Minorities Open Doors for Each Other in Hollywood : Diversity: Affirmative action focus is lacking, many say. But women, blacks and Latinos have made gains.
Nancy De Los Santos was a winner who kept winding up in no-win situations.
After coming to Los Angeles eight years ago, De Los Santos won six writing competitions sponsored by Hollywood film and television studios. The awards entitled her to join programs for aspiring minority writers.
But at the end of her tour in each program, she was shown the door, with no assignments or jobs following her.
“It was embarrassing,” De Los Santos recalled. “I would think, if I keep winning the prizes in these competitions, why hasn’t something hit?”
It wasn’t until director Gregory Nava made her associate producer last year on his film “Mi Familia” that De Los Santos finally felt she had made good on her aspirations.
“The only way I am here is because of other Latinos,” De Los Santos said bluntly.
Increasingly, minorities and women are working in Hollywood, but the upswing is not the direct result of a dedication to affirmative action within the entertainment industry. More often, they are looking to each other and a supportive network of those who are already successful and sensitive to promoting diversity to give them the needed leg up. Even with that, most will point out that it is still a rough road for them simply because of who they are.
Women Make Biggest Gains
Despite a smattering of writing, directing and executive training programs for minorities at production companies, studios and networks, expanding diversity is not much of a motivator in hiring and promotion in Hollywood, according to dozens of interviews with minorities and women who work in television and movies.
“If we understand affirmative action to be addressing the wrongs and ills that have been done previous to a certain point, has Hollywood particularly been a part of initiating that change? I don’t think so,” said actor Danny Glover, best known for the “Lethal Weapon” movies. “In a very methodical way, they have not. They have not been a part of initiating that change from the outset and don’t continue to be.”
In films, black directors, actors and writers have made significant strides in recent years, but the most powerful jobs--those of the studio executives and producers who give the go-ahead to projects--largely remain the domain of white males. Latinos have achieved some success in directing and screenwriting but are substantially underrepresented in most other filmmaking positions.
Women have made the greatest gains of all when it comes to movie making. Sherry Lansing, the head of Paramount Studios, is among Hollywood’s most powerful figures and increasingly, women are joining the elite of their professions as actresses, producers and directors.
The record in television is similar, with the exception of Latinos, who are largely invisible both in front of and behind the camera.
Gil Avila, executive administrator of affirmative action for the Screen Actors Guild, said, “Affirmative action is definitely not a priority with the entertainment industry.”
It was not always that way.
In 1968, after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a series of hearings on the status of minorities in Hollywood, the Department of Justice ordered film and television studios to develop and implement minority training programs and provide improved career opportunities for a five-year period. Subsequently, the doors were opened for hundreds of minorities to break into the entertainment industry in all kinds of jobs, Avila said.
But federal monitoring of the industry ceased after 1975, and the few affirmative action training programs that remain are purely voluntary. Economics is the rationale given by studios and networks for phasing out most of them.
“I think a lot of it is probably due to economic constraints, but it also takes some degree of altruism,” said Zara Buggs Taylor, who administers employment diversity at the Writers Guild.
Of 2,057 entertainment companies contracting with the guild, just 12 have writing programs aimed at minorities, a number that Taylor called “ridiculously low.”
Programs Are No Loss, Some Say
Among the programs axed was a workshop for television comedy writing established 20 years ago at Warners Bros. to provide access to “disadvantaged” writers. Both the studio and the Writers Guild considered it a success since 67% of its graduates were employed in the industry within six months, Taylor said. One black graduate, Winfred Hervey, became an Emmy winner for “Golden Girls” and created her own NBC show, “In the House.”
The program was cut in April for cost reasons, said Gus Blackman, its administrator. “I was told the choice was to keep the workshop or keep some employees in place,” Blackman said.
Some minorities suggest that the demise of such programs is no loss. They contend that the training actually makes the situation worse by ghettoizing them or consigning them to entry-level wages.
