The film industry's diversity problem has taken center stage in Hollywood -- the subject of everything from Chris Rock's brutal monologue at the Academy Awards last weekend to that sticky viral hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite.
Director J.J. Abrams is trying to do something about it.
Abrams, the writer, director and producer of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," has instituted a new diversity policy at his production company, Bad Robot, according to a Wall Street Journal report last week. The high-profile director sent a memo to agents saying that when they send names of clients to be considered for jobs on Bad Robot projects, the list should include a number of women and minorities that is, at a minimum, representative of their percentages in the total U.S. population.
Abrams addressed the issue on Tuesday at the New York Times' New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif. "The Oscar controversy was sort of a wake-up call to us," he said in a conversation at the event. "What we realized was that it has to be a systemic approach. ... The Oscar issue was symptomatic of the problem, it wasn't the problem. The Oscars is the last stop on the train. The first stop is what gets made."
Now, Abrams' said of his policy, "any list that we get for writers, directors, producers -- you know, projects -- it needs to be at the very least representative of this country." Currently, based on U.S. Census data, that would mean lists should be composed of somewhere around half women, and roughly 13 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian candidates.
Attempts to make diversity part of a more systematic hiring effort -- rather than a top-down mantra that has little accountability or way of being measured -- are still fledgling, but catching on. Companies such as Facebook, Pinterest and J. Walter Thompson London have introduced their own version of the "Rooney Rule," named after the NFL mandate that requires professional football teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and general manager jobs. (The NFL, meanwhile, finally applied its own rule to gender in its front office, requiring the league to make sure it interviews women for all executive positions.)
Others have set their own targets. Last year, Intel made waves for saying it was planning to invest $300 million "to reach full representation at all levels of our company's workforce by 2020." The company has also set public goals for their diversity hiring rate, hoping to have 45 percent of its hires in the United States be women or minorities in 2016, and said it has no gender pay gap.
But while these efforts are laudable, some seek to mandate interviews of only one woman or one minority candidate. And Intel's "full representation" did not refer to the actual U.S. population, but representation of the "talent available in America," or those who have the skills to take the jobs.
Abrams, meanwhile, appears to be saying he wants to see more -- for literally half the names sent to him to be names of women, and some 12 or 13 percent to be African American and 17 or 18 percent of them to be Hispanic.
Whether that's harder or easier to achieve in the film industry than in other fields is unclear. For instance, a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union requesting that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigate the film industry's efforts to hire women said last year that numbers are hard to come by, but that estimates put the number of female students who focus on directing as about equal in number to their male peers.
Still, Abrams' new policy seems to be an ambitious effort to at least get a diverse array of names in the door. As David White, the national executive director of Hollywood's biggest union, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "decision makers have to demand that a more diverse group of people are put in front of them," he said. "Everyone responds to the decision makers." J.J. Abrams is doing just that.