How the Film Festival Media Diversity Push Could Actually Work

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Toronto and Sundance film festivals plan to add 20 percent more media credentials (and possibly pay for travel) to lure underrepresented journalists to major film events.

The ongoing push for better inclusion in entertainment is now focusing on those who review content and cover the industry, and it's film festivals leading the charge.

In a viral speech at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards June 13, Brie Larson focused on the need for diversity in film criticism and announced that both Sundance and Toronto had committed to issuing an additional 20 percent of press credentials to underrepresented writers at their next respective festivals.

Both pledges had been in the works for over a year and came together separately – Larson's team, having gotten wind that TIFF had been having conversations in Los Angeles about diversifying the press, reached out with an offer to help publicize any sort of initiative the festival was working on. Meanwhile, Stacy L. Smith, director of USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which issued the June 11 critics' diversity study that served as the foundation of Larson's speech, was visiting the Sundance Institute's L.A. office on unrelated business the day before the awards ceremony and made the connection just in time.

"As great as it is to talk about your own festival, it's even more impactful when it's a collective coming together to move the dial," TIFF corporate affairs and public relations vp Andrea Grau says. "In joining forces, it's not just a story about Toronto, it becomes a story about the industry."

Eighty-two percent of the reviews in Annenberg's study were penned by white critics, and the festivals say the anecdotal breakdown of their own press corps is roughly similar. "The majority of the films getting wide-scale theatrical distribution are predominantly from white men," says Sundance inclusion and outreach director Karim Ahmad. "When the array of critics covering those films are also white men, you perpetuate that vicious cycle. You create a system where diverse filmmakers don't have access to audience and distribution."

Both festivals say their new allocations will be based on asking journalists to self-identify information about their orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, and whether or not they have a disability. The 20 percent will be additive – TIFF estimates adding about 200 more writers to September's event, while Sundance, whose pledge specifically pertains to its express badge, will be providing at least 20 underrepresented writers the highest level of access to the festival in January.

Implementing its commitment will not be a mere "rubber-stamp" process, says Sundance media relations assistant director Spencer Alcorn, who adds that his team will serve as concierges to newbie press, shepherding them through everything from navigating the accreditation process to filing from the mountains. "We don't think just providing access is a complete solution," he says.

Because press are responsible for their own travel and accommodations, both festivals are looking into programs to financially subsidize writers whose costs aren't being covered by an outlet and can't pay their own way. Already in place: TIFF's Share Her Journey fundraising campaign for female filmmakers will expand its allocation of funds to female critics.

But the onus also is on editors and outlets to diversify its rosters. Whereas in the past, Sundance tended to accredit freelancers who had already secured assignments, Alcorn says issuing a festival credential first may help such writers find a platform for their work. "I'm excited to dig in freelancers and talk about how what we offer can get them assigned," he says. "I'm interested in talking through with, say, a critic of color or with a disability where their work could potentially appear in a more mainstream, trade-focused publication."

"What's important is that it's not just festivals that come to the table," says Grau. "Editors also need to ensure that they are sending underrepresented journalists, and if they don't have any, they should be hiring them."

This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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