Hollywood has been an overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male business for almost a century, but recent years have sparked a vibrant conversation about diversity behind the camera and in front of it. That discussion reached a new pitch this week: On May 12, the New York Times reported that American Civil Liberties Union is calling for federal and state-level investigations into the way directors are selected for movie projects, targeting in particular the extremely small number of women who are tapped to helm important films.
But it would not be wise to use the ACLU’s campaign, or the success of showrunners like Shonda Rhimes or even a smash hit like “Empire” as evidence of an imminent revolution in the entertainment industry. Hollywood has discovered women and people of color before, whether it was cultivating a limited number of black stars in the thirties and forties, coopting women’s liberation in the 1970s and early 1980s, or shoring up wobbly television ratings with shows about African-Americans in the 1990s. The Times notes that even if the ACLU is successful in pursuing some sort of an agreement with studios, there have been previous efforts to try to boost minority shares of employment in the industry. Through it all, white men have managed to retain enormous power as the creators of Hollywood’s products, and as the subjects of film and television.
So why is it so hard to make the very engine of America’s fantasies and aspirations look much like the country Hollywood hopes to inspire? The answers lie in the nature of the film and television businesses, which are project-based and rooted in the idea of artistic autonomy and meritocracy. Any solutions will likely have to be adopted voluntarily and rooted in slow-moving cultural change. The result seems likely to be something other than a fairy-tale ending.
Many of the proposed solutions to Hollywood’s diversity problems that go viral actually are vulnerable to the same sorts of thinking that makes Hollywood so monochromatic and so male in the first place.
Take the focus on hiring a woman to direct an installment of a major action franchise. The impulse makes sense: If the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC superhero movies, and the “Star Wars” and “Fast and Furious” franchises are some of the widest-reaching stories in culture right now, of course there’s a hunger to let women tell part of those stories. But there’s a forest-and-trees risk to this approach. We end up fighting for women to get work on single movies that will last a year, only to have to start the battle all over again when the next blockbuster starts moving through a Tony Stark-style assembly line.
Professor Stacy L. Smith, who runs the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has floated another supposedly simple solution. ” If filmmakers just added five female speaking characters to their current slate of projects (without taking away or changing any of the male characters) and repeated the process for four years, we would be at parity,” she wrote last November. But like many other proposals, “just add five” relies on the benevolence of individual movie directors and writers for implementation.
Now add to a project-based business that relies on relative artistic independence a problem that’s not unique to Hollywood: a need to get the people with power to acknowledge that inequality exists. Franklin Leonard, who founded the screenplay competition the Black List, says the prevailing view is that “It’s a perfectly efficient system and it’s entirely meritocratic, so if women aren’t as successful, and if people of color aren’t as successful, they’re simply not as good at it as good white men.”
That’s a difficult — but necessary — hurdle to overcome, argued Kristen Warner, a professor in the department of telecommunications and film at the University of Alabama. “I don’t think there are any specific pragmatic steps that can be applied here,” she suggested, “without Hollywood first reorienting itself to the fact that there are long standing structural issues inherent in its business models.”
If studios and showrunners keep hiring mostly white and mostly male candidates they are already familiar with, there are some solutions that could start credentialing more women and people of color at multiple levels of the business.
USC’s Smith has argued that Hollywood needs its own version of the Rooney Rule, named after the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and adopted by the National Football League in 2003, which requires the teams to interview at least one minority candidate when they are trying to fill head coaching positions and other senior-level jobs.
The Black List’s Leonard, who says he tried to bring in female and minority candidates for projects when he worked in development at Universal, agrees. At the executive level, a Rooney Rule could encourage the major studios to hire more women and people of color, who have had sparse representation in the highest ranks of the six major studios throughout their history. And at the project level, a Rooney level could introduce executives to new writing and directing candidates.
“I think it’s a really good idea, if only becuse it forces people to familiarize themselves — even if they’re not going to hire the woman to direct the next ‘Fast and Furious’ movie, or the Latino writer to write the next political thriller,” he argues. “Women and people of color, because they know they have more to overcome in those rooms, they prepare so much better than the people who assume they’re going to do well because of who they are. Worst case scenario, [executives] interview these people grudgingly, and then go, oh, s—, these people are really talented. Worst case scenario, they say ‘We have this other project and we want you to do that.'”
Adam Moore, who runs equal opportunity employment and diversity efforts for the combined Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, was more skeptical.
