Since the demise of the studio system in the 1950s and 1960s, and an entire industry going freelance, diversity in gender, race and ethnicity has crept into the film and TV workplace. Nonetheless, at the dawn of the new millennium, much progress was still to be made on all fronts. Therefore, new initiatives have begun within the various guilds and unions which govern production.
Deborah Calla of the Producers Guild of America and Kimberly Myers of the Writers Guild of America have each led separate movements to bring diversity into the workplace.
For one, in order to join the ranks of world-class producers and content creators, Calla stresses the importance of beating the pavement and relationship building. “I can tell you as a woman Latina [breaking] into the entertainment business,” she noted, “you keep at it, you meet people, you are interesting, you have something to say, you invest a lot of time in making relationships. If you become a person that others do know, you get into the club.”
Credibility then, comes with establishing a good foothold with seasoned veterans, and proving one’s worth. “It takes a lot of investment,” said Calla. “In the case of producers, it takes having good taste and persistence… and coming up with good projects that others want to be part of.” Thus, the development of one’s personal success in the industry relies heavily upon their ability to bring passionate, creative, and influential people together.
Calla’s own dedication to persistence and leveraging the power of team-building speaks for itself. Originally from Brazil, Calla eventually climbed the industry ladder to become chair of the Diversity Committee at the PGA, working the helm of a 6,000-member strong organization. “We have different committees and we are all volunteers,” stated Calla. Her involvement with PGA then, is a perfect testament to how an all-for-one mentality can reinvigorate and sustain the industry.
In addition, Calla added that she’s been part and parcel to the PGA for 10 years, with another two as a member of The Writers Guild. “I came from producing and started writing independent feature films which did not qualify me until I worked for a signatory company which then got me into the WGA,” she explained.
Sharing her expertise, Calla runs a producer’s workshop that emphasizes creativity and vision, open to driven, hard-working people from all over the world. “There are many opportunities for people that are beginning to participate,” she detailed. “The workshop that I run is open to everyone in this country as long as they commit to come and spend two months in L.A. and produce a page at the workshop. This year [they] had a writer-producer from Grimm and Parenthood and a couple of participants who have never done anything.”
Notably, the range of experience and ability levels allowed at the PGA Diversity Workshop proves Calla’s point that vision and persistence are the key elements of success. “They were aggressive,” said Calla, referring to this year’s producers. This program may be open to anyone with a vision, but admittance is still competitive.
When considering submissions, the PGA Diversity Workshop stresses the quality of both the project and the producer – commitment and diversity are prized. “We have open submission,” Calla shared, “and go through each one of a couple hundred project[s]. We choose 30 then narrow to ten producers.”
Of course, if a project is selected by Calla and the committee, a comprehensive execution plan is set in motion. “For two months, we go through an A-Z list of producing, from working with the writer, creating a financing plan, and everything they have to do to get a project done,” asserted Calla. The process is an all-inclusive approach that involves master classes with top producers. “It’s an intensive workshop,” according to Calla. It is a program designed to benefit anyone willing to put in the seat time and dedicate him or herself fully to a vision that “involves a diversity component.”
For those interested in learning about producing from the ground up, or expanding their professional web, Calla mentioned that, “The PGA also has a number of seminars that are open to anybody. There is a $50 charge for non-members. It’s an incredible opportunity to meet producers and network.”
Particularly in this day and age of producing entertainment, established networking events such as these are invaluable. Moreover, Calla stated that “Every guild has programs like these.”
In the digital age, effective producing is about delivering engaging content to appropriate, niche demographics. “What’s changing is the method of the stories being delivered,” remarked Calla. “It’s about creating content of a certain level that’s of interest to a certain group of people.” Therefore, independent content creators needn’t aim for national theater distribution, when the web is offering fertile ground for smaller projects to grow and be seen. Calla suggested that with online media outlets like HBO appealing to smaller groups of people, there is an opportunity “to create for the web and attract viewership. The playing ground is becoming bigger, and it’s a good time. I don’t think I care if I make I film that you have to watch in the theater.”
Ultimately, the fundamental paradigm shift in producing content in the modern era has a lot to do with the method of delivery, as Calla conveyed. She predicted that “More and more, content will be delivered to smaller groups,” so producers should focus on developing compelling stories that reach specific audiences. Internet development platforms like YouTube have a limitless audience reach with small financial barriers Calla said. Her words bring to mind the potential these projects have to accelerate and attract cable programmers like HBO, Showtime and AMC. At present, the division between film and TV is becoming more opaque with the advent of such platforms. According to Calla, most producers have, in fact, migrated to television.
