Inside CAA's Multicultural Summit Amplify: "Our Way to Speed Date a New Network of Allies"

Ava DuVernay, Maha Dakhil, JJ Abrams at CAA Amplify - Publicity - H 2017
Carlos Alvarado

The packed participant roster included Ava DuVernay, J.J. Abrams, Kevin Tsujihara, Doc Rivers and Valerie Jarrett.

Proving its considerable clout and reach, CAA drew 150 industry leaders and influentials out of Hollywood and down to Orange County for its inaugural Amplify conference, a three-day, two-night leadership summit focused on multicultural issues in entertainment and beyond.

“This time together is our way to speed date the creation of a new network of allies,” CAA president Richard Lovett said Wednesday in his opening remarks at The Montage Laguna Beach, noting that Amplify is the first non-CAA-only conference the agency has ever hosted. At the kickoff dinner the night before, CAA curated the seating plan to optimize conversations, surveying guests in advance on whom they most hoped to meet. Lunch breakout sessions on Wednesday were similarly organized, and CAA even created an event app with headshots and bios of each attendee (but “no Tinder function yet,” joked Christy Haubegger, who leads CAA’s multicultural development group and spearheaded Amplify alongside chief innovation officer Michelle Kydd Lee).

The four-hour-plus morning session, the only portion of the conference to which press was invited, saw a dizzying 31 people take the stage in a star-studded, fast-paced lineup that kept the likes of Ron Meyer (the CAA co-founder whom Lovett credited for fostering the agency’s ethos of collaboration), Donna Langley and Russell Simmons engaged. Here are some highlights:

Ava DuVernay and J.J. Abrams, moderated by motion picture lit agent Maha Dakhil and introduced by Lupita Nyong’o

DuVernay spoke of the barriers that women and people of color typically face in the industry, namely the lack of shared experiences with those already in power. “I didn't go to school with them, attend the same religious institutions, they don't know my father,” she said, offering “Where was your bar mitzvah?” as a common industry icebreaker. “As a black woman filmmaker, who are you gonna call who might have been in this space before?"

DuVernay noted that her history-making assignment directing Disney’s $120 million A Wrinkle in Time came about because of her prior relationships with production president Sean Bailey (a member of the Sundance board) and executive vp Tendo Nagenda (“one of five black people in Hollywood”).

“It was the first studio meeting where I was comfortable, because I knew them. I was able to walk in there like a white man,” DuVernay said. “All the other baggage — ‘This is who I am; accept me, like me’ — wasn’t there. That allowed me to have a real robust conversation about creativity and ideas without having to go through that.”

For his part, Abrams said that he feels more like a student than a teacher when it comes to the inclusiveness conversation. “What we're doing at Bad Robot is an imperfect science, and we’re constantly learning how we can do better,” he said, noting that the production banner has asked its studio partners not to submit hiring lists “that aren’t representative of the country.”

When casting the upcoming period horror film Overlord, Abrams questioned why only white actors were being considered for the lead roles. “Well, it was World War II, there wouldn’t be black soldiers,” he was told. Abrams’ reply: “There wouldn’t be zombies, either.” (FencesJovan Adepo will star as a U.S. paratrooper alongside Wyatt Russell in the movie.)

Dakhil noted that inclusivity “doesn't always happen organically,” prompting DuVernay to discuss the importance of building a pipeline to supply hiring lists. The helmer noted that after winning Sundance’s directing award for her 2012 debut Middle of Nowhere, she received just two calls: from ESPN, offering a Nine for IX gig (its Title IX-focused 30 for 30 spinoff), and Prada, for a fashion short. It wasn’t until Shonda Rhimes called a year later with an episode of Scandal that the doors to more TV work opened — an experience that inspired DuVernay’s all-female directors mandate on OWN’s Queen Sugar, which has spawned a pipeline of its own.

Alongside these markers of progress, DuVernay reminded the audience that there is more work to be done: “When I think about people of color, my default is black because that's my lens. But I just met the man who produces Fresh Off the Boat [Melvin Mar], and I see these statistics that are so challenging for Latino people and Asian Pacific Islanders, and let's not even talk about Native Americans and Middle Easterners who are not seeing themselves.”