“I don’t know how much stock I put into the familiarity leading to actual jobs argument,” he says, pointing out that the Rooney Rule applies to high-ranking NFL jobs, not to, say, players themselves. “I do believe for the vast majority of casting directors and people who are looking at talent to put into their projects, they are on every project looking to bring in people that they haven’t seen before from a variety of underrepresented communities.” (This isn’t simply about variety: Less-experienced actors tend to cost less.)
Even if a Rooney Rule for Hollywood executives or directors is only a dream, more modest efforts are underway in other sectors of Hollywood.
“We understand that our members who are showrunners hire writers,” explains Terry Lopez, the director of diversity for the Writers Guild of America, West. “When I started here, before I became the director of the department, we’d have meetings with the studios…They’d say [that their diversity problems are] ‘Because of your members. Your members hire other members, so what are you going to do about it?'”
The result was the TV Writers Access Project, now in its sixth year. WGAW solicits work from writers who have worked in television already and who are people of color, women, LGBT, 55 or older, or have disabilities. Producers and showrunners read their submissions without their names attached, and grade the work on whether or not they’d hire the person who wrote it. The writers who are chosen are honored publicly. Lopez notes that that about half the writers who enter the project don’t already have agents, and the competition gives them a rare chance to get their work in front of people with hiring authority without a representative to do that work for them. Even if they aren’t guaranteed job offers, the process lets the writers who participate become known quantities to people who might consider them for jobs in the future.
If Lopez’s declaration that her Guild is responsible for improving Hollywood’s demographics is welcome, it’s not necessarily the norm. Part of what makes it difficult to change Hollywood’s project-based economy is that even when a diverse cast and crew does come together for a movie or television show, it will disband after the project is over. The other difficulty is that many different organizations touch every single project: the producer or studio that funds the project, the distributor or network that puts the work in front of audiences, the agencies who represent the actors, and the guilds who represent the directors and technical workers.
It can become disturbingly easy to blame someone else in the production process for a lack of diversity. In 2012, I asked then-Fox president Kevin Reilly why there were so few women writers working on his network’s shows. He responded that “I’ve never really had that issue put before me before.” It was probably a true answer, and a telling one.
And it’s one that even organizations that advocate diversity sometimes give. Directors Guild of America president Paris Barclay has mentioned “hiring practices” twice in reports on diversity behind the camera that the guild has issued during his tenure at the top of the association. “It can be shockingly difficult to convince the people who control hiring to make even small improvements to their hiring practices,” he noted in the 2014 report. And he used even sharper language earlier this year, arguing that “Every director needs a first shot to break into the business – and what this report reveals is that studios, networks and executive producers need to challenge their own hiring practices and offer talented women and minority directors the same opportunities they are giving white males.”
But when I asked the DGA for comment in late March, I got a statement from Frank Gonzalez, the guild’s assistant executive director and director of diversity, that seemed to fall back on the same solution: talent development programs aimed at women and people of color.
“The simple truth is that the DGA does not have control over hiring practices in the industry we serve…What we need to see for real change to occur is a commitment from all those involved in the hiring process to develop and hire women and minority directors across the industry,” Gonzales wrote. “At the DGA, we seek to leverage our influence, resources and relationships to help move the industry toward that reality.”
In late April, the Women’s Steering Committee of the DGA rejected a proposal that would have created two separate diversity categories, one for women and another for people of color. “Currently, diversity agreements with studios have just one category for diversity, one that includes both women and men of color,” explained Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood. “So while the studios can actually claim they are fulfilling their diversity numbers by hiring men of color, women [and] especially women of color are the ones not advancing. ”
But if powerful people and organizations in Hollywood are quick to shift the blame for their industry’s diversity problems onto someone else, there’s one set of companies that many different people I spoke to were quick to identify as a significant roadblock: talent agencies.
“If there is a bastion of libertarianism in the industry, it’s definitely in the agency world,”says Leonard, who spent a year at Creative Artists Agency before moving into film development. Their attitude is that we make money, that’s our job. They put it on the studios: it’s, ‘The studios don’t hire these people, why would I represent [them]?’ But they do have a significant role in determining who the studios who get hired. If they put people up, they’d get these jobs.”
Some of the guilds echo Leonard’s criticisms. “When I have our members calling me, showrunners, and saying I’m looking for an African-American male writer, they’re obviously not getting that from their agency, and the question is why? Do they not have those clients? If you’ve got a lot of demand, you’re going to have a higher supply. The agencies probably feel they don’t need to have that,” WGAW’s Lopez tells me. “We need the agencies to participate. We don’t really know what they’re doing in terms of finding diverse writers.”
SAG-AFTRA’s Moore was more measured, suggesting that agencies are responding to the demands of the market, and may be slow to respond to the success of series like “Empire” or Shonda Rhimes’s dominance of Thursday nights on ABC.
