Inclusive entertainment industry remains a challenge


Although January's Oscar nominations had the industry abuzz about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' choices seemed to reflect a new multicultural, multiethnic sensibility, Jesse Jackson definitively held the warm and fuzzy feelings at bay last week when he said that Hollywood is far from being inclusive of all races.

That oft-heard refrain is never far from the minds of the members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yes, several nonwhite entertainment industry figures, including Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, walked away from this year's Oscars with little gold statuettes. Democrats are certainly rejoicing about the meteoric rise to fame of black Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose bid to secure the party's nomination for president has propelled him to the center of the national stage. Director Reginald Hudlin, who was named BET's president of entertainment in 2005, is that rare person of color in a decision-making role at a cable network, albeit one geared toward the black audience. And ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" creator/executive producer Shonda Rhimes should be commended for making casting choices that absolutely have created new opportunities for actors of color (and, not so incidentally, made for irresistible primetime fodder).

There's no doubt that Hollywood is no longer just a sea of white faces. But Jackson as well as NAACP president and CEO Bruce Gordon and NAACP Hollywood Bureau executive director Vicangelo Bulluck are more concerned with seeing diversity become common hiring practice.

"Studios need to look for young talent coming up through the ranks, especially in the creative arena, and make them executives,"

Bulluck says, adding that he and Gordon are set to meet with studio executives, showrunners and guilds in the coming months to discuss ways for them to be more inclusive. "It happens all the time in the studios (to nonminorities), and they need to make those opportunities more accessible to minorities."

No individuals are better suited to comment on how Hollywood can foster more diversity than those who already have found success. For that reason, The Hollywood Reporter recently asked several industry executives and a handful of entertainment's black heavy-hitters who already have mastered the game to share their thoughts about exactly what it takes to create these opportunities and how Hollywood is working to further the cause.

Mara Brock Akil
Creator, writer, showrunner, "Girlfriends" (the CW)
"In all others areas of entertainment (such as music, sports and fashion) black culture is a billion-dollar business, creating international stars by the day. It's done by partnering with the best -- label deals such as Jay-Z with Universal Music Group and clothing deals such as Michael Jordan with Nike -- allowing the product to be authentic and then marketed to everybody. It's time for TV to get hip, not just for the purposes of being politically correct but for the purposes of good business."

Ali LeRoi
Executive producer, co-creator, writer, "Everybody Hates Chris" (the CW)
"It's tricky being a black writer -- or any writer of color. You want to write for black shows because you want the voices to be authentic. At the same time, you want the opportunity to just function as a writer. I have a staff with eight or nine writers on our team, and we're 50-50. Of the writers on this staff, some will be more ambitious than others. I'd like to think that when they show ambition and excellence in writing, they'll be put on the next good show, not the next black show. Hollywood deals in stereotypes in every way imaginable. If it's a chick show, they want chicks; an action show, they want an action guy. Anyone who operates outside that has to let it be known that they have a different skill set -- and turn down the work they don't want to do. You have to show and prove. But then the onus is on the people in power to give that person a job and let him do what he's good at. Judge me on the work. If I happen to be a black guy and just happen to know about sci-fi, let me write on (Sci Fi Channel's) 'Battlestar Galactica.' There are signs of life. I'm particularly encouraged by (HBO's) 'The Wire,' (ABC's) 'Grey's Anatomy' (and) 'Lost,' (CBS') 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' and 'Criminal Minds.' Those are shows that are multiethnic and much more representative of the world we live in."

Paula Madison
Executive vp, diversity, NBC Universal
"In 2001, NBC initiated a program where, for every program we have on the air, we pay for an additional writer. The showrunner is able to hire a writer who is a person of color, and NBC pays for that person's salary -- but we don't select that person. It needs to be someone who is a new writer. That program has been pretty effective; some of these people have gone on to be supervising producers and other roles. The issue really is that there needs to be great numbers of people coming into the pipeline. The usual process is that people enter into a profession and, for a variety of reasons, some people make it, and some don't. If there aren't many people of color in the pipeline, any loss can be a big loss. Greater numbers speak to cooperative joint ventures between the guilds and the industry. The guilds can help identify people, and the industry can help them grow further and provide them with jobs. We also have to work with the schools, colleges and universities that provide many of the people in the industry. It starts at that level, where we have to be supportive with internships. Then, after school, it becomes a pipeline issue. My last suggestion is that the showrunners out there have to familiarize themselves with talent and be willing to bring people in that they haven't worked with before but who will have the endorsement of network training programs, colleges and universities. We have had some very successful discussions with showrunners of NBC programs currently airing, and they made an excellent suggestion -- that we should consider a writers' assistant program. Then (these new people) will have a place in the writers' room but don't have the pressure from the outset to produce the story arc and the scripts. They'd be contributing to the discussion in a more collaborative, less stressful environment, and it gives showrunners and writers a chance to get to know them for a year."

Robert Mendez
Senior vp, diversity, Disney/ABC Television Group
"We know the pool of writing, directing and producing talent has become much deeper, and it's an important goal for us to increase those numbers. We're giving a lot of thought on how to create new points of entry for those new voices to be heard and developed. We feel that in order for new voices to be heard, we have to think outside the traditional model for the development of TV projects. We have talent development programs in conjunction with the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild. We fund 10 writing and three directing fellowships for a 12-month period. The fellowships are very competitive; we get thousands of applicants. These programs have proven to be extremely helpful in identifying terrific talent. Once we get them here, we help them with the skills they need and then place them on the shows. Individuals make it on their merits, skills and abilities. ('Grey's Anatomy' creator/executive producer) Shonda Rhimes is a great example of someone who succeeded tremendously, as well as Seith Mann, who directed two episodes of 'Grey's Anatomy' last year. We value our relationship with the NAACP tremendously and see them as a partner in this. We know that diversity is good business and a growth opportunity for the company. We have to figure out ways to make diversity organic to the way we do business. It can't be 'the other' or ancillary. The payoff will be huge."

