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Lights, Camera--Any Action? : Opportunities for Black Executives, Writers Still Rare

If black film makers and white studio chiefs agree on anything in the heated debate over black opportunities in Hollywood, it’s an acknowledgment that Hollywood is an extraordinarily white world.

Several studios have black vice presidents, scattered throughout finance, business affairs, publicity or development areas. But a list of the Heavy 100 in Hollywood would display barely a handful of black faces. As film director Spike Lee bluntly put it: “You really get the feeling that white people think (blacks) got sports, they got music. So they say, ‘You got that, but you can’t have the film business too. We got that, Jack!’ ”

Does the paucity of black executive and writing talent employed in Hollywood make it harder to place black talent in front of the camera? “There’s definitely a connection,” said Jeff Wallace, Human Resources Coordinator at the Writers Guild of America West. “The lack of minority writers has a significant effect on the kind of films you see made in Hollywood.”

For the most part, industry debate has focused on whether affirmative action can make a difference. But it remains a delicate topic. Few studios would specify minority representation in their executive ranks--and some wouldn’t discuss minority issues at all.

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Though Columbia Pictures is owned by Coca-Cola Inc., traditionally an advocate of minority hiring practices, it refused to comment on the issue. Tri-Star Pictures also offered a “no comment.” At Warner Films, a studio spokesman said: “We have an affirmative action program, but we don’t care to discuss it.”

Other studios were more forthcoming. Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA’s Motion Picture Group, said his studio consciously reaches out to hire minorities, but was uncomfortable with the notion of specific goals.

“It’s a very valid issue,” he said. “But I like to think we’re color-blind here--in the best sense. Affirmative action is hiring people because they’re black. We don’t employ Spike Lee (who’s directing “Do the Right Thing” for Universal) because he’s black. We employ him because he’s good.”

Robert Johnson, vice president of labor relations at Disney Studios, wouldn’t offer any specific numbers either. But he said Disney has a detailed, though “completely voluntary” affirmative action program. “We can point to minorities and women at both the director and vice president level in our motion picture division,” he said. “We have vice presidents in finance, creative affairs and labor relations. And Hollywood Pictures, our new motion picture wing, is run by (minority executive) Ricardo Mestres.”

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Johnson said Disney targets specific areas of need. “The emphasis is on the best-qualified candidate. We try to take the time to reach out and find the best people for the job.”

Orion production chief Mike Medavoy said his studio doesn’t have a “formal program in place.” Medavoy said he hired a black student he met at Stanford several years ago, but noted that after about 18 months at Orion, “he’s gone back to school.”

Other studios say they have more ambitious outreach programs. MGM/UA makes a “special effort” to recruit minorities for its management and clerical ranks, said Human Resources vice president Steve Shaw. “We advertise for open positions in minority-based publications, attend job fairs sponsored by minority groups and make job postings at colleges with large minority bases,” he explained. “It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll hire everyone, but by providing us with a higher volume of minority applicants, it certainly increases the odds that considerably more will be hired.”

At Universal Studios, equal opportunity administrator Daniel Estrada says the studio has established an assistant director’s training program in conjunction with the Directors Guild of America that is geared toward providing opportunities for women and minorities. Whether anyone has actually landed a job through the program is another question. As with most studio executives, Estrada refused to provide any specific numbers.

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“Actually, I find that particularly in the black community, we have less organizations coming to us with proposals than we did several years ago,” he said. “People come to studios when they’re upset about racism--but they rarely come to us with any specific programs or proposals.”

Dean Ferris, senior vice president of employee relations at Fox Inc., said his studio is undergoing “a major revitalization process” in terms of minority hiring.

“We’ve just completed what I believe is one of the first college recruiting campaigns to bring minorities into the creative side of the studio’s management ranks,” he said. “It’s no secret that the industry has not done a good job of bringing minorities into upper-echelon posts, where you can have a real impact.”

Ferris said Fox hasn’t set a specific numerical goal, but is aiming “to increase our percentage” of minority jobs. “We’re being very aggressive about it,” he said. “We’ve been going both to local schools as well as business schools like Harvard and Wharton. The idea is not only to find management executives, but also to recruit minority writers, who could either be hired as in-house personnel on our shows or as trainees through the Writers Guild.”

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Unfortunately, voluntary programs don’t always produce results. According to the Writers Guild’s Jeff Wallace, Hollywood studios have been slow to hire black writers for projects, even on a trial basis.

In fact, Wallace concedes that--with the exception of writer-directors like Robert Townsend or Keenen Ivory Wayans--it’s virtually impossible to find any black writers working in feature films. “It’s a Catch-22 situation, because most feature producers want writers with a name or a track record,” he explained. “And it’s hard for a young black writer to get a start that way.”

On the television side, Wallace said the Writers Guild has created a training program that gives young writers the opportunity to work in TV as writer trainees. The program offers a discount pay scale, but it is not mandatory and TV production companies have shown little enthusiasm.

“At any given time, you could have as many as 75 writer trainees working industrywide,” Wallace said. “But we’ve only managed to place--at most--eight trainees in nearly three years. That’s about two or three in one given TV season. And some seasons we haven’t had any.

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“Are those good numbers? You be the judge.”


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