How new grass-roots networks are boosting diversity on Hollywood film and TV crews
Last summer, freelance cinematographer Sade Ndya was scouring social media to find projects and collaborators in Los Angeles when she discovered the mentoring program #StartWith8Hollywood.
As a 21-year-old Black woman navigating the industry, she had to fight “10 times more” than her peers for fair rates, she said. She joined the mentoring program, which connects well-established Hollywood experts with eight women of color working in the entertainment industry.
Ndya was mentored by “Destroyer” cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, who advised her on pitching herself to the Gersh Agency, which helped her land gigs with big brands such as Adidas, Reebok, Microsoft and Apple.
“Not a lot of folks that look like me are in these rooms,” Ndya said from her home in L.A.’s Mid-City neighborhood. “She really prepared me for the first meeting with Gersh and really pushed me to own that confidence as well.”
Since last year’s protests over the killing of George Floyd by police and Hollywood’s reckoning over systemic racism, activists have launched a number of grass-roots initiatives aimed at helping marginalized film and TV talent advance in the industry.
#Startwith8Hollywood began last year, as did a foundation launched by Los Angeles-based film editor Ri-Karlo Handy to help young people of color get their first jobs in the industry. In February, a group of women at Ava DuVernay’s nonprofit Array Alliance launched a platform to aid diverse hiring for crew.
They’ve joined others already working to better diversify Hollywood. Boyle Heights-based writer Kayden Phoenix in 2019 formed the Chicana Directors Initiative to promote female-identifying directors and directors of photography of Latina descent. And TV executive Bree L. Frank in 2017 started the Facebook group Hue You Know — now with 15,000 members — providing mentorship and fostering job opportunities for Black and Indigenous people of color.
“They’re doing a very good job of coalition building and building networks that exist outside, that are not controlled by, that are not restrained by, established studio systems,” said Stephane Dunn, a professor at Morehouse College’s Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies program.
These efforts are filling a need to help people of color enter the industry to address a systemic lack of diversity behind the camera. For example, there were no women of color as directors of photography in the top 300 movies from 2016 to 2018, according to a study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. White men accounted for 80% of film editor positions. Between 2007 and 2018, just one director of more than 1,200 popular movies was Latina, another USC study found.
While Dunn welcomes studio fellowships and diversity programs, she says they haven’t necessarily translated into employment.
“If you’re not getting a job at the actual network, if they’ve not nurtured you into the next step, you can be out ... just beating the pavement despite having done this really good fellowship,” Dunn said. “And that’s definitely problematic.”
#StartWith8Hollywood founder, writer and activist Thuc Doan Nguyen said she was inspired by the success of similar mentor programs used by venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.
“The real work [of diversity and inclusion] is better when it’s led by the actual people who are the most marginalized,” she said.
Nguyen in June teamed up with Cheryl Bedford and her L.A.-based nonprofit Women of Color Unite, which has more than 3,500 members and maintains a database of women of color in below-the-line jobs.
“It was just me getting tired of white folks saying, ‘I don’t know any dot, dot, dot, dot,’” said Bedford, who relies on donations and grant money from the city of Los Angeles and other groups.
Over the last year in the U.S., the #StartWith8Hollywood organizers said the free program has matched almost 1,000 people with industry mentors, including veteran producer Cassian Elwes and “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin.
Among them is Philadelphia-based writer and director Christina Faith.
Faith wanted to get a distribution deal for a feature she made, “Love You Right: An R&B Musical,” featuring actor and “The Voice” contestant Mark Hood. She discovered #StartWith8Hollywood on Twitter in April 2020 and asked to be paired with mentors in distribution.
The executives helped her target specific distributors and craft her pitches, made introductions and reviewed the 14 offers she received. In October, Byron Allen’s Freestyle Digital Media struck a deal with Faith that gives her 75% of any profits.
The 37-year-old self-taught filmmaker was impressed with the ease of access.
“You can get in the door or you can get a mentor in your specific area without all the roadblocks,” Faith said. “It doesn’t cost anyone anything but time.”
One common refrain from producers is that they would like to diversify their productions but that they don’t know any crew members of color.
To address that, DuVernay and her team spent two years creating a searchable platform for diverse crews that is free to anyone with one verifiable industry credit. Several major studios and streamers signed onto multiyear agreements to invest six figures annually in the database, called Array Crew, and will cover costs for their producers to use it.
A line producer can create an entire crew list from the service, across 500 search categories, in a way that is compatible with commonly used production software. At launch about 70 productions were actively using the platform — that number has grown to 200, DuVernay said.
“It’s been an unorganized process that allows folks to say, ‘Let me just do it the old way, let me just use the people I know,’” DuVernay said. “If you’re a woman, if you are a person of color, if you’re an older person, if you’re a person with a disability, you will most likely be the only one standing there that’s like you.”
James Duhon, a Dallas-based cinematographer, is among the thousands listed on the Array Crew database.
“It’s something that’s been needed in the industry for a very long time,” the 39-year-old UCLA film school graduate said. “It’s just a close-knit, hush-hush society of white men. When I step on set, I still get looks. Who is this big, 6-foot, 3-inch, 220-pound guy? Is he security? I don’t look like your normal cinematographer.”
Film editor Handy created a list of other editors of color last year after getting calls from producers looking to diversify their teams, triggering a backlash from white union colleagues. But he found that many of the same people on the list got the work offers, so he instead focused on trying to get young people of color their first breaks. He created the Handy Foundation, joining with the Los Angeles Urban League and the Editors Guild, Local 700, to train and mentor assistant film editors and get them their first union jobs.
So far, the foundation has placed six trainees at studios funding the program, including BET, ITV and Netflix, Handy said. A new round started last month, with 17 selected out of 400 applicants.
“You’re not going to find the showrunner that you want, the editor you want or the producer you want today if you haven’t been helping create those people four or five years ago,” Handy said. “At some point, somebody, somewhere has to give you your first opportunity.”
John Gibson, who heads the Motion Picture Assn.’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program, welcomes the new groups. The MPA initiative funds 40 partner programs such as the American Black Film Festival and the Georgia Latino Film Festival.
“It takes really the entire ecosystem, whether it be the studios, the networks, the production companies, the guilds,” Gibson said. “We all collectively have to work on it. Over the last year, this increased conversation on social justice and injustice and representation has allowed organizations that have been around forever ... to really have honest conversations about where they are and where they need to be.”
Despite their limitations, studio-run fellowships and diversity programs can introduce filmmakers and crew members of color to powerful executives they might not have met otherwise.
NBCUniversal, for example, has diversity initiatives to train writers, directors, composers and animators. This summer, it hopes to launch a pilot program for below-the-line workers.
“This industry can be such an insulated, ‘who you know,’ business at times,” said Janine Jones-Clark, executive vice president of Inclusion — Talent and Content for NBCUniversal.
Of the more than 100 who have graduated from the programs since 2017, about half have secured production credits in the industry, and 25% within NBCUniversal. They include Juel Taylor, who is writing on Universal’s upcoming LeBron James biopic, and Gandja Monteiro, who will be directing the musical feature “Talent Show.”
“These programs open doors, but that’s one small part,” Jones-Clark said. “The hard work starts after the program ends and we continue to invest in helping this talent chart a course for success in the industry.”
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