Millicent Shelton
Director; co-chair, African-American Steering Committee, Directors Guild of America
"One of the hardest things in getting a job as a director is that there are so many yeses you have to acquire -- the studio, the network, the show. If any entity says no, you don't get the job. To get an episode of (NBC's) 'My Name Is Earl,' a top show, I first met with Fox Studios and NBC, and they liked me. They encouraged the showrunners to meet with me, and I got a meeting. And they were willing to take a chance on me. The way directors get hired has to do with friendships. They hire people they know and are comfortable with their ability, on a tight schedule, to get the job done. But you don't have a plethora of experienced African-American directors. I had to sit on (director) Paris Barclay for three years to get my first job, and most people can't afford to do that. As far as directors of color are concerned, they have to really know your craft and be willing to do the hard work. But from the industry's perspective, they have to be willing to take a chance. I don't know if that means financial incentives. There has got to be some sort of incentive to get people to want to take that chance. There are a lot of talented directors of color who simply need an opportunity to get a break. That's where we're running into a brick wall. There are so many directors vying for so few jobs. On a practical level, it doesn't make sense to go with someone you don't know. On a moral and on a creative level, it does."

Charles Slocum
Assistant executive director, Writers Guild of America West
"For about 25 years, we've had a staff department pursuing a variety of diversity programs. In addition, we now have seven or eight committees that steer and conduct activities with the goal of promoting underemployed groups or promoting them for greater representation in the workplace. I tend to think of this issue in two parts. We've seen in a lot of films and TV programs -- though not enough -- that writers of color can contribute their own stories from their own communities into America's social dialogue. But it's also true that writers find universal themes in their own life experiences, and that they can bring these themes to stories set in communities other than their own. That's the first part: Writers should be more able to transcend the stories that are set in their own communities and be able to tell stories that come from other directions. Second, writers of color are ready to move up the ladder, both on TV staffs and in the ranks of our film writers. Writers (of color) tend to get prepared on shows that come from their communities of origin and that focus on that genre. Those writers are now very experienced and available. They're ready to write the industry's major stories, to be showrunners in TV series and to receive our top writing assignments in feature films. The industry could look out for the writers of color who are ready to make that jump and give them a chance. How do you do that? Ask for scripts from diverse writers. It's so easy to use the people you already know. It's just spending a little more time and reading a few more scripts and a few more lunches when you've found the half-dozen scripts you've liked. But there's a rich reward of stories that can resonate with a more diverse audience."

George Sunda
Chair, Diversity Committee, Producers Guild of America
"The guilds all know that there is a problem in the lack of diversity, even on the screen, and we've taken a positive approach to attracting more faces of color. Networks all have great programs for directors and writers for people of color. The PGA is getting ready for its fourth Celebration of Diversity, a way of acknowledging people in the industry for contributing and making diversity work in TV, film, news, music and dance. What can we do better? We have to make sure that the studio heads and network heads are all on the same page with regard to diversity. They have to look at diversity the same way we do: as a plus factor. We need to create the scripts that call for diversity and the showrunners that are sensitive to it. And then we'll see a lot of growth. It's important (to encourage) the writing end, especially because you can count on the fact that they'll become show-runners and executive producers. That's one of the nicest, quickest steps of finding out what color can do and be. Writing -- and producing -- is one of the quickest ways of distinguishing yourself."

Mitsy Wilson
Senior vp diversity, Fox Entertainment Group
"You're trying to change individuals' behavior and attitudes, and that takes time. What we've opted to do is integrate diversity into the core aspects of our shows, working hand-in-hand with the showrunners. We've been able to understand what they're looking for and how to provide it. The showrunners are quite open, and they're using us. At any given time, they'll meet with four new writers, so we're giving them choices, and they'll find individuals on their own. Not only do we talk to showrunners, introducing minority writers to them, but our network has taken a stance that all our shows should have diversity on the writing staff. Last year, 80% of our shows had writers on staff representing diversity. With showrunners, there's an understanding that if we're going to have content that is reflective of society, we don't just need writers' assistants and staff writers, but to make sure they are an integral part of the rest of the team. We are identifying writers who can be promoted into story editors, producers and executive producers. That's the next phase that needs to be tackled. The guilds are supporting us on this, especially with showrunners. They keep our feet to the fire by providing us with data on what we are and aren't doing, and asking us what they can help us with. They identify writers and directors, and we work with them to identify which shows would be the best fit. Once those writers are given an opportunity to be in the writers' room, we work with them to make sure it's not a one-shot deal. You want them to have more opportunities so they can work into being a staff writer. We have some who have started as writers' assistants and moved on to becoming staff writers. Last year, we introduced four new directors that we hadn't used before. That's how to increase the numbers: not to shuffle the deck but to introduce new directors."

Color blind: Industry insiders on making Hollywood truly inclusive
Dialogue: NAACP's Bruce Gordon
2007 Image Award nominees
Solid gold: Image Awards host LL Cool J
2007 Image Award honorees:
Chairman's Award:Bono
President's Award: Soledad O'Brien
Hall of Fame Award: Bill Cosby