Heather McGhee, president of public policy think tank Demos, introduced by Yara Shahidi

The young Black-ish star, activist and incoming Harvard freshman, who assiduously took notes throughout the conference, introduced McGhee, who shared take-aways from her 2016 viral appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, in which a self-described “prejudiced white man” named Gary called in to ask how he could change his attitude.

“Negative stereotypes of people of color have real consequences. They distort our politics and kill us,” said McGhee, explaining that Gary, who resides in North Carolina, told her that television is his only window to the world. “You know who else watches too much TV? Donald Trump and his followers. You have real power in this room.”

Racial resentment also hurts white people, McGhee continued. “'Make America Great Again' is based on a truth and a lie. It harkens back to a time when a white man could raise a family on a high school degree. It’s true that has gone away as the country gets more diverse, but that’s not the cause,” she said, pointing to policy and corporate decisions to gut public finances and infrastructure as the true culprit. “Decisions for political movement were made where the pursuit was greed but the weapon was race.”

McGhee is currently writing a book about the cost of racism to white people. “The system was set up to penalize people of color,” she said, “but like swimming pools across the South, rather than letting black people swim, they drained the pool for everyone.”

“Gary and I taught each other,” concluded McGhee, and her tale of their unlikely friendship became one of the most frequently referenced moments of the conference, as Kevin Tsujihara and Kerry Washington separately joked in later sessions of their desire to option the story for a future project.

Kevin Tsujihara and former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, moderated by speakers agent Darnell Strom and introduced by Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Tsujihara opened up about his parents’ and grandparents’ experience in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, a story he first shared in a THR guest column in November. “I try not to use the platform of the company for political views, but the election was so disturbing to me that I felt like I had a duty,” he said to praise from Jarrett and applause from the audience.

As the first and as-yet only Asian-American studio head, the Warner Bros. chairman and CEO admitted to an impulse to resist being singled out. “Sometimes you want to make sure people don’t think you’re going to favor, in my case, Japanese or Asians, so you’re actually almost harder on them because you don’t want to look like you’re trying to stock the pond,” said the exec, adding that he was once approached with a film about baseball leagues in the internment camps. “My natural inclination was, ‘I don’t want to do this — it’s gonna look like a pet project.’ But then I thought, This is a platform and I shouldn’t be ashamed.” (The project may have been 2007’s American Pastime, which was distributed by Warner Home Entertainment when Tsujihara was president of that division.)

“There aren’t enough of things like that,” he continued. “There are a lot of historical stories both in the U.S. and globally that need to be told. In addition to doing big superhero movies, we have a responsibility to tell those stories as well.”

Jarrett characterized the experience of being senior advisor to the first African-American president as a responsibility, not a burden. “You don’t want to mess up, because it reflects not just on your reputation but anyone else that comes behind you. We have to make sure our background is squeaky clean,” she said. “But when you’re first, you make it easier for other people to see their possibilities through you.”

As an Iranian-born light-skinned black woman who briefly lived in London before moving to Chicago as a child, Jarrett is no stranger to feeling different herself, and she says that even as a powerful adult there is strength and safety in numbers. “If you’re the only black person or woman on a board, you’re gonna get put on corporate responsibility [even if you have other interests],” said Jarrett, who has served as a director on boards including the Chicago Stock Exchange, the University of Chicago Medical Center and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “A team with diversity frees you up to be more of who you are.”

Glenn "Doc" Rivers, introduced by Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas

“We need to talk about race more,” said the Los Angeles Clippers coach, whose speech was one of the morning’s most enthusiastically received. “The more we talk about it, the more it becomes comfortable.”

Rivers relayed the 2014 ordeal surrounding leaked racist recordings of then-owner Donald Sterling to deliver a message about leadership under crisis. After the tapes were made public, Rivers spent an hour struggling with whether or not to wear Clippers gear to the team meeting. He ultimately decided to “because at the end of the day, I was coach,” and walked into a room of angry and disengaged players, only one of whom had decided to wear the team uniform.

“When times go bad, you fall on your connection. That’s why team-building [ahead of time] is so important,” said Rivers. In that locker-room speech, he decided to reintroduce himself to the players, telling them of the 1997 incident when his house was burned down to the ground (and his dog died) in an arson that was possibly racially motivated. “If you think you’re more pissed than me [about the Sterling tapes], you’re nuts,” he told the team. “But it’s not our anger that will get us through this. It’s what we’ll do.”

