About 35 aspiring minority screenwriters, directors and producers--some claiming that racism is rampant in the film business--attended their own kind of pep rally this weekend. Frustrations were vented, gripes were made, complaints were lodged, but the session was short on solutions.
Spawned by Writers Guild of America findings that minorities make up only 2% of employed WGA members, Saturday’s American Film Institute Alumni Assn. Writers Workshop seminar in Culver City focused on financing minority-themed projects--projects that panel members agreed are severely lacking.
“It’s been very hard for black directors and . . . black writers,” said Dale Pollock, vice president of production for A&M; Films, addressing the predominantly black audience on what he termed the “institutional racism of Hollywood.” “When you’re dealing with studios on a minority project, you’re dealing with their preconceptions and it can be very difficult.
“A film can appeal to two audiences (both black and white) simultaneously--but (a big studio) has problems assimilating that idea.”
Panel member Steven Fayne, an entertainment attorney representing the Completion Bond Co., which guarantees motion picture financing, also blamed Hollywood’s large studios for the low number of minority films.
“Studios have historically always been conservative . . . and that may be where you get into the racism,” he said. “They’re only going to do a certain number of films they consider as black oriented. . . . Studios are run by white men--so women have trouble and minorities have trouble.”
Fayne continued: “Studios tend to view black writers as being acceptable (only) for black-themed films. So you’ve got to do some crossover work to convince them (otherwise).”
The seminar’s three minority speakers never outwardly referred to industry conditions as a product of “racism” as did Pollock and Fayne. The three stressed working within the system to prove individual worth.
“We may have to live with the system--it won’t change overnight,” said independent producer Carol Akiyama, a former senior vice president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “We have to work within the system to be successful.”
Akiyama advised versatility--such as writing for TV as well as feature films--and maintaining faith and passion in one’s work, but admitted, “There aren’t as many minority writers out there as there should be.”
Dennis Greene, who as vice president of creative affairs at Columbia Pictures is one of the industry’s few black executives, took the same line, saying: “It’s very easy to focus on what should be, but you’ve got to put your energy into what is and work with it.”
Greene suggested taking inspiration from blacks who have brought about change in various fields, and stressed the importance of networking with other minorities in the entertainment community.
“If you’re a minority, you’ve got to think, ‘Who else is there that I might have access to?’ ” Greene said. As an example, Greene, a former member of the group Sha Na Na, suggested involving in projects black musicians who have bankable names as well as connections.
Panel member Bill Duke, who has directed nearly 100 movies, episodic shows and pilots for TV, was the most upbeat of the panel members, stressing that although “it ain’t easy,” it’s taking positive action, and not just talking about the minority problem, that will bring results.
“There are people that have been in rougher spots than this and have done things,” Duke said. “What we have to do is forget our differences and come together and combine to make it happen. If (a script or idea) is not being bought, then create the factors that will make it happen. It’s up to us.”
Duke, who called his field of industry expertise “guerrilla warfare” and said he had “scars inside and outside,” acted in such films as “Car Wash” and “American Gigolo” before turning to directing. “I was big and black and I was bald so I was a tough guy--definitely not a romantic lead,” he said.
Duke said minority film makers should consider work outside the traditional film Establishment. He suggested that they should consider foreign deals, independent work and even making videotapes as opposed to actual films. “If you get tired of hearing ‘No,’ . . . (and) if there’s technology that exists that allows you to do it yourself, do it,” he said.
As for penetrating the business side of the industry, Greene stressed advanced education, knowledge and contacts. “It’s important to have young (black) people working toward (getting in on the business side). A lot of times the minority students don’t pursue (opportunities like internships),” he said.
In the end, talent and skill will still make the difference, the panel members said.
But for minorities, Duke said: “I think you have to be a little bit more prepared; you have to know a little bit more about what you’re talking about. I’m not talking about what’s fair, but what’s out there.”