Entertainment execs, writers, and activists gathered at 1 Hotel in West Hollywood Thursday morning to speak about the importance of increasing representation and diversity within the entertainment industry.
Throughout back to back panels as part of Variety‘s Inclusion Summit, Hollywood creatives known for their diversity efforts were candid about the obstacles that the entertainment industry still faces in making the silver screen reflect the real world. Panelists included Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, who served as the event’s keynote speaker; acclaimed journalist Ann Curry; and showrunners such as Krista Vernoff (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Angela Johnson (“How to Get Away with Murder”).
Here are some of Variety’s biggest takeaways:
The Me Too Movement is a lot more than the headlines.
The Me Too Movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, wants to make it clear that most of the #MeToo rhetoric online isn’t actually connected to the Me Too Movement. While using #MeToo to call attention to abusers in positions of power is certainly a positive for survivors as it normalizes such conversations and emboldens others to talk about their own experiences, Burke says the movement is more focused on day-to-day action dedicated to healing survivors and allies. “It wouldn’t be a viral sensation if individual people didn’t take the risk to put their most private experiences out to the public. When someone takes an individual risk, there needs to be a collective courage to meet that,” the global activist said.
Survivor Lisa Van Allen didn’t edit herself when telling her story in “Surviving R. Kelly.”
Lisa Van Allen, who spoke on the “UnMute Her: Surviving R. Kelly” panel, talked about her decision to take part in the six-part docuseries. “I was waiting for the opportunity to tell my story and have people listen,” she said. “It was one long day of interviews, it was stressful and there as a lot of crying.” Allen went on to say that she didn’t hold back at all when detailing her experiences with Kelly. “I didn’t edit myself at all and that’s always been something that I’ve been proud of, I’ve always been raw and when it comes to something like this, you can’t hold back,” Allen said. After the outcry that ensued in response to the Lifetime doc, Allen said she now just wants to see Kelly be held accountable for his actions. “If he’s held accountable, I think that would be justice,” she said.
Diversity efforts are necessary beyond hiring.
“Diversity doesn’t end at hiring, that’s where it begins,” says Kim Bundy, executive producer and showrunner of “Chasing the Cure.” Speaking candidly about finding success in the entertainment industry, the exec admitted that it’s harder to network and build important connections than people let on — even after getting hired. “We all say that the door is always open but when the stakes are high your door is barely cracked,” she said. “So you have to be bold enough to walk away and say, ‘not at my table, not on my watch’ and few people are able to do that.” Ezinne Kwubiri, the head of inclusion & diversity at H&M, piggybacked off of Bundy’s statements, saying that what really matters is how you’re treated once you do get in the door. “What happens when I’m actually in the room?” she posed rhetorically to the audience. “How am I being treated? If I don’t feel a sense of belonging there, I’m gonna leave.”
Gen Z will holds companies accountable.
According to Netflix’s Maya Banks, to be relevant as a company, you can’t not be prioritizing diversity. And for Banks, whose job it is to create content primarily for millennial and gen Z audiences as the director of brand and editorial for the streaming service, younger generations can be counted on to hold companies accountable. The director points to social media as one place that such accountability takes place: “Twitter can be your friend but sometimes it can be your worst enemy,” she said. In order to avoid backlash, the director makes it clear that authenticity is key. Rather than feel pressure to spearhead certain campaigns or celebrate Black History Month, Banks says that the job of storytellers is simply to “show what’s actually going on” and accurately represent modern America. “When you see yourself reflected in entertainment, it can change your life,” she said.
Diversity needs a budget.
“Show me the money!” Kwubiri said, when speaking about the challenges she faces in adding more diversity to her projects. As Kwubiri made clear, casting a wider night when hiring and implanting programs such as “unconscious bias training” are all things that require a budget. Krista Vernoff, the executive producer and show runner of “Grey’s Anatomy,” agreed, saying that the first step in ensuring a more representative workspace is using money to hire more people and diversify the writer’s room. James Lopez, president of Will Packer Productions, pointed to problematic budget allocations as a challenge in his work, too, posing an obstacle in creating more diverse films. ”Girls Trip” and “Ride Along,” for example — studio films both fronted by black female casts — were both given relatively small budgets since they were estimated to have less international success. “If they had other stars in them, we’d probably be playing with bigger budgets,” he said.
Data sets don’t hold all the answers.
According to the producers and directors behind some of the most diverse and financially successful films of the last year, data sets can’t necessarily foresee the success of a project. The chairman of Focus Features, Peter Kujawski, used Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansmen” as an example, saying that he and his team had to look more deeply at context versus data in order to be optimistic about the racially-charged film. In his experience, Kujawski said that data can often be a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” only confirming executive predictions when studios choose to go the safe route. “I think it’s largely about the approach that you take when looking at a data set,” Kujawski said. “When making ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ the guys could have said, ‘Yeah, but it’s an African-American period film, it won’t travel well.’ But really what we have is an outsider going into an organization and taking it down. Once that flip is switched, we stop accepting common wisdom just because the data has said it.”