After an hour of discussion, Rivers convinced the team to let him be the sole spokesperson (in order to avoid media distractions) and to keep playing (the team was in the playoffs at the time). “When you’re in a leadership role, do your work early,” Rivers told the Amplify audience. “Don’t wait until the time of crisis to try to be the leader.”

The coach also reminded the Hollywood audience that color doesn’t matter when you’re succeeding. “I’ve never been in a meeting where we worry, ‘If we play all black guys …’” he laughed. “There was a time when the New York Knickerbockers were the first all-black team, and people didn’t like that. But when the team started winning, they didn’t care anymore. It’s the same in all industries.”

Will Packer, introduced by RuPaul

“Doc, that was amazing. I don't know who I pissed off to have to come after you,” said the Ride Along producer and executive producer of Straight Outta Compton and Roots, but his worry was unfounded. Packer delivered a snappy parable from his Florida A&M days as a student producer with outsized ambitions that had the Amplify audience in stitches.

For the world premiere of his debut feature, the $20,000 coming-of-age drama Chocolate City (1994), he threw a black-tie event in Tallahassee, Fla., and sent invitations to “every who was anybody at the Hollywood studios.”

“I needed to be prepared in case a fleet of jets arrived, and I saved seats for these people in the front row,” Packer said. “I’m having a fight because the mom of one of the actors couldn’t get in, and I’d saved a seat for Oprah [Winfrey]’s plus-one — obviously Stedman [Graham] or Gayle [King].”

Unfortunately, none of the VIPs showed up that night, but the rest of the theater was standing-room only. “They were so hyped to see this film made by their peers,” he said. “I realized then and there that I’m not making movies for the front row. I’m making my movies for everybody else.”

As the Montage ballroom erupted into applause, Packer concluded, “As successful as we tastemakers and thought leaders are, the energy we’re spending is to impress each other. But if we expand our scope a little bit, there are the masses. The back is standing-room only, and they need us.”

ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, in conversation with Kerry Washington

The Scandal star has a long-standing relationship with the civil rights nonprofit, encouraging her fans to donate to the organization on her birthday and in 2015 receiving ACLU SoCal’s Bill of Rights Award.

Washington compared the ACLU’s landmark legal fights — the Scopes trial, Korematsu v. United States, Loving v. Virginia — to casting; in other words, finding the ideal plaintiffs to serve as the faces of significant issues. “We try to figure out how to move the needle forward,” Romero agreed. “We use law and policy to change hearts and minds, but winning good lawsuits with smart legal analysis won’t get you there. I have cases and clients you can weave into your stories.”

“Be careful, people are gonna try to make deals with you during lunch,” Washington joked.

Romero encouraged the Hollywood crowd to remain engaged in current events. “Narrative and characters can be infused with some of these issues,” he said. “You all in the industry need to show the dialogue. You change opinions and can help raise the level of discourse.”

Washington said that her production company, Simpson Street, is working with Weiner filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg on a documentary about the ACLU, and she urged the Amplify audience to get involved as well. “Remember, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. There are people on the ground already,” she said. “We in our bubble should go to the people who are doing it and serve. The stories are out there. Get in line and work with the people doing the work.”

Amplify also featured presentations from Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, National Black Women’s Justice Institute founder Monique Morris, civil rights attorney Maya Harris (sister of Calif. Sen. Kamala Harris), Republican strategist and CNN pundit Ana Navarro, Endemol Shine chair and CEO Cris Abrego, General Mills vp Carla Vernon, data analytics expert Kelly Jin and Go90 chief content officer Ivana Kirkbride, alongside appearances from Nick Cannon, CAA Foundation co-executive director Natalie Tran and Alphabet senior vp David Drummond. The lineup closed to the press included a conversation between Shonda Rhimes and former national security adviser Susan Rice (moderated by Kydd Lee and introduced by Leslie Odom Jr.), a performance by Stevie Wonder and addresses from former Apple exec and new Uber chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John, University of South Carolina head basketball coach Frank Martin and domestic care activist Ai-jen Poo.