Hollywood Hiring Programs Aren’t Enough to Solve Diversity Problem, Says SMPTE Panel

With no women scientist heroes onscreen or minorities running studios, industry has a long way to go

Courtesy of SMPTE

Hollywood’s lack of diversity is hot topic, and that has prompted some companies to set up programs to expand minority hiring.

Yet are those diversity programs, well intentioned and even necessary as they are, missing an essential part of the industry?

That was one question raised at a panel on how to increase diversity in the future of cinema. The panel was held at the Future of Cinema Conference run by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).

Producer Stephen Love of BS Pictures reminded the gathering that diversity programs tend to be top-down, and are intended to pull people up, but without minority representation on the administrative side, that’s not enough.

“If you don’t have representation in those ranks as well, it’s really hard to make everyone feel like there’s not a glass ceiling in the organization,” said Love. Love pointed out that no African American has ever run a major American studio. “I know several executives who are all looking to that point,” he said, “but before they get there, they’re all somehow pushed to producing.

“There’s more money in producing but there’s more power in the studio ranks,” he said.

Love also pointed out that having a “check-box” for hiring minority categories is not enough. He cited the example of an African-American female writer he knows who was hired by a show that had all-black cast but needed a diversity hire.

“The problem with that was that there were 12 writers in that room but she was the only person of color and the only woman. Unfortunately, she had no input,” said Love. “They would develop scripts without her, to the point where she just stayed in her own office.” She didn’t get a chance to contribute, said Love, until one of the show’s stars threatened to quit if she was not included.

Along with Love, who is African American himself, the panel his producing partner Bake Pickins, who is Native American, and three women: Barbara Lange, executive director of SMPTE; Danielle Feinberg of Pixar: and writer-director Abi Corbin, who moderated.

While the panel was generally skeptical about check-box hiring, Pickens noted that there’s rarely a box to check for Native Americans, a minority that tends to be overlooked by the majority community.

“Knowing that we exist is probably the biggest thing,” said Pickens. He later asked the audience, “How many of you have a Native American friend?” Of perhaps 150 people in the room, less than a dozen hands went up. Pickens said that was more than he expected, and when he asked who had more than one, some hands went down.

Much of the panel focused on the lack of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Lange, who has degrees in chemistry and German, noted that only 6-7% of SMPTE’s membership is female.

Pixar’s Feinberg challenged the entertainment industry to use its power to shape the culture. Feinberg said that she often speaks to girls’ groups to encourage young girls to go into STEM. “If someone would just make a movie that has a girl that does STEM and change what the culture is about who those people are, instead of just the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates, I wouldn’t have to do that anymore, I could go sit on a beach somewhere. Because if you put it on a movie screen, if you put it on TV, it changes the culture almost immediately.”

Feinberg also hailed the mandate Facebook has given its recruiters to ensure that any pool of interviewees for an open position include a diverse set of candidates, including minorities, women, veterans and others.

“Many of those people have been hired,” said Feinberg. “And the people hiring have said ‘We’ve found such great people because of this.’”

Feinberg also pointed out the difference between how men and women read a job description: “A woman looks at a job description, and if there are 10 requirements, she thinks she has to have at least seven. A man look at it and think he needs to have three of them.” She urged the gathering to keep that in mind when writing job descriptions going forward.

The SMPTE Future of Cinema Conference is part of the NAB Show. The main portion of the show kicks off Monday April 18.