Aaron Sorkin Gets an Education on Hollywood’s Diversity Issue at WGFestival

WGFestival
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UPDATED: Aaron Sorkin has clarified his comments about the lack of diversity in writers’ rooms, made Saturday at the WGFestival. “Of course I am aware of the diversity problem in Hollywood,” he told Variety. “I was the one who brought the subject up Saturday morning and kept coming back to the subject.”

He explained that his comments were about trying to engage in a conversation about why there isn’t more diversity: “Is it because studio heads aren’t greenlighting the movies? Is it because studio executives aren’t bringing the projects to studio heads? Is that because agents are bringing the projects to studio executives? Is it because agents aren’t getting the material? I was asking questions to a group of people who understand this problem firsthand.”

He said his questions below were simply repeating what he’d been asked by the audience. “The fact that there’s a diversity problem isn’t news to me,” he said. “One of the questions I asked was, ‘What can I do? If you had a remote control over me, what would you have me do on Monday?’ I walked away from the session with more questions than answers but I absolutely know more when I left than I did when I walked in.”

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Aaron Sorkin had some burning questions about the lack of diversity in writers’ rooms — an issue that he apparently didn’t know much about until he visited the WGFestival, hosted by the Writers Guild Foundation, on Saturday inside the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood.

“Are you saying that women and minorities have a more difficult time getting their stuff read than white men and you’re also saying that [white men] get to make mediocre movies and can continue on?” he asked the audience.

The weekend-long festival, hosted in partnership with the Academy Education and Nicholl Fellowships Programs, featured headline panels with screenwriter notables including James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) and sneak peek screenings of Starz’s “American Gods” and Fox’s “Shots Fired,” as well as a pitch competition and industry networking opportunities.

Sorkin, Academy-Award winning screenwriter and executive producer (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom,” “A Few Good Men”) was in disbelief at the event during a discussion moderated by KCRW host and film critic Elvis Mitchell. Sorkin asserted that Hollywood is a genuine meritocracy and that he was unaware of Hollywood’s existing diversity problem.

“You may be confusing meritocracy with meretricious, happens all the time,” Mitchell teased.

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Sorkin tried his best to focus on other unrelated questions from audience members, but was itching to learn more about the challenges many female and minorities face in regard to accessibility and opportunities.

“You’re saying that if you are a woman or a person of color, you have to hit it out of the park in order to get another chance?” Sorkin posed.

Upon listing women and minority writers who are actively shifting this paradigm, Sorkin pointed to a handful of those who had produced work in recent years, including Lena Dunham, Ava Duvernay, and Jordan Peele.

Genuinely troubled by his lack of awareness, he continued to ask away and ultimately offered assistance.

“What can I do [to help]?” Sorkin said. “I do want to understand what someone like me can do … but my thing has always been: ‘If you write it, they will come.’ “

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  1. Lisa says:

    On the bright side, I am starting to see many more good men standing up against this ridiculous and archaic ideal that men are better than women. I know the misogynists hate these guys, but at this point, who really cares what they think? They have the emotional intelligence of toads.

  2. JM Cole says:

    @Chelsea Battle – I’m not sure how deeply Variety has dug into this anecdote (or if you were in attendance?) but for what it is worth, I have heard from multiple friends who attended the Writers Guild talk that the tenor of the conversation was anything but dismissive and ill-informed (which this piece seems to imply it was). One friend who was there framed the conversation in much more nuanced terms on her Facebook page:

    “Yes I was there and I did get to engage one on one with Aaron Sorkin on the subject. It was an incredible session. I must start by mentioning to whomever may not know me that I work in equity, diversity, and inclusion in the arts and have entered in many different conversations on the subject, so when I say this, it is not an easy out… Aaron Sorkin was an exquisite and present listener in these moments mentioned in the article. The bits and pieces can lead us to believe these were issues he doesn’t care about, but it was the opposite. He initiated a conversation about the problems with white savior narratives, he championed the importance of representation in tv and film, he refused to gloss over the importance of these issues. Throughout this, an old idea about access came out in his thinking. He was saying that in his world, ideally, talent was the criteria of how a writer makes it. That he believed that talent, skill etc made Hollywood a fair playing ground.