“Professional Latino writers who refuse to work for half pay or label themselves trainees are excluded from much-needed employment opportunities in the entertainment industry,” said writer Migdia Chinea-Varela. “The publicity harvested by these ‘affirmative action’ programs creates the illusion of equal opportunity where very little exists.”
Left on its own, Hollywood historically has operated on an old-boy network: Openings are filled via connections within the industry--anything from casual friendships to blood relationships.
Except for some very technical areas, there are few guidelines and no specific training programs or academic degrees required for most industry positions.
Ask almost any aspiring or established minority writer, director or producer about how diversity programs have helped them land jobs and the response is a knowing chuckle.
“Haven’t you heard? There is no affirmative action in Hollywood,” asserted director Jamaa Fanaka, founder of the African American steering committee for the Directors Guild of America.
“One of the problems is that people fail to recognize that this is good for all parties,” said Warrington Hudlin, producer of “House Party” and other films. “Somehow it has been misunderstood that affirmative action only benefits [minorities] at the expense of whites. What the industry should be reminding itself of is that this is good for business. They will make more money if they serve more Americans. America was formed by a nation of immigrants, and now it’s a nation of immigrants again.”
Industry insiders credit the relative success of blacks to their activism in pushing for opportunities. They also cite the efforts of pioneers such as television’s Bill Cosby and filmmaker Spike Lee for laying the groundwork.
Blacks Directors Find Success
In film, a number of black directors have crafted critically acclaimed projects. The clout of filmmakers such as Lee (who made “Malcolm X”), John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”), Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress”), the Hughes Brothers (“Dead Presidents”) and the Hudlin Brothers (“House Party”) have helped pave the way for up-and-coming writers and directors.
Some prominent minority writers and producers suggest that Latinos, Asians and other minorities have not been as organized in pressuring industry officials to give them the same opportunities.
While less prominent, Latino filmmakers have made gains. Just last year, a surge of films hit the screens directed by a new wave of Latino and Mexican filmmakers, such as Gregory Nava (“Mi Familia”), Alfonso Arau (“A Walk in the Clouds”), Robert Rodriguez, (“Desperado”), Luis Mandoki (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), and Alfonso Cuaron (“A Little Princess”). Asian filmmakers have made contributions as well, with films such as Wayne Wang’s “Smoke” and Desmond Nakano’s “White Man’s Burden.”
But the real breakthrough for all of them will happen when minority directors are tapped by studio heads to make movies not strictly about their ethnic experiences, proving that they are deemed capable of tackling more mainstream subject matter.
To reach that point, Nava and others say, minorities must move into the higher echelons of film and television so that they can “green-light” projects by other minorities.
Going Outside Studio System
Tim Reid, a veteran television actor attempting to make the transition to filmmaker, said he has run into numerous roadblocks along with his partner, Black Entertainment Television founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert L. Johnson. Their idea is to make films about the black experience that are “not dysfunctional.”
“My partner and I went to every studio in this town, and we were turned down flat,” said Reid, who stars on the Warner Bros. Network sitcom, “Sister Sister.” “The general consensus is that we weren’t really qualified to make movies about black people and that they knew better. We weren’t begging for money. We came in with a briefcase full of money saying, ‘We want to be partners.’ ”
His solution has been to go outside the established studio and network system and finance his projects independently. That way, he believes, he will not have to compromise his vision or alter his product to suit the vision of corporate entertainment executives.
“Why do I keep waiting for [studios] to be interested?” Reid said. “We need to do it ourselves and then they’ll get interested. We have to quit bugging the man and begging him to love us and let us in.”
Women have leaped into the power ranks of Hollywood precisely by doing it for themselves. “This past year has been one of the most phenomenal years,” said actress-producer Michelle Pfeiffer. “There are wonderful roles for women, movies written, produced and directed by women, and more and more, when I’m talking to a studio executive, it will be a woman.”
Actress, director and producer Jodie Foster said that during her first 20 years in the business, “I never saw a woman except maybe somebody who was playing my mother. . . . Thankfully, that has changed.”
