Freeform Stars and Producers Go Inside the Network's "Forward"-Looking Programming

Freeform Summit 2018 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Freeform

Freeform established its commitment to "forward"-looking programming Thursday as the netw held its first-ever Freeform Summit, a conference of sorts featuring series talent discussing everything from millennial dating habits to LGBTQ representation onscreen. Stars including Grown-ish's Yara ShahidiThe Bold Type's Katie Stevens, Meghann Fahy and Aisha Dee; Pretty Little Liars creator Marlene King; Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb and more spoke on panels about embracing cultural change through storytelling while network president Tom Ascheim announced the network's latest rebranding.

"At Freeform, we’re purposefully and passionately moving our brand forward by defying expectations and dismantling conventions; busting stereotypes of theme, cast and culture in service to a more inclusive world on and off screen,” he said in a statement ahead of the event.

Speaking to Freeform's new "forward"-looking approach to programming, the network has put into development an immigration-themed Party of Five reboot, genre drama Cleopatra and sci-fi drama Augs, while renewing the Black-ish spinoff, Grown-ishfor a second season. Freeform also set premiere dates for Marvel's Cloak and Dagger (June 7), season two of magazine drama The Bold Type  (June 12, with co-stars Nikohl Boosheri and Stephen Conrad Moore promoted to series regular) and the sophomore run of Hollywood soap Famous in Love (April 4).

Here are highlights from the four-panel event, held at Neuehouse Hollywood.

Panel: Millennials Are Destroying All the Industries

The discussion was to focus on how millennials are leveraging technology to disrupt fundraising, demanding transparency from the government, challenging gender stereotypes, modernizing the retail segment and breaking down traditional organizational norms. And while the panelists — notably Grown-ish creator Kenya Barris, former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and Freeform exec vp development Karey Burke — addressed the changes millennials are bringing to society, it was Grown-ish star Shahidi (who at 17 is actually a member of generation Z) who stole the show by speaking eloquently about young people's struggle to find a place in the world.

Welteroth agreed that millennials are "breaking down systems and structures that don't make sense anymore for the world that we live in"; something Barris called necessary: "It needs to be destroyed or disrupted."

Shahidi spoke about how young people today are multidimensional, and also touched on getting rid of stereotypes, allowing new voices into the fold and how social media gives all people the power to tell their own stories. She ended the panel by quoting social critic James Baldwin.

"I was reading The Fire Next Time and the one thing that he says is: 'Do you want to be integrated into a burning house?' And what this group represents is a group of people who are dedicated to setting out fire and building a new infrastructure," she said. "I'm just so excited for you guys' presence, for what we've done so far and what's to come."


Panel: Understanding and Cultivating Love On- and Off-Screen

The panel touched on writing romantic relationships and particularly how young people are able to juggle their careers, love and sex without sacrificing one for another. Pretty Little Liars' King spoke of how most of the boyfriends on her since-concluded show were written as aspirational, but the most complicated relationship  for her was the one between Aria (Lucy Hale) and Ezra (Ian Harding) — Aria's high school teacher.

"We decided early on that we were going to be true to the books because [fans of Sara Shepard's PLL novels] were really passionate and it was always a struggle for me to try to find a balance," King said. "If that were my daughter, of course I wouldn't want her to be with her teacher, but it was still this epic love that developed over the years. It was a struggle personally, but still to this day I think it was the most popular relationship on the show. There were consequences for him throughout the series and I hope we handled it responsibly but yet gave fans that epic love." 

The Fosters executive producer Joanna Johnson said of the many relationships on her series, one that people talk to her the most about is the realistic marriage between moms Stef and Lena. 

"One thing I'm very proud about is our two moms, and showing the world that same-sex couples are not different, especially when it comes to parenting — that sort of levels the playing field because you're dealing with all the same issues," she said. "There are people who have come up to me and said that is the most realistic depiction of marriage I've seen on television."

On Freeform's new comedy Alone Together — renewed for a second season ahead of its premiere, creators Esther Povitsky and Benji Aflalo wanted their two main characters to have a platonic male-female friendship just like their own.

"I think it's important that people realize there are stories to be told about a man and a woman that have nothing to do with sex and romance," said Povitsky.

