HBO Hits Important Milestone in Push for Behind-the-Scenes Inclusion

HBO programming president Casey Bloys talks with THR about his network's "Because of Her" campaign, which highlights female talent, and the importance of telling all kinds of stories.
David Livingston/Getty Images; Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic; Amanda Edwards/WireImage
Misha Green, left, Nicole Kassell and Yann Demange

During the 2014-15 TV season, only 23 percent of HBO's directors weren't white men, according to the Director's Guild of America's findings. Just three years later, that number has more than doubled: According to HBO, 57 percent of the premium cable network's directors for the 2017-18 season are women of color, men of color and white women.

The DGA's annual report on inclusion behind the camera comes out in September, but HBO has been internally tracking those numbers as part of a larger push to do better. One more indication of the changes the cabler has made in recent years: six of HBO's 11 pilots for 2018 were directed by women.

HBO programming president Casey Bloys said his network is committed to improving its numbers even more in future. HBO's internal tracking indicates its director statistics will be the same or better next year. In 2019, Bloys said more than half of HBO's writers will likely be women of color, men of color and white women (this year, 43 percent of HBO's writers were from those groups).

"It's not a difficult thing to do. You need someone to push from the top and have everyone involved in the process," Bloys tells The Hollywood Reporter.

When Bloys was promoted to the top programming job in May 2016, he and HBO CEO Richard Plepler decided a serious and sustained focus on inclusion would be a priority.

When he took on his new job, Bloys shared a goal with his staff: He wanted at least half of the network's directors to be men of color, women of color and white women. To that end, in December 2016, he assembled employees from multiple departments — limited series, movies, comedy and drama — in one room, and the staff went through a list of every program the network was working on. At these meetings, which now occur twice a year, people from any programming department are free to make suggestions about directors that might work for a particular show, and the "cross-pollination" has only grown, Bloys noted.

"It was about everyone being in the same room, in the same conversation, and being responsible and accountable for" the composition of their directing rosters, Bloys said. And there are solid business reasons for making these changes, he added.

"If my job is to appeal, with high-quality programming, to a lot of different demographics, I think a good way to ensure you're doing that and a good way to ensure you're getting things right, is to have different points of view," Bloys said. "It makes the stories real and authentic and, I would say, more emotional. It's worth the effort because I believe that the end product is always going to be better."

The network has created a promotional campaign titled "Because of Her" that highlights female talent behind the camera. The short promotional spots — each one is less than a minute — will debut Friday across the cabler's social media platforms, and will roll out on HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now in the coming weeks.

The first spot (watch, below) depicts Ballers director Chloe Domont at work on the Dwayne Johnson comedy, and subsequent installments will be devoted to Amy Aniobi, an Insecure writer; Bruna Papandrea, an executive producer of Big Little Lies; and Paula Huidobro, Barry's director of photography, among others. (Six HBO creatives have been filmed for the segments thus far.)

"It's one thing to read a story about stats from the DGA or increasing numbers, and that's great, but one thing I like about the spots is that it's a different thing to see a woman cinematographer or director or comedy writer," Bloys said. "If that's what you want to do, just seeing that other people are doing it — just visually, that can be so powerful."

That said, Bloys credits the media with bringing pressure to bear on the TV industry when it comes to matters of gender, race, parity and inclusion.  

"The industry-wide reporting definitely helped make it a priority for everybody here. I know FX is doing a really good job getting their numbers up. I feel like it's a topic of conversation at most places," Bloys said. "And our showrunners and creators live in the world and want to do the right thing. Most creators we talk to, especially ones setting up new shows, were very, very involved" in the initiatives.

Efforts to increase inclusion have coincided with HBO's efforts to make compensation more equitable for men and women in front of and behind the camera. And the success of Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects have made it clear that women — as producers, directors and stars — have become an important part of HBO's drama brand, which was far more male-centric for many years. However, Bloys said that HBO is not yet where it wants to be in certain areas; he's particularly keen to increase the number of Latinx characters and creators at the network.

"We've had more success with women and African-American creators," citing recent or ongoing projects with Issa Rae, Wyatt Cenac, Terence Nance, Sally Wainwright, Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham and Jordan Peele, among others. Stories about and by members of the Latinx community are "an area that I would like to find something in. We just haven't gotten there yet," Bloys said.

HBO's flagship series, Game of Thrones, has only ever employed one female director, Michelle MacLaren, who helmed multiple episodes, and there are only two women among the fantasy saga's credited writers.

