Hasan Minhaj, Ruth E. Carter on How They're Increasing Opportunity in Hollywood

Ruth E. Carter-attends the Reel Works Benefit Gala 2019-Getty-H 2019
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

The pair were honored alongside Will Packer Productions president James F. Lopez at the annual gala for New York youth filmmaking organization Reel Works.

Hasan Minhaj, Oscar-winning Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter and execs from Will Packer Productions and Grey Group were among those honored for their work increasing opportunity in the entertainment industry during this year's gala for New York youth filmmaking organization Reel Works on Tuesday night.

Reel Works free filmmaking programs offer New York inner-city youth training through workshops, internships and one-on-one mentorship with New York media and film professionals.

And Reel Works co-founder Stephanie Walter Williams said the organization was excited to recognize those who were helping to create a more inclusive landscape in media and film. 

"We see stories coming out now and being produced and directed and written by people from all walks of life," said Walter Williams. "It's not the same old tired family in the suburbs, the same old romantic comedy with the two Caucasian lovers who are very young. We're seeing everything. That's what we're excited about — looking at and celebrating these change-makers."

"The fact that I can be honored by an organization that has been opening the door to the next generation means a lot to me," Minhaj told The Hollywood Reporter at the event. "The pipeline that they're creating between being a student and actually having a career in show business is something I wish I had when I first started doing open mics when I was 18."

Accessibility, awareness and opportunity were recurring topics throughout the evening for the honorees, who spoke about about the importance of opening doors and how they do it for others. For Hasan Minhaj he has tried to ensure that Patriot Act has "an incredibly diverse staff, not only of race, gender and sexuality but also in viewpoints," he told THR.

Will Packer Productions president James F. Lopez, whose studio is behind Little and Girls Trip, emphasized accessibility as his method of change. In addition to offering the Will Packer Productions internship program, he says he also makes himself available by phone, email and over DM to answer questions from those serious about breaking in to the industry.

As for why and how Carter, who recently made history as the first black woman to win an Oscar for costume design, creates change, she said, "This crazy circle starts happening where you fight your whole career to be included and then when you make it, they want to include you but nobody else. So it's very important that I have diversity on my crew, that I remember where I came from, and I give people a chance. Because someone gave me a chance." 

Carter, Minhaj and Lopez all acknowledged not only their own efforts, but also their lack of access as young people seeking a career in the entertainment industry.

"Given my background and my path, I didn't have an organization like Reel Works early on in my life to show me that there was a career possible in television and film. That didn't come until later in life," Lopez told The Hollywood Reporter. "And coming from where I came from, there were not many examples. So, the fact that this organization exists is very important." 

Mentorship played a strong role in the careers of both Carter and Lopez, who say much of their formal training came later on in life. While blazing their own trails worked out for both, the costume designer and studio president said having an organization like Reel Works to not just train or mentor, but find employment would have been invaluable. Job opportunities are ultimately one of the biggest benefits of participating in Reel Works, as more than 50 percent of program participants are employed within the entertainment industry, according to John Williams, Reel Works co-founder and executive director. 

"Even before we knew that's what we were doing, Reel Works has been training and developing a diverse, more inclusive, workforce for the film industry in New York since our founding in 2001," said Williams.

"We're very much about New York City kids getting the jobs that the tax incentives bring to New York City," Walter Williams followed up. "We don't just say when a kid goes to college, 'Good luck.' Our kids come back to us for internships, and we place them in strategically great places where they can learn the industry they are entering in."

As a continuation of their focus on employment, during the gala, Alexis Tucker, Reel Works board member and counsel for original series at Netflix, announced a new partnership with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 52 that will generate yet another pathway for New York young people to enter into film and television production. 

Supported by the New York Office of Media and Entertainment and Netflix, the one-month paid training pilot program will be offered twice in its first year to 18 students and bring together educators, employers, laborers and local government workers to prepare participants with "essential knowledge, skills, tools, credentials and experience," Tucker said.

In addition to honoring industry members, a set visit to Patriot Act and a dress designed by Ruth Carter were also auctioned off for $6,000 and $7,500, respectively. The event also prominently showcased the work of five student participants and their films, which focused on everything from coming out to U.S. immigration history and the emotional impacts of Hurricane Maria.

Faith Mora, a 17-year-old student at Brooklyn Preparatory School, was the winner of the F. John Outcalt award for outstanding filmmaking for her production My Coming Out Story. Speaking to attendees, Mora said the intent of her film, which followed her coming out to her sister and surrounding community, was about illustrating that "not all coming out stories end in tragedy."

"This is going to help me in the future because I do want to have a career as a director or a screenwriter," Mora told THR. "I feel like they really opened up a door for me."