    When the audience reacted in opposition, he noticed. He wanted to know if he was wrong, genuinely. When he could have let the subject slide, he did not. He knew the importance of it and insisted on honoring that, on coming back to it. He genuinely wanted to know how he was wrong and what he could do. When I shared with him some of the unintentional coded language he was using he wanted to know more. He wanted to know how he could help, what he needed to actively do to help create equal opportunity. He made himself vulnerable when he could have gotten away with less, much less. We spoke one on one after. I could see what I deemed to be a man who was emotional about the fact that he had been wrong on this point for many years, and who was not looking to be taken care of as a result of it, but who very much wanted to be part of the action that makes it better. Those who were in the room were very moved by the experience. I know I was. These are the moments that can change an industry.”

  3. Kate says:

    I’m not buying it for one minute!
    It’s so sad that these are the kind of people running Hollywood!
    Don’t forget his Sony hack, derogatory emails about women in the business:
    http://ew.com/article/2014/12/15/aaron-sorkin-thinks-female-roles-have-a-lesser-degree-of-difficulty/

  4. Please see the full interview on youtube
    Academy Award winning screenwriter, executive producer and playwright Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, The West Wing) talks with moderator Elvis Mitchell, host of KCRW’s The Treatment, at Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study on March 25, 2017.

  5. Melody says:

    One of the MOST discriminated in terms of Hollywood acting roles are the LGBTQ folks.. Personally I’m rather sick of gay parts being played by straight actors.. Reminds me of when white actors played roles meant for black actors.. Sick to the death of all the discrimination.. My granddaughter is at USC Film school . I wonder if she’ll be considered for a job even behind the camera….Hollywood could help change perceptions and make the world a better place by making films that actually show the diversity of the real world.

    • Rev says:

      I think people who cry racism in Hollywood forget the amount of white “writers”/baristas, servers, hosts, bartenders, etc. that also aren’t getting jobs either for lack of luck/opportunity or their work isn’t that good. The people I know that have succeeded in Hollywood have had Good Actual Work to show for themselves. Films they shot over weekends, short stories, readable screenplays.

      I’m reading comments about “wah, racism – they rejected me for the part”, as if white people have never been rejected for a part. EVERYBODY gets rejected in Hollywood. So many people of all colors live their lives there without ever achieving their dreams there.

      I also wonder if this is less about racism and more about which writers are offering viable/intriguing content for Hollywood. I would wonder how many white vs. black writers are submitting great sci-fi/fantasy/action/spy screenplays. I understand this is the age of social justice, but I wonder how many PoC writers/filmmakers (that may or may not be talented writers in the first place, i.e. career baristas, servers, hosts, etc.) are writing themselves into a box by focusing on just social justice sort of stories.

      • manfromatlan says:

        No, the issue isn’t with POC being denied the chance to play another barista or face in the crowd, but rather, that their stories don’t get told, and when someone, a minority maybe, with talent DOES write a great story, it gets transmogrified into a ‘White’ story.

  6. Mark says:

    Sounds like he was he being a sarcastic a-hole

  7. Khanisha says:

    I was there and was one of the women who got to engage one on one with Aaron Sorkin on the subject. It was an incredible session. I must start by mentioning to whomever may not know me that I work in equity, diversity, and inclusion in the arts and have entered in many different conversations on the subject, so when I say this, it is not an easy out… Aaron Sorkin was an exquisite and present listener in these moments mentioned in the article. The bits and pieces might unintentionally lead us to believe these were issues he doesn’t care about, but it was the opposite.

    He initiated a conversation about the problems with white savior narratives, he championed the importance of representation in tv and film, he refused to gloss over the importance of these issues. Throughout this an old idea about access came out in his thinking. He was saying that he thought that talent was the criteria of how a writer makes it. That he believed that made Hollywood a fair playing ground. When the audience reacted in opposition, he noticed. He wanted to know if he was wrong, genuinely. When he could have let the subject slide, he did not. He knew the importance of it and insisted on honoring that, on coming back to it. He genuinely wanted to know how he was wrong and what he could do. When I shared with him some of the unintentional coded language he was using he wanted to know more. He wanted to know how he could help, what he needed to actively do to help create equal opportunity. He made himself vulnerable when he could have gotten away with less, much less. We spoke one on one after. I could see what I deemed to be a man who was emotional about the fact that he had been wrong on this point for many years, and who was not looking to be taken care of as a result of it, but who very much wanted to be part of the action that makes it better. Those who were in the room were very moved by the experience. I know I was. These are the moments that can change an industry.