“The film world is really shrinking,” claimed Calla, then focusing on the PGA. “I think we have a great number of people working in TV more than working in feature films. We have all of the top feature producers, but the majority of our members are in television.” Calla cautioned producers even working on indie film projects. “The indie films are outside the unions and guilds’ world,” she said. “It requires a certain personality and age to do a $500,000 film. It’s a lot of work and you’ve spent years of your life putting it together and if it’s not great, it hasn’t done anything for your pocketbook and your career. It’s an incredible investment of time and energy.”
Ultimately, a producer needs to make a decision about what each project is worth to them. Currently, Calla is working on a picture herself, but one with a significantly higher budget than $500,000. “I am finishing the financing on an independent feature film – a psychological horror-thriller with Mexican director David Michan – under $5,000,000, shooting in New York as a union film,” said Calla.
Calla’s experiences and advice all point to a singular, immutable truth about the producing world: when a determined producer delivers content appropriately, he or she is bound for eventual success.
Kimberly Myers, director of diversity of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), is no stranger to the struggles and woes of today’s screenwriters. Having worked as the director of diversity since 2007, Myers has made it her goal to go the extra mile in making sure that new talent from diverse backgrounds are given a shot at becoming employed writers. Latino, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian, women, writers over age 40, gay/lesbian writers, and writers with disabilities are the target audience that Myers and her department assist in career placement in the industry of Hollywood writing.
Myers says it is important to focus on the minority groups of writers because, she said, “People tend to work with people they know and are familiar with. There is a tendency to not open up the doors to writers who may be newer to the industry. If you don’t already have strong relationships coming into the Hollywood writing business and are just trying to open doors on the basis of being a good writer, it is harder.” This struggle of attempting to get your first screenplay picked up by a studio or producer increases significantly if you happen to fall into one of these minority groups, because less employers seem to be willing to give these writers a chance, regardless of how talented they may be.
The WGA has attempted to assuage this transition of breaking into the Hollywood writing industry with The Writer’s Access Program, an internal program within the WGA that allows previously unemployed writers to get their first industry jobs. Myers claimed, “The big game changer is that there are more diverse people creating their own shows. That’s the end game. We want to keep writers working.”
One of the primary focuses of The Writer’s Access Program is to create awareness to current writers and producers already affiliated with the WGA about these up and coming writers who are still working on breaking into the industry. “We wanted to be proactive about creating access,” Myers commented. “We wanted to make sure that they were aware of this talent pool. Twenty six people have gotten jobs out of this. That’s been very good.”
The WGA is not the only organization that allows new writers the chance to join the scene. NBC has a similar program called Writers on the Verge that also gives new writers that chance to work on many of NBC’s television programs. “Any writer can submit to [Writers on the Verge],” Myers related. “NBC tries to make sure that there is good diversity.” Thousands of writers submit scripts of episodes based on current NBC shows. From this group, only eight writers are chosen by a panel of readers to move onto the next selection round. The chosen eight are put through a training program and assigned a mentor who works with the writer on completing a second draft of their scripts. These training sessions happen once a week for three months. “At the end of that period, the NBC people work very hard to get jobs for those people,” Myers described. “They network with the other creative executives and show runners to get those people staffed. People get in the door, but need help staying in the game.”
While NBC is certainly not the only network to have mentorship programs, even with these programs that focus on hiring minorities, the progression of change is still somewhat slow. “It’s still not good, but the number of minority writers in television shows across a period of 13 years has doubled in television,” Myers specified. “It’s 15% instead of 7.5%, but it still doesn’t keep pace with the population.”
The WGA currently has 8,000 writers in the west and 2,000 in New York, however, only about 1/3 of these writers work in any one given year. In order to gain the greatest amount of jobs for their writers, the WGA has contracts covering not only traditional forms of media, but also deals with Netflix, video on demand and web series. “It is a challenging time because those outlets pay a lot less,” Myers unveiled. “Writers have to be very much always networking in different mediums. It’s a good time in that there are new possibilities. Writers with an entrepreneurial spirit have more opportunities than they had before. You have to hustle.”
Myers believes that a change towards the employment of more diverse writers is needed in order for the industry to continue to grow and thrive because diverse storytellers allow for a greater range of stories for each audience. “The talent is beginning to be so evident and there is a hunger for stories that can reflect the audience of that,” she said. “We may see the numbers changing a bit more rapidly than they have in the past. There is a need to respond to the changing audience. People want to see stories that they can relate to. Good writers write everything. People from different kinds of background do bring different kinds of stories to the table. The WGA are advocates with the networks and studios to encourage them to think about their hiring practices when it comes to diversity.”
For more information about the Diversity Department of the Writer’s Guild of America, visit: http://www.wga.org/content/subpage_whoweare.aspx?id=811