discovered: It’s never easy to get work.
And, despite Hollywood’s liberal reputation, Streetlights grads, like most minority members, have experienced racist jokes or insensitive remarks on the set, or a double standard when it comes to hiring.
But Thompson remains positive that even a slow buildup will pay off. “Even one minority member adds a terrific cultural backdrop to your production,” she says, noting the benefits of additional viewpoints. “It might be subtle, but their presence will have a positive influence.”