    Much appreciation to Aaron Sorkin, Elvis Mitchell, the WGA, and the entire audience for a vital moment that drives us forward.

    • manfromatlan says:

      Glad it worked out for you. But nothing has changed, nor will it. We just don’t need to look up to the likes of Aaron Sorkin, or try to gain his approval or brief moment of ‘acknowledgment’. There are other people who appreciate differing new voices. His work, is old and stale.

    • Amanda says:

      Can you give some examples of the coded language you mentioned? I’m really curious about this whole issue.

      • Khanisha says:

        Thank you for this Randall. I was grateful for the entire discussion and for everyone in the room holding space together.

        Amanda, sure. The quotes in the article are accurate although missing some context of course. Specifically in this case we were discussing the idea that the most talented person wins. Sorkin compared it to sports being an even playing field because you are judged on merit and suggested that Hollywood was the same. Actually though, reading a script is subjective, and our personal experience and unconscious bias can alter how we view quality.

        For instance, we may not realize that we are listening with our own familial and cultural understanding as markers. So “talent” of “quality” can often unknowingly mean, the best white male heteronormative version as opposed to simply the actual best. It is when we read, hear, or process with the dominant cultural lens. It can be quite easy to adjust once we are aware of our own bias, which we all have.

        There are many more examples of this, some that were in the room. I’d be happy to provide resources and support for anyone who is looking to expand their own knowledge of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the arts and beyond.

    • Randall says:

      Khanisha, I was privileged to be sitting right behind you during this panel. The whole time, I found myself rolling my eyes both at Mr. Sorkin’s naïveté about traditional ideas of “talent wins out,” as well as some of the ham-fisted naysayers in the audience. And I was SO thankful that you got a chance to weigh in, because I thought you gave an especially cogent and succinct explanation of what the real issues are, without grandstanding, or trying to belittle a guest whose heart you noted above seems to be genuinely in the right place.

      I also felt like I gained a ton of insight from your response, especially in your identification of coded language, and how the concept of “talent” necessarily assumes a facility with things in binary way that excludes anything not “of the norm.”

      Ultimately, I’m an idealist, and I think that Hollywood, while perhaps not a meritocracy, is instead merit-based (or at the very least, merit-adjacent). And in a discussion about diversity, which often devolves into anger and assumptions, you stood up as a wonderful, compelling voice of both dissent and reason. So thanks for that.

  8. Bibi says:

    I’m disappointed to see that people are so hostile following the release of this article. Though he may be in a bubble, admittedly, Aaron Sorkin was completely genuine and forthcoming about the things he said that were severely ill-informed. Aaron made an example of himself, really. Consider that there are hundreds of thousands of folks just like Aaron who are unaware/ignorant and for whatever reason, even after realizing they’re wrong, still make the conscious effort not to care or educate themselves further. If anything, he opened up in an honest way and was actually pretty vulnerable. There’s no reason to demonize him. One topic that kept coming up during his panel was “gatekeepers” in the industry. Aaron may be considered a gatekeeper to some people, because he is successful and established. That being said, he did exactly what one could do in his position. The fact that the woman didn’t say “could you please read my script?” after Mr. Sorkin asked what he could do, is the problem. And for the record, the truth is, Aaron isn’t a gatekeeper. Agents, producers, suits, and people who make the deals, are.

    • Khanisha says:

      I absolutely agree he was genuine and forthcoming. It was a wonderful and prosperous conversation. I was one of the women who got to stand and talk with him about it in the moment (I was the last speaker) and after one on one. I just wanted to clarify that the term “gatekeeper” as I said in the room, is not a negative term, it simply implies a power structure. I also wanted to say that it didn’t seem appropriate to make such a vital moment about my script, especially since the festival asked us not to do that sort of thing. Instead, I got to engage in vital information about equity, diversity, and inclusion with one of our greatest screenwriters which was pretty grand indeed. I would gently and firmly object to the proposal that me not asking him to read my script was the problem.