The duo created the show because their fellow comedians frequently asked them about whether they were hooking up. Said Povitsky, "It's this inherent sexist belief our culture has ... that a man will only spend time with a woman if the end result is sex, and this show is here to say that's not true. This is a buddy comedy. It's not a will they, won't they ... men and women can do things that are not sexual."

Panel: Exploring the Narrative Without Exploiting It

This LGBTQIA+ discussion focused on how to share gay, lesbian, bi, trans and nonbinary gender narratives onscreen without exploiting them. It touched on the interracial, interfaith lesbian relationship between Aisha Dee and Boosheri's characters on The Bold Type, which new showrunner Amanda Lasher (who had the idea for the panel) said she and the rest of the writers focused on telling like any other love story and "avoiding tokenization."

Boosheri said after doing research for her character, she realized "there wasn't any one way to be a queer Muslim, and it became important to me that Adena not be the authority on the right or wrong way to be a Muslim or feminist or a lesbian. She's just one woman, one person trying her best to find her way through the world and be true to herself. I wanted to allow her to be complicated. She hasn't figured it all out yet but she's very confident in her voice, and that's OK." 

The Fosters creator Peter Paige opened up about his own experience starring on Showtime's ground-breaking drama Queer as Folk, and discussed how he tries to tell love stories on The Fosters —particularly the most recent one for lead Callie (Maia Mitchell), who is dating trans man Aaron (Elliot Fletcher).

"I guess that's a big deal. It shouldn't be, but I guess it was," he said, adding that, like Lasher on The Bold Type, he tried to tell Aaron's story like all the other love stories on his show. "It doesn't matter how much of an archetype someone is if you get into their skin. If you share their humanity with people, people relate."

Fletcher, an openly trans actor who is playing trans characters on The Fosters and Showtime's Shameless, said he does worry about being typecast.

"I am constantly afraid of being stuck in the trope of a trans dude. On both shows I play a trans character who is a social worker, which is great ... queer people should be involved. But there are other jobs," he said, also noting that there aren't as many trans men working in Hollywood as trans women, and that should change.

He and Paige also recalled a scene where the Fosters team realized they needed to do better for the character. Aaron, a law student, was studying with Callie — and the law text in front of him was about trans law. Fletcher wrote on the prop, "Aaron is more than just trans," and Paige and Fletcher said that the Fosters team became more aware about avoiding tokenizing Aaron like that in the future. 

Panel: From Comics to Screen — Creating Marvel's Cloak and Dagger

The final panel of the night focused on the network's long-in-the-works Marvel drama, Cloak and Dagger, about two teenagers — a young white woman and young black man — who fall in love and discover they have abilities that work powerfully together. Executive producer Joe Pokaski said that he'd always loved the two characters, and particularly the fact that they didn't look like him.

"When I grew up, I had Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Steve Rogers (Captain America), I had pretty much every superhero," he said.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood said that's also one reason she agreed to do the show.

"I have two boys who watch everything," she said. "A couple years ago my youngest son said, 'How come I never get to see superheroes who look like me?' and that just stayed with me. ... As a woman to be able to tell a young woman's story who is a hero as well, it just seemed like a perfect opportunity."

Star Aubrey Joseph, who plays Tyrone Johnson, aka Cloak, was going to school at USC when he landed the role. "It was one of the first roles that, to me, fully showcased what it is to be a young black male in America right now," he said. "We're getting better with Atlanta and things like that, but before this most of the roles I was going in for were like, young black kid on Law & Order who gets shot or young black kid who's guest starring. We finally got a chance to tell this story that a young black male goes through the same things that anyone else does and has the same hopes and dreams and I'm just so grateful that we get to tell this story."

Said Olivia Holt, who plays Tandy Bowen, aka Dagger, "I've never seen storytelling like this before. This comic originated more than 20 years ago, so the situations they are going through are a bit dated now, but I feel like this is such a right time to have a show like this ... focusing on current subjects and hard topics to actually talk about."

Marvel TV head Loeb said getting the characters and the casting right was the most important part of the series.

"One of our many secrets, which I'm going to tell you guys, is that a Marvel hero always begins with the person not the power," he said. "We're not really interested in the cape or the cowl or in this case the cloak. I mean, we've got to get that right, it's important, but it's more important that you care about Tyrone and you care about Tandy and the rest follows."