In television, executives at the major networks said they are dedicated to promoting diversity among their executive ranks, and have adopted programs to promote women and minorities from within.
Key TV Jobs Go to Blacks
Some of the top spots in televisions already are filled by blacks. The most prominent include Dennis Hightower, president of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications; Andrea Addison, vice president of drama development at CBS; Kelly Goode, vice president of series development of CBS Productions, and Andrew Horne, vice president of current programs for Warner Bros. Television.
“The glass is half-full and there is some momentum,” said Sandra Stevens, a black woman who manages programming at Fox Broadcasting. “Slowly but surely, it’s happening.” Special attention, she said, is focused at the network on hiring and training minority actors, actresses and writers.
Other networks say they are doing the same.
ABC/Capital Cities officials have several programs to promote women, including a 14-year-old advanced management training program for women, described as a “mini-MBA.” More than 200 women have participated, they said.
In addition, the company has a broadcast management program to assist minority and women journalists seeking experience in major television and radio newsrooms. Program graduate Michelle Norris, a black woman, is one of the network’s White House correspondents.
From now on, the annual meeting of Capital Cities management personnel will contain a segment requiring department heads to show their progress in increasing diversity within their areas.
Dick Wolf, who is white and one of television’s most prominent producers, said that having diversity in front of and behind the camera always has been important to him. On his Fox show, “New York Undercover,” he gave orders that if a qualified minority and non-minority were competing for the same opening, the job should go to the minority. Wolf said he hopes that more producers will follow his lead, but there is little evidence that has happened.
“If they’re guilty of anything, they’re guilty of benign neglect,” said Wolf, who also is the executive producer of NBC’s “Law and Order.” “There’s a lack of awareness of how to reach out. It’s not a racist issue.”
Several minority writers and directors agree that the culprit is more a lack of consciousness than outright racism.
“You don’t find overt discrimination in the film industry,” said Nava. “It’s this inertia thing, an unconscious thing.”
But, counters Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, “What difference does it make if they’re doing it on purpose or by omission? What difference does it make if they’re not in their hearts racist? Their behavior is discriminatory and the way they go about their business is discriminatory.”
Whatever the motivation, minorities and non-minorities agree that the biggest obstacle to increasing diversity has been the industry’s incestuous nature.
“It’s been a semi-closed society for decades,” Wolf said. “It’s really a company town. It’s not only difficult for people of color to break in, it’s difficult for anyone to break in.”
Times staff writer Mimi Avins contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Minorities in Hollywood
The three major Hollywood unions have compiled figures on diversity within the entertainment industry.
ACTORS WRITERS DIRECTORS U.S.* Female 35% 24% 20% 51% Black 12% 3% 2% 12% Latino 3% 1% 2% 9% Asian 2% 0.5% 0.6% 3% American Indian 1% 0.2% 0.1% 0.8%
* general U.S. population
Sources: Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, Guild of America, U.S. Census
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
About This Series
In this series, The Times examines affirmative action, a policy that has left its imprint on the workplace and college campuses over the last 30 years. With some now questioning whether giving preferences to minorities has been fair to all, this series, which is appearing periodically throughout 1995, measures its impact on American institutions, ideas and attitudes.
* Previously: Why affirmative action became an issue in 1995, its legal underpinnings, its impact on presidential politics, the difficulties of defining a minority, the views of its beneficiaries, a Times poll showing ambivalent attitudes on the issue, how informal preferences have molded American life, the mind at work in racial stereotyping, the evolution of diversity programs in the workplace, affirmative action in sports and recruiting minorities, the legacy of affirmative action in the workplace, both public and private, and public contracting programs, the controversy over college admission, and a profile of Occidental College, where diversity brings tensions.
* TODAY: The TV and movie industries are perceived to be open to diversity, but minorities--especially blacks and Latinos--say that is not the reality.
* FRIDAY: In pop music, blacks have found success by bypassing the major record labels and creating their own companies.