But he was clear that, like Lopez, showrunners and directors ask him to help identify talent for them because “The agencies we go to, their rosters aren’t as diverse as we would like…I’ll get a call from someone saying I’m trying to find a 60-year-old South Asian man with comedic chops to carry a half-hour comedy.”
It’s not just the guilds and observers like Leonard who see a problem. In mid-April, a coalition of diversity in media groups, including the American Indians in Film and Television, Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, NAACP Hollywood Bureau, and National Hispanic Media Coalition announced that, in addition to meeting with the major broadcast television networks, they would be “contacting major talent agencies for meetings to discuss their diversity efforts.”
Their luck may be better than mine. After the coalition’s declaration, I emailed three of the biggest agencies, Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor and the United Talent Agency to ask if they had a response to the announcement; if they kept demographic data on their client rosters and whether they would release it; if there were efforts underway to recruit clients from underrepresented communities; and if they encouraged all of their agents to have diverse client rosters or devoted a subset of agents towards signing women and artists of color. None of them responded.
As much as it is tempting to blame Hollywood’s diversity problems solely on the hidebound mindsets of a generation of power brokers, the same laws that protect against employment discrimination also block certain efforts to hire more women and people of color. Networks can set goals for how many female writers they want to hire, or how many characters of color they want to see on screen, but they can’t legally use quotas to reach those goals.
“You can talk in as great a detail as you want–‘The character is a 35-year-old Puerto Rican from the Lower East Side’–but the person you’re looking for can’t be required to be any of those things,” explains SAG-AFTRA’s Moore. “You’ve got audiences and producers to a certain degree demanding authenticity in what goes on screen. If you put an actor in a role that’s ethically specific and the actor is not that ethnicity, you’ve seen a lot of stuff play out in the press about how this person isn’t Native American, or this person isn’t deaf…They cannot, by federal and state law, ask these questions. ‘Are you Japanese?’ ‘Can I see your tribal affiliation card?’ You can’t do it. Even if it’s for the best reasons possible.”
Instead, he explains, his union has worked to try to undo the implicit codes embedded in character descriptions, known as breakdowns, that casting directors circulate when they’re looking to put together a show or movie.
“It used to be, ten plus years ago, that if a breakdown came out and all it said was judge, 40-55, commanding demeanor, everyone shorthand knew, from the hiring end, to the agent end, to the people who were going to submit themselves for that job, if it didn’t give a specific ethnicity, it meant white,” Moore says. “The default assumption was Caucasian. What we’ve seen is that default assumption is slowly but surely going away. If it says that same breakdown today, instead of agents understanding that to mean ‘It’s just my Caucasian clients’…I’m going to send men, I’m going to send women I’m going to send anyone who fits that character description on its face value. I’m going to send in the person in a wheelchair, I’m going to send in the blind actor.”
And where working to change default assumptions hasn’t worked, SAG-AFTRA and the casting directors have started to include specific invitations for agents to send a broader array of actors. “We worked with them on getting language on the breakdowns: it should say somewhere on the breakdown we’re committed to diversity and inclusive casting, please submit qualified performers for any of the roles above,” Moore tells me. “If you don’t understand that the default isn’t Caucasian, we’re going to spell it out for you.”
In addition to legal barriers, the structures of existing diversity programs can sometimes work against candidates who hope to obtain long-term employment. One example is the diversity fellowships that pay the salaries of women, people of color, and other minority writers who are hired onto the staffs of television shows out of pools of money separate from the shows’ budgets. Though this can be a way to create a more diverse writing staff, it also creates a disincentive to hire those writers beyond the terms of their fellowships, when their salaries would become the shows’ responsibilities, rather than the programs’.
“That’s something that has been discussed in the industry at large,” WGAW’s Lopez acknowledges. “We’ve talked about this, there’s a group of us that said we should have a one-day symposium and talk about it and see if there’s a way that we can make them better. Can we force the networks to say ‘Once this person is in the position, you have to hire them and keep them on?’…It’s come up. It’s just something that somebody has to be a point person on to say hey, we want to do this, would everyone be open to coming together one day and see how we can maybe make it better.”
Ultimately, this is yet another challenge, in addition to all the other formidable structural obstacles to making Hollywood resemble the country it so imaginatively represents. In between a year-round television production cycles, increasingly demanding blockbuster franchises and the sheer proliferation of movies and television, Hollywood is so busy imagining the world as it might be, that it’s hard for the its leaders and most important institutions to take the time and initiative required to transform the industry itself.
Correction: The initial version of this post misspelled Kristen Warner’s last name. I regret the error.