Improving the level of diversity and inclusion in Hollywood is a worthy goal that makes business sense an in increasingly multicultural world. But it’s also extremely hard to achieve because no single hiring initiative, mentoring program or show about an underrepresented community can dismantle centuries of systemic racism.
That was the candid assessment from a panel of Hollywood insiders — FX chairman John Landgraf, Karen Horne, senior VP of equity and inclusion for WarnerMedia and Bing Chen, co-founder of film fund Gold House — held Wednesday as part of the UCLA Entertainment Symposium. The hourlong session was moderated by Catrice Monson, managing director and co-founder of RightSize Media.
Landgraf pointed to FX’s experience of proactively working during the past six years to improve what was a “woeful” track record of hiring women and those from underrepresented backgrounds as directors. It’s not as simple as establishing diversity programs and encouraging showrunners to look outside of their personal networks for casting and staffing decisions. For white male executives, it requires education and a big dose of humility, Landgraf said.
“When you start this, you find that you have a lot of problems,” Landgraf said. “When you start to raise the voices of different BIPOC communities, you find a lot of trauma. You have to do a lot of listening. It can be a little daunting to take on at the beginning. You start to look under the hood and you find a lot of problems with the engine.”
Horne pointed to past efforts to open doors for Black and brown writers that had unintended consequences.
“I want to see this industry stop paying for ‘diverse’ staff writers because they’re ‘othering’ them when they do that,” she said, noting that her goal is to eventually “put myself out of work” in her current role.
WarnerMedia “tries very hard to stay away from quotas,” Horne said, because that implies there’s a plateau for recruiting BIPOC talent. In fact, the industry does itself a disservice because Black and Latino consumers are so crucial to box office success.
“We know that salsa outsells ketchup. Why would you leave this (money) on the table,” she said. “The talent is out there (but) what’s not out there is an abundance of opportunity.”
Chen reinforced the importance of bringing true diversity to Hollywood in order to allow an array of stories and perspectives to blossom rather than be dismissed by “single-supremacy leadership that does not have that lived experience.”
Landgraf cited FX’s experience in consciously seeking a much broader pool of candidates for directing assignments. The key to making that happen was becoming comfortable with hiring people with less experience than established TV helmers.
“A single job or two early in someone’s career has a disproportionately large effect. Opportunity piles on opportunity piles on opportunity,” he said. Early on, Landgraf promised all of FX’s showrunners that if less experienced directors required more support or reshoots, the network would bear the cost.
“It ended up costing us nothing. Zero dollars,” Landgraf said. “These people came into the process, they were great. They may have lacked experience but what they didn’t lack is talent, ambition and fierce determination to knock it out of the park given this opportunity.” He noted that FX has never received more acclaim or awards and nominations as it has over the past few years.
“It cost us nothing and improved the quality of the episodes we were making overall,” he said.
Landgraf noted that networks and studios need to make a commitment to true diversity and inclusion across all aspects of a company, from senior executives to crew members, in order to provide a truly supportive environment for artists.
“There’s also a vitality that comes from embracing intersectionality and a multitude of identities from different cultures. It’s an explosive amount of energy,” he said.
Horne said she was gratified to see “more people understanding that if we all share the pie equally, we’ll have enough for everyone.”
The fortuitous timing of the Peak TV boom and the racial reckoning forced since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis has been important to move the industry forward, Landgraf observed.
“In Hollywood the expansion of jobs and opportunity was there at a time when we were ready as an industry to lean into the use of that extra capacity to break down barriers and systems that have kept the roster of writers, directors and leaders overwhelmingly white and male,” he said.
Landgraf’s bona fides as a leader with the power to drive change was reinforced when Chen offered the executive high praise in the closing moments of the panel.
“The fact that you greenlit ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Pose’ speaks generational volumes,” Chen said.
(Pictured clockwise from top left: Bing Chen, John Landgraf, Karen Horne and Catrice Monson)