"To be honest, when I started two years ago, they were just finishing their sixth season. It's a giant show. By that point, it was a well oiled machine. They knew what they were doing they had their people in place, so it really wasn't an area where I felt like it was going to make much change," Bloys said. "When someone is building [a show], it's easier to come in and say, 'What about thinking about it this way?'" Newer programs such as Insecure, Barry, Camping, Big Little Lies and Westworld — all of which have between 40 percent to 100 percent non-white and/or female directors — are more indicative of efforts to diversify the network's onscreen and behind-the-screen talent.

Last fall, Damon Lindelof assembled a writers' room for his HBO pilot Watchmen, and later hired Nicole Kassell to direct the pilot, which filmed recently in Atlanta. HBO confirmed that white men were in the minority on the writing staff Lindelof brought together at that time. Of the nine writers who worked on the show — which Lindelof has said is not a direct adaptation or sequel to the classic Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons graphic novel — there were four women (three non-white and one white), one writer was a man of color and the rest were white guys.

"Because of the things that Damon wants to discuss, he felt, and I agree, the African-American voices were very important," Bloys said. "I don't want to give away what the show is or who the characters are just yet, but he did have a lot of African-American voices in the room. If it is decided that it will go forward — and I'm crossing my fingers and fully expect it will — that will be an important component going forward."

Another high-profile HBO project is Lovecraft Country, a horror tale set in the '50s from executive producers Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams, Ben Stephenson and showrunner/executive producer Misha Green (Underground). That drama, which is directed by Yann Demange and filming its pilot in Chicago at the moment, is a "huge priority" for HBO, according to Bloys.

"In a conversation with Misha, she said something very interesting and I thought, 'This is why you try to have different points of view.' She said, 'No one has talked about the Jim Crow era without having a white savior. It's all about the white savior coming in and righting a wrong or recognizing, 'What we've done is terrible.' This piece has no white savior.' And I thought, 'Wow! You're right. I hadn't really thought about it like that.' It's giving African-American characters, from an African-American creator, their own agency. There's no one saving them. If anything, the white people are the literal monsters in this piece."

A number of individuals, studios and networks have made public commitments to greater inclusion in recent years, and there has been progress in some arenas. The DGA reported last fall that men and women of color were a quarter of the first-time directors hired in the 2016-17 season — up 10 percent from the season before. At TCA press tour earlier this month, FX CEO John Landgraf noted that 52 percent of the network's writers, 72 percent of its series regulars, and 49 percent of its directors are white women, men of color and women of color.

But inertia and a lack of proactive energy in other parts of the industry have meant that some statistics haven't budged much. "Any advances in employment share and relative earnings have stalled since the previous report" for non-white writers, according to a 2016 study by the Writers Guild of America. Year after year, about 70 percent of the creators and executive producers in the television industry are men, according to the annual "Boxed In" study by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

"Women made up 27 percent of behind-the-scenes individuals working on cable programs in 2016-17," an increase of five percentage points from the previous year, according to Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of SDSU's Center. Women were almost a third of the people working on streaming programs in 2016-17, and that also represented a slight uptick from the previous year.

But Lauzen's preliminary findings for the 2017-18 season don't indicate much additional growth for women overall. That study has not been released yet, but "it looks like the numbers for 2017-18 will be a steady state for broadcast and cable programs, and down for streaming programs," Lauzen noted. "It would be helpful for us to hear more discussion about the numbers for creators and executive producers/showrunners, since they exert so much influence in television. My research has consistently found that programs with women creators and executive producers tend to feature higher percentages of female characters in speaking roles, higher percentages of female characters in major roles and higher percentages of women working as writers, directors and editors."

As Bloys noted, efforts to make networks and TV shows look more like America are not about a singular goal or endpoint, but a process that affects and changes an entire company.

"It's not just about hitting a number and then saying, 'All right, we're done,'" Bloys noted. "It's obviously something that we have to continue to work at and stay on top of. We constantly think about, 'Who would we benefit from if they were in our ecosystem?'"

HBO directing statistics, according to the DGA:
2012-13 season

76 total episodes
White men: 56 (74%)
Non-white men: 6 (8%)
White women: 14 (18%)
Non-white women: zero

2013-14 season
95 total episodes
White men: 66 (70%)
Non-white men: 9 (9%)
White women: 20 (21%)
Non-white women: zero

2014-15 season
121 total episodes
White men: 93 (77%)
Non-white men: 10 (8%)
White women: 17 (14%)
Non-white women: 1 (1%)

2015-16 season
135 total episodes
White men: 97 (72%)
Non-white men: 17 (12.5%)
White women: 21 (15.5%)
Non-white women: zero 

2016-17 season
96 total episodes
White men: 58 (61%)
Non-white men: 4 (4%)
White women: 25 (26%)
Non-white women: 9 (9%)

2017-18 (projected, according to HBO research)
116 total episodes
White men: 50 (43%)
Non-white men: 16 (14%)
White women: 40 (34%)
Non-white women: 10 (9%)