Black Talent, White Agents: "There Are Still Issues That Aren't Being Addressed"

Diverse Representation - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Diverse Representation

Attorney and Diverse Representation founder Jaia Thomas presented a two-part panel discussion for writers of color at Culver City's Blackbird House, addressing issues commonly faced when entering the business.

There is much to learn when pursuing a career in Hollywood, whether behind the camera or in front. And for aspiring black creatives and executives, access to the industry can be particularly difficult. Jaia Thomas is here to address the special issues that black people face in entering the business.

The entertainment and sports attorney and founder of Diverse Representation (which Iaunched in 2018 as a comprehensive hub for African American professionals in the entertainment industry) joined forces with Team Awesome, a data-driven collective of black WGA writers, last Saturday at Blackbird House in Culver City for an open, unfiltered discussion on the realities of a career in the spotlight.

Unlike other industry panels about representation, diversity and inclusion, Saturday's event was unique because it focused on black professionals who represent black talent.

"There has been increased dialogue on diversity [in] the entertainment industry, but there are still several issues that still aren't being addressed. No one has properly addressed the fact that most teams that represent talent are still predominantly white," Thomas tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that 43 percent of black writers do not even currently have representation, according to the Writers Guild Committee of Black Writers. "When [that] was brought to my attention, I thought it was a great opportunity to partner with [the WGA's Team Awesome] to begin introducing [black writers] to African American reps and building relationships."

The daytime event featured face-to-face engagement with managers, writers and money professionals who shared real-life experiences, insider information and other tips on being successful in an ever-changing industry.

"I've attended my fair share of diversity events and panels and have found most of them to be more fluff than substance. We're bringing awareness to African American professionals in this industry who have gone completely unnoticed," Thomas tells THR. "Diversity in Hollywood goes beyond just having a black or brown face on screen. Who are the faces behind the screen and in the boardrooms negotiating the deals and making the key decisions?"

In the first of two panels, Malcolm Spellman, showrunner and creator of Disney+'s upcoming Marvel series The Falcon and Winter Soldier, moderated a conversation with talent managers DC Wade (Imagine Entertainment), Jermaine Johnson (3 Arts) and DaVida Chanel Smith (Etcetera and Co.), who offered career advice, including on how to protect your work, how to seek representation — and how to fire representation. "If your manager isn't excited about you," Wade explained, don't be afraid to cut the cord.

On a lighter note, Spellman brought the crowd to its knees as he reflected on his memories from 20 years ago as a new writer who had to rely on public transportation. "I'm tired of seeing new writers in a brand-new car. Way too many writers have cars!"

While Wade encouraged the attendees to be proactive and prolific with ideas and content and to avoid inflexibility and lack of initiative, Smith said that she delights in scribes who are tenacious and willing to rework ideas from a healthy sense of constructive criticism. She added that talent who acknowledge the level of connectivity in the talent-manager relationship is vital: "Some of my clients forget that we are a team. If I'm carrying your banner all day long, I want you to respect and carry my banner because we're in this together. If you don't work, I don't eat."

"You're responsible for your own career," said Spellman.

Before the next panel, Thomas surveyed the attendees, asking who had at least three months' worth of savings prepared in the event they lost their job. Over 60 percent of the room did not.

That's why the audience was at full attention for the second panel, moderated by Ben Watkins (showrunner and creator of Amazon's Hand of God) and composed of business managers Belva Anakwenze (Abacus Financial), Silas A. Myers (Mar Vista Investment Partners co-founder and CEO) and Jeffrey Rush (Merrill Lynch's first vp wealth management). Black creatives often face additional financial complications and discrimination due to the fact that, for example, many are responsible for others' expenses, such as those for elderly parents or involving other family financial matters.

Myers said that he faced criticisms as a black man in the finance industry, but "as long as I [was] performing well, my color didn't matter. The only color that mattered was green."

Green was the theme of the session as the panelists discussed often-overlooked but deeply practical matters like what to do when you get your first big check, how to say no to friends and family who approach for investment opportunities and how to divide your money across different platforms.

Anakwenze urged everyone to have at least six months of cash on hand for unexpected emergencies. "The entertainment industry is very fickle and nuanced, so it is important to understand that the next job is not always guaranteed, and as you are growing your career your money comes in sporadic spurts, so it is important during those times to save. It is also important that you are talking to a tax professional and advisers who understand your [specific] industry, so they can help coach you on how to save."

After the panel, Anakwenze told THR that she has "real, everyday conversations" and "a very personal relationship" with her clients, 95 percent of whom are black, people of color, women and LGBTQ. She blasted studios that choose not to hire creatives of color and use the popular excuse of there being a lack thereof: "If you want to hire black representatives, you have to go find them."

Diverse Representation is set to host another panel discussion during the week of the Oscars.