Veena Sud, creator of AMC’s “The Killing” and Netflix’s “Seven Seconds,” says the television industry is ready for “radical, real change,” calling on industry gate-keepers to rethink hiring practices, promote more women and people of color, and address a systematic lack of representation, “and not be in the same place we are now that we were in 30 years ago.”
Sud appeared in conversation Monday with producer Paula Vaccaro (“On the Milky Road”) as part of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Talks discussion series. The Emmy-nominated TV creator and showrunner spoke about her experiences as a woman of color rising through the ranks of the television industry, while also calling for sweeping changes that would allow the industry to more accurately reflect the diversity of American society today.
Recalling her experiences as an undergraduate studying film, Sud described being the only woman or person of color in a class that was screening a Brian de Palma movie. “The first image I had when I walked into the classroom was a woman getting killed with a Roto-rooter in her underwear,” she said. “There was something in me that told me to flee from that room. And I gave up a dream that I had held for a really long time to write and direct film and television, because it was so terrifyingly not a world for me.”
She decided to pursue a career in journalism in New York instead, before landing a job with Third World Newsreel, the indie distribution company dedicated to media by and about people of color. It was a transformative experience.
“Here was this vast and incredible repository of film history that I had no idea existed,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t in the mainstream conversation or distribution channels.” For a young, single mother who still aspired to join the film and TV industry, “it made it all so possible, and all so doable.”
Soon after she landed a TV writing fellowship at Disney, which created the program in the late 1990s to address racial disparity in the television industry. That led to her first writers’ room gig at CBS’s “Cold Case,” under the wing of creator and showrunner Meredith Stiehm, “who saw me as a human being and as a writer, and not as a woman hire,” said Sud. She called the experience “extraordinary.”
Her progress through the industry, first as the creator and showrunner of “The Killing,” and later as the creator of “Seven Seconds,” taught her “how critical opportunity is…to open up the doors of our industry to true representation of what this country looks like, and what the world looks like.” She also credited Stiehm “and other artists that have come before me and laid the groundwork” for shepherding her through an industry that often frustrates the advancement of women and people of color.
“Mentorship is really critical…because we see how valuable it’s been for us to be guided along the way, and to have to jump over the hurdles that are specific to us,” she said.
However, Sud insisted that “the most important thing…is a truly level playing field,” something that can only be achieved by looking at “who holds the reins of power.” “Thankfully, for BLM right now, there has been that question in all facets of American society: where does the power reside, where does the money reside, who’s making the decisions, who’s in control,” she said. “That’s worth talking about.”
What she considers necessary is a “systemic overview” to address the lack of representation across all sectors of the TV industry. “Let’s look at the writers’ rooms…but also let’s look at who is greenlighting shows and films,” she said. “Let’s look at the rank and file in the studio system. Let’s look at the rank and file in the networks. Let’s look at the rank and file in the agencies, because the agencies have a lot of power in terms of directing what writers will go into the pipeline of employment.”
She also singled out the “fourth estate” of entertainment media, calling for more women and Black, indigenous, people of color critics, journalists, and editors-in-chief. “That gate-keeping cycle is so critical in terms of what is seen as worthy.”
For Sud, the success of films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Moonlight,” and “Black Panther” is proof that the traditional notions of what American audiences want are not so cut and dried.
“I think it’s very, very important to upend our notion of what is marketability, what is humanly appealing,” she said. “Because, having sold a few shows, I know that buying decisions are human decisions. The best buyers are thinking, ‘Do I like this? Is this a good story?’ It’s not a market formula at all…. The great truth I have found is that it’s people saying, ‘I want to hear this story.’”
Having moved over the course of her career from a broadcast network (CBS) to a cabler (AMC) to a streaming service (Netflix) to a platform hoping to be at the forefront of whatever comes next (Quibi, where she created, wrote, directed and executive produced the short-form thriller “The Stranger”), Sud said there’s no better time for a more diverse range of voices to be heard.
“There’s so much real estate right now that it’s [creating more] opportunity for writers, and it’s also making the negotiations for bigger things more possible,” she said. “Because there’s such a need for content, especially now. It’s such an exciting time.”