With the spotlight on diversity and inclusion shining ever brighter, Hollywood’s emerging leaders of color take their responsibility for improving representation on screen and off seriously.
“What I’ve been really focused on is trying to address diversity, equity and inclusion,” Aaron Edmonds, director of development and production for Lionsgate, tells Variety. “That’s through the content I’m championing and working on, as well as efforts I’m making within Lionsgate, along with leadership, and the third thing is trying to help support the next level of executives that are coming up behind me.”
His Lionsgate projects include “Antebellum,” starring Janelle Monáe; the studio’s multipronged “The 1619 Project,” a collaborative effort with Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times; plus an Angela Davis biopic. “Projects like ‘1619,’ for me, it’s just an honor to be a part of that,” he says.
Jaime Dávila, producer of Netflix’s forthcoming Selena Quintanilla series, is similarly passionate about Latinx fare: “I know that Latin content can travel,” he says. “Most executives didn’t grow up on both sides watching ‘Friends’ and Spanish-language telenovelas. I take the responsibility of bringing them my experience and showing them that there’s a business there.”
While acting jobs for women and people of color have grown overall, those groups remain underrepresented behind the scenes in Hollywood, according to UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report.
“What’s being green-lit matters,” says Ana-Christina Ramon, director of research and civic engagement for the UCLA college division of social sciences, and co-author of the report. “Although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of making major decisions behind the scenes at the studios.”
The report analyzed 11 major and mid-major studios and found that 91% of C-level positions are held by white people and 82% are held by men. Among all senior executive positions, 93% are held by white people and 80% by men.
“As of 2019, both women and minorities are within striking distance of proportionate representation when it comes to lead roles and total cast,” says Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College division of social sciences and the report’s co-author. “Behind the scenes, it’s a very different story. That begs the question: Are we actually seeing systematic change, or is Hollywood just appealing to diverse audiences through casting without fundamentally altering the way studios do business behind the camera?”
Fostering an environment where executives are as diverse as their audience makes a difference, according to Kalia Booker, VP of programming at HBO.
“Everyone is dying for diversity now,” says Booker. “People constantly forget that diversity doesn’t mean just Black and white. It means Asian American, it means people with disabilities, it means the queer community, it means elders and seniors.”
Jiao Chen makes a habit of championing diverse voices as VP of creative development for Columbia Pictures, recently acquiring Kevin Kwan’s “Sex and Vanity” for adaptation, but acknowledges there’s more work to be done.
“Everyone who is a gatekeeper, myself included, we all need to do more in our day-to-day jobs to break down those unconscious biases, as well as these antiquated barriers of entry,” says Chen, who has trained himself to question whether he has considered all potential candidates for open writing and directing assignments.
For Sandino Moya-Smith, director of development at MGM and the son of Indigenous Mexican farmworkers turned civil-rights advocates, sustained improvement is the overriding goal.
“There is always more to be done. Ideals of diversity and inclusion are like democracy: they take continual, informed engagement to grow and flourish,” says Moya-Smith, who is developing MGM’s “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson. “I think a vast majority of the industry wants to do more, but in the past that desire’s been cyclical, rising and falling with the headlines. There would be short bursts of engagement that would ebb once the immediate media fervor would die down.”
He believes a permanent shift may be under way, but cautions that “we can’t ever afford to let our guard down.”
Jamal Salmon, SVP of theatrical marketing analytics for Paramount, strikes a similar note. “Going forward, we know that these issues are built on hundreds of years of history, and no one thinks that three months of action or one year of action will fix all of those things,” he says. “It’s all about longevity for me.”