  9. Mario Cimarro says:

    Hollywood has a huge diversity problem, and lets be clear, is not only a black and white problem.As a latino artist living in this town for many years , one gets tire of auditioning and auditioin ,give your best in the room and if you ar lucky the casting director will thank you sincerely for making her look good, because she knows its all fixed, the role always goes to the white talent. If you are not lucky the casting director will get out of her way to distract you,make you look bad in the room, example : you are in the middle of your scene and she interrupts your performance to ask bluntly what kind of passport i have , WTF, I have an american passport,could she wait till i finished my take, eyes in tears , to asked something so distant and remove from the material . I have so many anecdotes ….
    Let me say it again , im Latino , Hispanic , white , yes white latino, i represent the biggest minority in this country ,Hollywood has to really wake up and give us a chance to represent our comunities , to show what we can do. Is what my people ask me all the time , why Mario , Why arent you up there representing us

    • manfromatlan says:

      You raise so many good points. Don’t let them get you down, or try with people like that. Find the independent minded who WILL give you a chance.

    • The 40 year old magpie says:

      I have a different problem: I can’t be “typed”. CD after CD tells me “I love what you’re doing, I just don’t know how to use you.” and I’m supposedly “white”. It boils down in my mind, that the CD isn’t up to being challenged by what they THINK they are looking for when casting.

  10. manfromatlan says:

    Sorkin lives in a bubble. His neighbors, staff, crew, and cast are uniformly white, so I don’t think he’s capable of seeing or hearing POC. He doesn’t want to write their stories or even, listen. He is quite simply, ineducable.

    • cadavra says:

      How do you know this? Do you work on his films? Do you live near him? Please don’t make blatant assumptions and then try to pass them off as facts. We get enough of that from our government.

  11. kem says:

    So many excellent writers out there who don’t get the chances white men get because this industry is run by white men. I’ll never get tired or sick of people fighting for the rights white men get because if you think about it all these white men have that same Trump ego. Turning a blind eye and making excuses about lack of talent or hiring on merit is bull crap. Nepotism, privilege and entitlement has been the History of Hollywood for many, many years and will continue as long as these men believe they’re superior.

  12. Jane says:

    Think Sorkin was speaking somewhat tongue in cheek. Also, think woman or man, if you write like Sorkin, you’ll get your chance.

    Very tired of being told that everything has to be parcelled out in numbers that mirror the breakdown of the population.

    • Adrian says:

      Amen. Black people comprise 12% of the population, it’s not realistic to expect them to make up a huge chunk of the film industry. If anything I would say they were overrepresented at this years Oscars, whereas they were underrepresented the year before. Again, things like that are bound to happen when you’re dealing with a relatively small percentage of the population. Affirmative action is not the answer, it’s not better than nepotism, which the film industry is already rife with.

      • Mere says:

        I think the issue is a lack of shared experience – which then bleeds into the social fabric and dynamics currently at play.

        When I say ‘lack of shared experience’ (Adrian), I’m referring to the fact that although Black people might comprise 12% of the population – which I would challenge as a dated statistic – they are tired of only seeing white people on the screen. The same for Asians, Hispanics, etc.
        It’s not about affirmative action, or a seat at the table, but merely being in the room.

        When I talk about ‘bleeding into the social fabric’ I’m referring to minority groups still being treated as less than human in 2017. People are being shot dead in the streets because many people have no empathy or place of recognition outside of what is represented and repeated in their daily lives – a sea of white faces.

        Additionally, nepotism and bias, is how we got to this place and these discussions. And please also alert me to a time when “they” make up a huge chunk of the film industry.
        Open your eyes and take several seats with the white privilege Adrian.

      • Sarah says:

        Women comprise 51% of the population but only 7% of directors in Hollywood. To produce those numbers, bias is at work.

        There are multiple experiments like the one done at Stanford that prove bias – they asked people to evaluate two identical resumes with only the names at the top changed (one named “John”, and one named “Jennifer”) and those who received the “John” resume overwhelmingly rated it higher.

        I’m Australian and our short film festival Tropfest used to have only 5% winners across categories that were woman-directors. This year for the first time they changed the competition so that the names of the directors were not shown when the films were judged (the judges didn’t know who directed the films they were judging or whether they were a man or a woman) and – for the first time women comprised 52% of the winners chosen, which aligns much more closely to their percentage population.

        The same thing happened in orchestras who used to hire mostly men after supposedly “unbiased” auditions – until auditions were made “blind” (the applicant sat behind a screen, so that judges didn’t know the gender of the musician), at which point roughly 50% of women were chosen.

        There are ways to improve hiring processes to eliminate bias and hire the best person regardless of gender – and you can do it without even using affirmative action, just by being aware bias exists and weeding it out of the application process.

        The ultimate result of this is to advance art, music, sciences, etc through hiring of the people who are actually the best – as opposed to those who are simply perceived as being the best due to bias.

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